Leadership for Distributed Teams

Leaders everywhere are grappling with their ability to be effective as more of their people wake up to a new 9 to 5. Despite the challenges, working from home has become for thousands of organisations a bitter sweet reality. It means they at least business continues and their people still have a job. It also presents a quandary: how effective can a leader who is detached from the workforce be?

The COVID-19 pandemic has dragged even the most reluctant of workplaces into remote working. Faced with the prospect of no work being done at all, employers are forced to reconsider the way work can be performed. They may not like it, but for the advances made in digital technology, particularly the convenience of video conferencing, collaboration and cloud-based productivity tools, their ability to keep working has been a relatively smooth transition.

Long before the novel coronavirus hit, transferring whole workplaces online, flexible work rated consistently high on the list of employee desires. Several studies have found that employees would stay longer with an employer should they have the option of working remotely or from home. For some, flexibility was an even more important consideration than pay in choosing an employer.

Many employers, however, needed more convincing despite the not inconsiderable benefits of telecommuting. Not only would it allow employers to lower their real estate costs, energy and maintenance savings would follow. It would remove the office too hot/too cold and who didn’t do their dishes dilemmas that plague workplaces everywhere. The incidence of absences would decline, and recruiting would get easier if candidates weren’t limited to a certain radius or physical ability.

However, employers have just reason to be hesitant. Even those employers – including Google, Yahoo!, IBM and Bank of America – that have supported teleworking, have found themselves reversing that decision. Over time, the downsides of remote working, such as employee feedback and loss of workplace culture, outweighed the positives.

The suddenness and scale of remote working triggered by enforced social distancing is likely to reorder work sufficiently that mainstream flexible work will be here to stay. There are reasons aplenty for getting it right.

The resistance to/failures of remote working is generally due to one three reasons:

  1. Fears of, or actual increased inefficiency/lower productivity
  2. Fears of, or actual loss of quality: of work for employers; of work experience and work/life divide for workers
  3. Issues relating to trust and control

Leaders are right to have these concerns. When people come against a problem in the workplace, the solutions are built into the space: asking the person next to you for help; walking over to the finance/marketing/HR, etc. area; looking over to your manager to see if they are free to speak; being able to check in person, and so on.

New tools and updated systems can address many of the concerns, such as implementing all-hands video briefings every morning, and using collaborative spaces like Slack and cloud storage like OneDrive. Chatbots and other artificial intelligence solutions will become commonplace. For starters it would solve the problem of people needing to quickly locate and collate information that could be dispersed across hundreds of folders, emails, chatrooms and virtual workspaces.


Leaders in today’s business environment understand intricately that vibrant and productive workplaces are not the result of tasks and transactions, but the intangible elements such as psychological safety, emotional engagement and social connectedness that reside in the workplace culture. In times of stress, however, the demands of minimising interruption and downtime, can displace the leaders’ responsibilities to the long-term health of the organisation. If they fail to take care of that in hard times, there may be nothing left of the organisation when the crisis is over.

The centralised workplace is associated so thoroughly with work, it is hard to believe that it is a relatively recent development. For centuries, work was as likely to be flexible, mobile and remote as it was located under an employer’s roof. It wasn’t until the industrialisation of business that work centralised at a worksite. Mass production depended on production lines that broke work into its smallest components. For this system to work, managers had to control the production process, coordinating workers across the whole workflow. The system was so successful that a whole management industry sprang up to support it. The aim was not just to make workplaces efficient, but spaces where people would get much of their emotional needs for socialising, belonging, identifying, contributing, learning and achieving. We became good at making workplaces work and stopped improving remote and mobile forms of work.

Key to the modern workplace was a concept of leadership that emerged in the early 20th century, when we began to understand the role motivation and satisfaction played in worker performance. This form of leadership used personal attributes, such as communication and empathy, to inspire followership and positive emotions about the employer’s workplace.

So effective have we been in satisfying people’s needs through an employer’s work space, that people who work from home often suffer feelings of loneliness and isolation. Employers, too, feel a loss when work shifts off-site. Workplace culture, a driving factor in worker engagement, has been built around the physical space. When work moves from physical to virtual locations, much of the workplace culture goes with it.

Modern workforce practices were developed around systems of control. Clocking on and off, productivity targets, key performance indicators, reporting lines, wage conditions – these mechanisms were put in place to ensure workers did what they were told – and could prove it. One of leadership’s unspoken rules was to mitigate the negative effects of control and, as much as possible, humanise it.

When people work remotely, the controls become obvious. Without social and emotional proximity to build relationships, create shared meaning and form community, any lack of trust that sits dormant in the back corridors of management are exposed.

Remote working only succeeds when trust replaces control.

A model of leadership for a dispersed work environment does exist. It is called distributed leadership.

In a distributed leadership framework, the ‘jobs’ of the leader (i.e. to influence the motivation, understanding and actions of others to be positively engaged in the organisation’s work) are transferred from the traditional leadership paradigm of the ‘heroic influencer’ into a system which binds the organisation’s people.

Distributed leadership is a multi-input/output holistic approach, rather than the collective result of aggregated individual efforts. The distributed leadership framework supplies every individual the ‘authority’ to lead through the organisation’s systems. It is a practice model that emanates from and is regulated by the organisational culture. By ‘practice’ we mean a discipline, a systemic application of techniques, principles and methodologies to elicit a benefit. Practice implies constant improvement, acknowledging that process and progress is more important than perfection – which is illusory at best.

Under distributed leadership, people create value and make progress without a helpless dependency on others to know what to do and how to do it. Organisational resources make explicit the values, expressed variously as goals, intentions and standards, people – leaders – must follow and achieve. A knowledge bank of procedures, case studies and demonstrations specify what the values look like and help to operationalise the distributed leadership framework. Instead of decisions issued down a hierarchy of command, there is a hierarchy of decision-enabling principles.

Distributed leadership is a situational approach and thus does not transfer easily from one organisation to another. Instead, organisations must generate their own framework by applying its common principles. Distributed leadership is people-centric, favouring ability over bureaucracy. It is strengths and evidence-based, rather than precedent-based. It is culturally responsive and accountable, enabling the organisation’s actions to tie in with its brand promise. It provides an adaptive model that supports leaders to lead for a constantly evolving future. Finally, it becomes an infrastructure for remote workers who have the skills and capacity to be as engaged when working from home as when they are present onsite.

Traditional leadership usually reaches for solutions that have worked in the past. Distributed leadership draws on the experiences of all, not just those who sat in the big offices, to contribute to a view of the future. When the future looks unlike the past, leaders need a framework that enables the cross-pollination of ideas and expertise, facilitated  by connected technology, to produce ideas that may in different times have been considered usual, even ridiculous.

The concept of distributed leadership is closely linked to diversity and inclusion. Both are based on the belief that widening the base of contributions enhances the functioning of the group and its outcomes.

Times of uncertainty and rapid change present enterprises with the dual dilemma of adapting to unexpected events, maintaining a focus on the longer-term future and regrouping around new skill and knowledge requirements. Traditional leadership typically struggles to be both reactive and proactive because survival mode and growth mode are mutually exclusive.

The current COVID-19 pandemic event has placed many organisations under extreme pressure. The scale of the event and the available solutions are without precedent. Many enterprises have recognised that the current pandemic – for all its challenges – presents a unique opportunity to review and reorder the way we work and do business. Distributed leadership offers us a model for realising this opportunity.

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