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Dispersed Leadership Lessons

Remote working is here to stay

Research from McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 20% of the high skilled global workforce (finance, IT, insurance etc) could work away from the office most of the time, post pandemic. The Economist also published research this month saying that employers generally expect that a fifth of working time will be spent at home.

With remote work patterns here to stay, this leaves us with two key challenges including the future of the office, which is the traditional centre for culture and creating a sense of belonging and the role of the leader.

The ‘human’ leader 

Focusing on leadership, let’s look at what this crisis has changed. Firstly, it has forced managers to step up and become more human. With children invading zooms, pets barking at inopportune moments, or the signs of domesticity in the background, even the toughest managers were forced to show their humanity and pay more attention to their staff.

That was certainly true in the earlier days of the pandemic, and there have been moments when organisations really made attempts to “put people first” but with growing trends of burnout, fatigue and droves of women reportedly leaving the workforce due to competing demands of work and family life during pandemic, there is still much to do.

The impact on communication

Technological change has advanced at a rapid rate. Microsoft CEO, Salya Nadella said in April 2020 that “we have seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.”  This has levelled the playing field where communication is concerned. Managers at all levels have had to adjust to the fact that their teams cannot casually pick up information, as they would when in the office, and employees are realising how much proximity bias (to the leader, their team or the HQ) subliminally feeds their sense of belonging.

More inclusive and connected

And while the personal phone call is great, it has limitations; and leaders have turned to technology to enable workers to communicate and collaborate more effectively. Assuming equal access to technology, and the limiting factor of physical access to ‘the boss’ has reduced and there has been a unique opportunity to have enable consistent communication channels and to give and receive feedback. Engagement scores seem to indicate that those who were previously working remote from HQ show signs of feeling more connected, and leaders and teams can become more inclusive, if they avoid the trap of overworking the select few with high profile work because of the crisis.

A level playing field

As the pandemic has gone on, the best leaders have enabled more people to shine; not because they are part of the ‘in-group’ or the majority demographic, but because the perfect storm that created remote working on this scale has also levelled the playing field for others.  Smart organisations are taking the learnings, refining their definition of “high potential”, and reconsidering those critical skills needed for the future.

Dispersed leadership 

There’s an opportunity now for more dispersed leadership, using highly networked teams or communities of practice to cut through the noise of reporting lines and deliver business outcomes through collaboration, while creating a sense of belonging that transcends geographical boundaries.

Letting go of the traditional reporting-line paradigm and focusing on ways to bring together those involved in a discipline and using routines and rituals to build a community. In my experience of building communities of practice, we had three simple design principles to which we held ourselves accountable.

  1. Leader as a trusted source of information.
  2. Teams share unconditionally.
  3. Use virtual platforms to collaborate and store information.

Authentic leadership 

And as has happened in the lifetime of this pandemic, employees look to their dispersed team for a sense of belonging, and the values of the leader and not the organisation come into even sharper focus. In this low-touch world, the extent to an employee feels that they know the leader of their team or community is ultimately driving engagement and productivity.

One thing is for sure. This pandemic has changed us in ways that are clear and ways that have yet to unfold.  As restrictions tentatively lift, it’s helpful to reflect on what is different for you.  Whether the post-Covid era is a career opportunity or a chance for personal change, it’s never been more important to get to the heart of these three questions.

  1. Who are you – really? What have you learned that changes the way you see yourself? Getting to the core of who you are means examining what you stand for; what drives your decisions when your back is against the wall. In the words of Dr. Brené Brown “Values are like priorities, if you have more than two you have none!”
  2. Why Should Anyone be led by you? Leadership is a practice, not a right; followership is a choice which gets re-evaluated regularly. How do you hold yourself accountable?
  3. How will anyone know that you have been here? Reflecting on your legacy and if you write it today, what opportunity do you see to make a difference?


Caroline Hughes is an Aziz executive coach who has held senior executive positions in global organisations and financial services. She brings her insights from her experience of corporate life, global leadership, burnout and recovery to support organisations and leaders emerge from this pandemic more resilient.


Burnout – prevention is better than cure

About Aziz Corporate

Aziz was founded over 40 years ago by Khalid Aziz, a media pioneer of his day who at 21 became the youngest ever appointed BBC producer.

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