Leaders who are flexible and foster a sense of belonging will be the ones who thrive in the future according to leadership specialist Dr Kirstin Ferguson.

In her new book focussed on running virtual workforces, Dr Ferguson defines styles of modern leadership and ways in which managers can be most effective in uniting their remote teams.  

“Hybrid working is sure to lead to unhappy leaders and employees if traditional ways of leading remain,” says Dr Ferguson in Head and Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership.

“Knowing what leadership attributes to use, and when, is the art of modern leadership.”

Proper connections

Dr Ferguson wrote her book in response to the acceleration of hybrid work and its effect on business, citing a survey that found 80% of leaders across 16 countries were concerned about the ability of remote employees to properly connect with colleagues. Over 70% were concerned with a potential deterioration in organisation culture. Flexibility was key to quelling these concerns.

“The critical component in any consideration of remote work is flexibility and this requires modern leaders who lead with their head and heart to solve the issue,” Dr Ferguson says. “Human connection happens when leaders make deliberate and thoughtful choices about how to lead… whatever the context. Whether the people you lead live in the same home or are people you may never meet in person, the same mindset and approach to modern leadership applies.”

Similar sentiments are being echoed elsewhere. According to Tim Harsch, CEO of business information company Owler “clear, honest communication” will be essential for leaders in 2023 if they want to be successful in tackling what he believes are this year’s biggest challenges: navigating through economic instability and boosting productivity without causing worker burnout.

The issue of employee burnout is particularly pressing in Australia where levels of occupational stress among workers have been identified as among the highest in the world. In November 2022, a study by The Centre for Future Work found 70% of Australian workers reported an extra 4.3 hours per week of unpaid overtime, equating to an average of $8000 per year of unpaid work, and now talk is swirling around ‘right to disconnect’ legislation that would enforce the ability to be uncontactable outside contracted work hours.

 “The separation between home and work has become increasingly blurred, which is only set to continue,” Jane Mackarell, Modern Work Business Lead at Microsoft ANZ, tells Forbes Australia.

“While employees have welcomed the increased freedom and flexibility, advancements in technology and the changing nature of work have caused an ‘availability creep’, leading to increased unpaid hours and higher burnout rates. Employers will need to carefully manage this and keep lines of communication open with employees to avoid burnout and support well-being.”

Similarly, the CEO of employee management software outfit 15Five, David Hassell says that while the standard 9-to-5 week is no more, a stable workplace that “anchors employee confidence and loyalty is vital”.

“This is especially important in a remote or hybrid work setting,” he says. “Employees who feel a sense of stability, support from leadership, a sense of purpose in their work, and connection to others—all of which leadership must drive—will be less likely to disengage or ‘quiet quit’ next year.”

Different strokes

Dr Ferguson places strong emphasis on leaders recognising there is “no one size fits all” system to managing the issues posed by remote work.

“The way one individual might be most productive and effective may be vastly different from their colleague performing the same role elsewhere,” she says. “A solution that might work within one team in a company might not be conducive to the performance or outcomes of another team.”

The consequences of inflexible leadership can be unhappy staff and resignations. This was recently demonstrated when Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk demanded his employees work a minimum 40 hours per week or lose their jobs. Within hours, Tesla employees were voting with their feet, sending employment inquiries at tech company Atlassian up by 500%.

In comparison, Atlassian has jumped aboard the work-from-home bandwagon with a formalised “team anywhere” policy. The instant messaging service firm Slack has a similar permanent remote work policy.

Again, these policies will not suit all workplaces Dr Ferguson says. The focus instead needs to be on searching for a best solution. “There is no right or wrong answer,” she says, “but for modern leaders there needs to be a curiosity about what is possible and a focus on putting the people you lead at the centre of your decision-making on the issue.”