Virtual leadership in practice – changes and challenges

Frithjof Bergmann, founder of the New Work movement, developed his theory of a new concept of work more than 40 years ago. Now, at almost 90 years of age, he is in demand as a speaker at conferences and in large agencies. The advent of digitalisation had rendered his idea of the personal freedom of employees relevant again, before a pandemic led to the partial implementation of New Work in the world of work. This may sound straightforward – but what are the challenges? I talked to leaders from different industries about this topic.


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Here is a fundamental change: working from home is no longer confined to strategic activities; operating activities, too, have been transferred to the home office. If until recently the hours worked from home had been used mainly for activities requiring peace and concentration with colleagues or business partners (for example, drafting a document), suddenly, everything had to take place in domestic isolation – whether people liked it or not. Given this situation, how can you structure it?

Virtual meetings abounded almost everywhere. They took place every day and had titles ranging from “daily meeting” and “daily stand up” to “check-in”. People used video conferencing to bring themselves (and each other) up to date, present interim results, and occasionally discuss personal matters. The general impression was, while the number of meetings increased, their duration decreased.

“We raised the number of weekly video chat team meetings, because in the present critical business situation it is crucial to bring yourself up to date immediately.” (VF, an HR manager in the aviation industry)

What people couldn’t do any more and missed very much was having a quick chat in the kitchenette. Any information that, in this way, had reached the right addresses incidentally, often simply got lost. Informal formats – for example, the “virtual café” or the “coffee chat” – were supposed to solve the problem, as were voluntary formats such as the “virtual after-work meeting”, which included drinking wine or beer. In groupware like MS Teams, the chat function experienced a true revival, because it offered users a simple way to discuss and clarify issues quickly and efficiently.


And where do things get private?

What many employees missed in the corona crisis was private communication. Many leaders were aware of this dilemma and created informal formats that could be used on a voluntary basis. The “coffee chat” of a company in the aviation industry focused on the exchange of personal information.

“Our coffee chat is not about work. We exchange views about how we are coping with the corona situation, we laugh together, give each other tips what to cook at home, and so on.” (VF, an HR manager in the aviation industry)

Almost all leaders interviewed refer to a new dimension of private communication as childcare or the care of sick family members had suddenly become much more complicated, thereby exacerbating working conditions. In a nutshell: topics that used to be put on the table only occasionally now found ample room for discussion – and a sympathetic ear at management level.

“I’m trying to change my perspective, taking the point of view of my employees. I’m really missing non-verbal communication. To establish a rapport and keep it, I’m trying to find topics we have in common, such as childcare.” (BW, a regional manager for a consulting team in the IT industry)

In principle, all interviewees saw in the new situation a changed balance between presence and staying out, trust and follow-up. Having a telephone conversation with each employee at least once a week proved to be sufficiently frequent to continue the habit of picking them up personally in their environment.

“Leadership should be seen in a broader context. It is important to find a balance between work and the family, with children or parents to care for – and to talk about how you can take care of yourself, especially, at a time like this?” (AH, a manager working in logistics)


Well, is what we’re seeing today actually New Work?

The original idea of New Work, as Bergmann saw it 40 years ago, has then moved closer to us as a result of the crisis. The definition goes far beyond the hitherto popular focus on agile work and working from home, based as it is on a deeper understanding of leadership.

“I set great store by mediation. I perceive that my counterpart is a human being. I need to look at the situation holistically and have confidence.” (JF, a manager of an import and trading company)

Ultimately, all of the leaders interviewed saw the crisis as an opportunity for a new, more personal and conscious form of leadership – despite the challenges and difficulties it brought with it.

In the course of my work as a visiting lecturer at the FOM University of Applied Sciences for Economics and Management, I intensively dealt with virtual leadership. As an executive coach, I also experience the practical day-to-day work of leaders on a daily basis, discussing questions of attitude, communication, techniques, and processes. Corona has confronted these leaders with completely new challenges. Digital work has suddenly become a reality. I talked to some of you about the current challenges and have summarised the results of these talks in this blog post.

 In the next episode of my blog series on the topic of “virtual leadership” I will be giving software tips – all of them tried and tested in practice by my interview partners.