Leadership can be redesigned!

When, if not now: Leadership can be redesigned!

By Gabriele Schambach and Julia Nentwich
June 5, 2020

Imagine the Corona crisis is over. Everything is the same as before. 
Is this what we really want?
Or don't we rather want to transfer the positive experiences into a permanent new leadership practice that has clear gender-equitable potentials?

The current crisis is questioning the previous way of working and leading and leads to intense confusion. Over the last weeks, everyone who has been able to work from home did so. What many managers previously thought was impossible, unthinkable, and unfeasible has suddenly become a very concrete reality.
Thanks to the (mostly) stable internet connections and the excellent work from the colleagues of the IT departments, it is possible to work (to a large extent) effectively from outside of the office. Moreover, most of us showed a steep learning curve when using digital tools for virtual collaboration and exchange. At the same time, however, the forms of cooperation and, above all, leadership have changed dramatically.

What now appears so sudden and new, however, already has a long tradition of conceptualisation and realisation known as "New Work": The current situation might be unprecedented, yet, further proof that we live in a VUCA world that is characterised by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. 
Even without the virus, informatisation and digitalisation, rapid technological change, and rising globalisation significantly increase the unpredictability for economic actors. What emerged in China has had significant consequences in Europe (and around the world) and led to new and unexpected challenges for organizations.
Traditional forms of work are reaching their limits, and more flexible ways of cooperation have become necessary. These are concepts that have already been discussed and tested for some time embraced by the terms "New Work" or "Work 4.0". As a result of this, also, our understanding of leadership and expectations towards leaders and managers are changing. 

If we take a closer look at leadership, we consider two already widely discussed aspects as crucial: Trust instead of control and care instead of work-life separation. In our opinion, both approaches are promising from a gender equality perspective.

Trust instead of control 
Reading the daily press, it is noticeable that control is considered an essential management tool – ensured by the presence on-site. The vast majority of employees are now working from home, which comes with a frightening loss of control for the management. 
However, it has always been illusive to think that managers could (better) control their employees on-site because, after all, it is also possible to sit in the office and think about or do something else. Because (hopefully) nobody has ever checked the effectiveness of every mouse click, received a copy of every e-mail, or had daily results reported every evening.

The solution is not the "perfection of control", but rather the contrary: More trust. Being confident that the employees will fulfil their assignments at home precisely with the same quality as they did in the office.
To achieve this, it is necessary to agree on clear and measurable goals and to decide about reachability, reaction times, priorities, and agreements within the team. Those measures reduce the "control mania" and the "illusion of control" and enable the assessment of performance, rather than presence. This approach is critical if the home office should become a success for everyone. 

Trust is also essential in concepts of the "New Work". It is assumed that in a VUCA world, decisions are increasingly made decentralised and with less formalisation. This argumentation is based on the assumption that individual top managers are no longer able to grasp the entire spectrum of decisions and make the ideal decision in every respect. In combination with more flexible work forms, such as the home office, the classic management style of 'command and control' has thus become obsolete (Bruch et al. 2016: 7, INQA 2014: 7). 

Care instead of work-life separation
Cooperation also appears as an essential topic in the press: Not all employees are comfortable working in their own four walls for longer periods. Most start missing their colleagues after a few days. There is a lack of social exchange, jointly developed routines and habits. For some, physical distancing carries the risk of social isolation. Others face the challenge of reconciling family and children at home. Some tend to take fewer breaks to be always reachable or to finish earlier, and in that sense, demand too much of themselves in the process.
This behaviour is where managers are required to look after the physical and mental well-being of their employees – an aspect which, in contrast to "normal" everyday management practice, now receives extraordinary attention. 

