Make the most of your distributed workforce.
(Re)Learn to Lead
Editor’s note: This article is part of a new MIT SMR series about how leadership is evolving in a digital world.
Shortly after the turn of the century, I left Wall Street to work from home.
My husband had finished his Ph.D., and his best job opportunity was in Boston, not New York City. Well established in my career as an investment analyst, with an Institutional Investor ranking, I wanted to continue to work for Merrill Lynch and was able to persuade my boss to let me work from our new home in Boston.
This doesn’t sound especially exotic today, but it definitely was then. Relatively few people were working remotely; fewer still were working for large, fast-paced, team-collaborative companies that way. The technology was available, of course, but compared with the tools of today, it was primitive. A tech specialist from Merrill Lynch had to come to my home and spend a full day getting me set up.
These days, the organizational challenges are more difficult than the technical ones. And now that I run my own company, with employees in more than five states and the possibility of expanding internationally, I’m thinking about these issues not just as an individual contributor but also as a manager.
For my firm, home base is Lexington, Virginia, but only 15% of us are colocated, so most of our work is done remotely. We’re certainly not alone. A 2018 study found that 70% of professionals globally are telecommuting at least once a week; 53% work remotely half the week or more.1 Swiss office service provider IWG, sponsor of the study, clarified that the numbers refer to full-time employees — not freelancers and the self-employed. Add these other types of workers, hired on a temporary, part-time, or contract basis as critical contributors to many business teams, and the number of remote employees balloons.
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We shouldn’t expect this trend to slow, much less reverse. Leaders must evolve strategies for managing both people and technology in an increasingly distributed workforce.
Leading remotely involves grappling with problems in several key areas:
Communication. When a company has employees all over the country or world, it’s understood that time differences can add a layer of complexity to the logistics of everyday communication.
1. R. Browne, “70% of People Globally Work Remotely at Least Once a Week, Study Says,” CNBC Make It, May 30, 2018, www.cnbc.com.
2. W. Johnson, “Build an A-Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve” (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).