Work Environments are Changing, and Leadership Requirements Must Change Too

Kristi Pelzel

The traditional ways people used to work are forever changed. It’s time to reinvent a unique and innovative plan that will account for advancements in technology and the next natural or human-made disaster. These changes also apply to the type of leaders required for virtual environments, moving away from the team-building “theories” learned in a book and into a responsive, personalized approach that comes from the gut.

To WFH or Not to WFH

A PwC US Remote Work Survey, conducted in late 2020, found that three out of four employees voted that work from home (WFH) was a positive success. The survey reflects why corporations are reconsidering the idea of bringing staff back to an office space at the same capacity before March of 2020.

Stanford News reported that in mid-2020, 42 percent of the U.S. labor force worked from home full-time, meaning that two-thirds of U.S. economic activity is dependent on WFH income.

Facebook, Zillow, Twitter, Square, and other companies have announced that employees can work from home indefinitely. Google extended its WFH policy until June 2021. On August 12, the REI CEO, Eric Artz, said the company would “lean into remote working as an engrained, supported, and normalized model” for employees. And Uber told employees that they could work from home through June 2021.

If the technological infrastructure is in place and services don’t require something like hands-on packing or building, retail, restaurants, transportation, and the work is not in the intelligence field, why force people back into lengthy commutes with associated costs? And why shouldn’t employers expand their access to talent across the country versus limited by geographic location?

Not so fast. There are some pushing against this post-COVID work model that might sound too good to be true.

Creating an office of the future requires leaders to answer questions about their teams to come up with unique solutions to fit their best interest:

  • Are team members as productive and responsive as they are in the office?

  • Has the company suffered breaches or data-slips because of remote dissemination of information?

  • Is morale suffering?

  • Are teams as collaborative as they were before?

  • What’s the cost comparison of a remote workforce against in-person staff?

  • What kind of leadership is required in a virtual setting?

The onset of the pandemic has proved many things, but one is that we can, largely, as a society, work from home. Communication and collaboration can still be done over face-to-face computer programs, and projects, products, processing orders, and writing can be done from almost anywhere. At a broad sweep, we can look at working from home versus not working from home, making quick conclusions, but when you peel back the layers, deciding where to conduct business is only one piece of the puzzle. Leadership is another.

Modern office space with lights and plants.

Virtual Leadership Requires Innovative Skills and More Ability to Communicate

A virtual leader’s goal is to take a collective group of individuals, often from varying disciplines, and help them to become a cohesive and self-manageable team. Team orientation and motivational factors like common goals, effective feedback loops, and shaping perceptions must be built into a teaching-type environment to achieve this.

Team orientation represents the bond that creates personal accountability and loyalty to a brand, a company, and the people in it. Two leadership functions drive successful team orientation, performance management, and team development. Performance management includes scanning and interpreting the overall tone of the environment and ensuring that all tasks have a specified purpose. And Team development includes motivating and empowering people to work toward a greater effort.

Challenges in virtual work environments are different from traditional in-person environments. Virtual environments lack access to “real” face-to-face interactions, lose synergies, require more effort to develop trust, and are not predictable and reliable. For example, families working from home with five other family members, intermittent power or internet, or varying degrees of extreme weather, requiring their attention, create unknown reliability to virtual teams.

These challenges, unique to each remote worker, will need to be supported and mitigated by those in charge. A leader that doesn’t assume the remote workforce is always on autopilot is in-touch with reality, understanding personalization required to lead in this new era.

Trust is complicated in a virtual setting taking more time to establish than in traditional settings. In some cases, imagine that people are working together without ever seeing the other person, lacking input about the physical context for the other individual. People share less about themselves through virtual environments because they need non-verbal cues that cannot be replaced even over Zoom or Skype.

Trust in a virtual environment must be fostered right away and then throughout the lifespan of a team. It requires the ability to see and hear what cannot be seen or heard, and requires a response.

As team members get to know each other, they can anticipate the actions and behaviors of others. Suppose a leader can virtually replace the need for physical context among members and nest together the same team spirit you’d find when people are face-to-face all day for years. In that case, they will start to see a pattern of shared values, goals, and intentions working together for success.

Managers that communicate frequently are relationship-focused, inclusive, supportive, and collaborative. Unfortunately, no one cares when the manager says they were absent or non-responsive because they had “too much work” to do or “are over-tasked from the top.” That may be the case, but you still lose trust and break teams apart as a result.


With virtual work environments rising, innovative workspaces will require innovative leaders. Leaders that are more in touch with how teams feel and what unique challenges they will have working remotely.

Open-mindedness, flexibility, interest in and sensitivity toward other cultures, ability to deal with complexity, resilience, optimism, energy, and honesty are qualities the ideal dream-teams will possess in 2021 and for our technological future.

Article originally published to Medium

Written by Kristi Pelzel