The organisation of work now requires first and foremost more communication rather than less. Although work in the home office may seem more relaxed and casual, it requires more precise arrangements and guidelines from managers. It is now no longer possible to informally exchange two or three sentences after a meeting. Regular contact is needed with the premise: Fewer e-mails, more telephone calls, and even more video calls. Weekly video calls about the status of assignments quickly reveal when something is not right and needs to be adjusted – which also relieves the perceived loss of control. Regular video calls with the entire team also maintain the team spirit and make project progress visible. The lack of physical presence of the manager is now compensated by increased communication. 

In addition to the organisation of work, new forms of informal exchange are needed. Especially, virtual "tea rooms" or digital "coffee breaks" appear to be in vogue: To meet in the morning or afternoon in a corresponding group chat or virtual meeting room to exchange light and more private information, and just to chat a little about things outside the daily business. Moreover, weekly virtual after-work drinks, online birthday parties, individual pizza deliveries for the entire team on Friday lunch should also be on the agenda.

Thirdly, the interpersonal level becomes increasingly important: When managers proactively ask in a personal video call how the person is doing, the facial expression and posture alone provide information about the employee's emotional state. Active listening thus becomes an essential key competence for managers. Asking about the mood and satisfaction of the employees is mainly – but not only – vital in the home office, because only balanced and satisfied people are productive and efficient. If, on the other hand, there is cause for concern, the manager must act. Showing that even managers are not immune to bad patches helps to let everyone know that displaying weakness is not a disgrace.

Since the video conversations and virtual team meetings now take place in the home environment, everyone also gains more insights into the private life of their peers. Those new findings create a greater connection between work and life. And what previously seemed marginal in management practice is now gaining importance: Caring for the employees.

Frederic Laloux (2015) conceptualizes these aspects in his holistic approach: He believes that the greater visibility of private concerns and feelings in traditional work relationships will lead to the recognition of more significant parts of the individual personality – in other words, a greater integration of "life" into "work" (see BMAS 2015).
A prerequisite for this is that organisations create the necessary framework for revealing the full personality and understand participation in the community as the crucial value. What is needed, therefore, is an understanding of leadership that puts employees at the centre and aspects referred to as "soft factors" as key for people collaborating in everyday business life (Laloux 2015).

Making the management of the future more gender-equitable 
Trust, communication, and care are traditionally not substantial attributes and competencies of leaders. Until now, rationality, toughness, assertiveness, competitive orientation, and the ability to separate personal and emotional sensitivities have instead been asked for. These elements of a "heroic leadership style", as already criticised by Peter Dachler (2010) since the 1990s, are all considered male and associated with men.

On the other hand, women (in management positions) are attributed to the "new" described competencies – but rightly criticised at the same time as a stereotypical image (Billing & Alvesson 2014: 209). Nevertheless, the new understanding of leadership can lead to the fact that more women will have a chance to get into a leadership position. This development is possible because the previously existing incompatibility or general mismatch between "women's competencies" and "management competencies" appears to be becoming more permeable (ibid.: 214). Although the current changes in the understanding of leadership often do not explicitly address equality and women, it is nevertheless evident that those competencies that are rather associated with women are now undoubtedly in demand. 

The currently observed "de-masculinisation" (ibid.: 202) of leadership also gives men and male managers the chance to try out new forms of masculinity. Indeed, there are indications that the behaviour of managers and leaders appears to be a response to the expectations of employees, organisational norms and management guidelines (and less to different socialisation experiences of women and men). The gender of managers is, therefore, less significant and not an essential disposition for new leadership (ibid. 209). Thus, men can also use the opportunity of shaping leadership in new and gender-equitable ways.

Home office enables more equality
Until now, people working in the home office have always been suspected of lying on the sofa or doing the household instead of doing their job. This mistrust could be a reason why the home office is still not widely accepted within companies, especially in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and, therefore, it has not been a mass phenomenon until recently. According to the Swiss Labour Force Survey (Schweizerische Arbeitskräfteerhebung - SAKE) of 2019, only 25% of employees worked at least occasionally from home. Even though many more employees wanted to work from home, but they were simply not allowed to do so (Weichbrodt, Berset, Schläppi 2016).

