New Workplaces Mean New Demands on Leaders

New Workplaces Mean New Demands on Leaders

3 minute read
Stowe Boyd avatar

We have been witnessing a defection from web 2.0 era "social collaboration" tools because they don’t actually help people get their jobs done

Those tools may reflect an idealized company of five or more years ago, although I doubt it. They are really designed for the needs of the first line managers of an earlier day: overseeing what people are doing, and trying to "manage" people, like cowboys "manage" cattle.

The Role of Leadership

Charlene Li suggested that the lack of adoption for these tools is a consequence of senior management not acting as role models in their use. I suggested a simpler rationale: neither senior managers nor the average knowledge worker are especially well-served by these tools. They are too noisy, with far too much being said in large social "scenes" rather than small social "sets" -- working groups of ten or less people -- where the overwhelming majority of work gets done.

I concluded the second post with this:

I agree with the unstated thesis that underlies Li’s focus on leadership: effective work culture for our accelerating digital economy significantly changes the demands on leaders. But the new imperative for leaders goes far beyond acting as role models: instead, leaders need to create a context in which the impediments to operation and cooperation -- such as hypercommunication -- are minimized."

So, in our contemporary workplaces, leaders need to drop being figures for us to mirror, or "higher ups" that we look to for decisions. Instead senior management’s primary role may be to set context. And one dimension of that is to find the right degree of communication for various sorts of working groups, allowing progress at the working set level to take precedence over the desires of middle management to know what’s going on.

This requires an active acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity in the workplace, and is predicated on trust: it relies on the premise that once you’ve hired motivated and intelligent workers, they will, in general, seek to perform at their highest level of performance, and they may have the best understanding of how to get there.

Lightweight 'Working Out Loud'

This does not means that there should be zero information about the state of people’s work. On the contrary. But it does suggest that we make the mechanisms for such signaling as lightweight as possible.

Consider the traditional weekly status meeting, or its online equivalent. The alternative is to "flip" the dynamic, and to embed reporting on progress right in the tools that people use to get work done.

Learning Opportunities

For example, there is the small-and-simple application WorkingOn which allows team members to note progress in various work chat tools, like Slack, as shown below. (Note that the "/on" at the start of the chat messages is a Slack slash command, one that I connected to my account on WorkingOn. And as each "/on" is executed, the chat messages are also copied in WorkingOn as well.)


This lightweight version of "working out loud" avoids the status meeting altogether, and displaces it with direct communication when posts are relevant to others. 

So one of the roles of leadership is to work to decrease the communication overload at work, by advocating for tools that jam the airwaves. This is the direct parallel of smart working architectures that are designed to minimize noise where people are doing their work, by channeling most conversation into areas better designed for group conversation.

This is one extremely critical aspect of the new charter for leaders.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  beije 

About the author

Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd's calling is the ecology of work and the anthropology of the future. He also writes extensively about work technologies.