For the period after the crisis, it is assumed in the press articles that employees will increasingly ask for the opportunity to work from home, so that a mixed form of home and office presence will be established. This demanded change also bears advantages for companies: The employees work more focused and thus more efficient and productive, and besides that even more satisfied, precisely, among other things, because of the newly created degrees of freedom to just go for a run in-between. Moreover, employer attractiveness also increases. Companies that do not offer home office will find it more challenging to find employees in the future.

In addition to greater autonomy and working time flexibility, the home office also enables to reconcile work and family life (BMAS 2017) – and is hence, from an equality perspective alone already desirable. The time that is not used for commuting to work is transferred into family time. The higher degree of self-organisation of work makes it possible to do housework in-between, which helps to calm down the very busy housework and family time right after work and on weekends. Besides, an equal separation and division of family tasks and professional duties between mothers and fathers can be observed. The home office also makes it possible to return to work earlier or more extensively after the birth of a child, as well as offering a career-friendly alternative to part-time jobs and the possibility of increasing the allotted working hours (ibid: 88).

Home office promotes work-life integration
It is generally agreed that home office and childcare, especially for young children, are not easily reconcilable. However, parents have few alternatives when schools and daycare centres are closed. Alternating the supervision tasks between parents, arranging a clear daily routine with older children, and a separate room with a "please do not disturb" sign are certainly useful tips. But many parents will have found that this is not always feasible – as the BBC's Skype interview with Prof. Robert Kelly, whose children burst into the live broadcast, or, more recently, the interview by Ana Maria Montero of CNN Money Switzerland with Roche CEO Severin Schwan, have shown. 

Although the current extreme form of "work-life integration" is extremely stressful, it makes the connection between the "whole life" and the "whole person" more visible. Even managers and employees without children experience their colleagues more holistically by eliminating the spatial (and sometimes temporal) separation of childcare and office work. This development offers the chance for a greater acceptance of family tasks in the understanding of leadership: Absences, sudden interruptions, or part-time work due to sick children will then no longer be seen as a "disturbance of the normal business", but will be perceived as part of the normality of cooperation and "new" leadership. 

Due to the current corona-conditioned home office, leadership had to be rethought, and it became immediately necessary to try out new approaches. With the increased acceptance of the home office, new leadership practices have also spread and widely gained recognition. For us, this is also connected with the hope that the exceptional situation will result in an increased steadiness that will further change the world of work and ultimately has a positive effect on gender equality. Let us stay tuned!

This article was published in a shorter version in the 02/2020 issue of the digital university magazine HSG Focus.


Press review (accessed 10.06.2020)
Bosshard, Karin (2020): Wir sind alle stark, bis wir es nicht mehr sind, in: Handelszeitung, 27.03.2020, www.handelszeitung.ch/insurance/wir-sind-alle-stark-bis-wir-es-nicht-mehr-sind

Fischer, Andrea (2020): Diese Regeln gelten fürs temporäre Homeoffice, in: Tagesanzeiger, 06.04.2020, www.tagesanzeiger.ch/diese-regeln-gelten-fuers-temporaere-homeoffice-759265507790

Gillies, Constantin/ Mair, Stefan (2020): Wegen Corona im Home Office? So klappt es! in: Handelszeitung, 03.03.2020, www.handelszeitung.ch/beruf/wegen-corona-im-home-office-so-klappt-es

Griesser Kym, Thomas (2020): Produktiv arbeiten im Homeoffice: So kann das gelingen, in: Tagblatt, 26.03.2020, www.tagblatt.ch/wirtschaft/produktiv-arbeiten-im-home-office-so-kann-das-gelingen-ld.1207867

Hoffmann, Maren (2020): Führen aus dem Homeoffice "Die Angst, Kontrolle zu verlieren, ist ganz normal", in: Spiegel online, 11.03.2020, www.spiegel.de/karriere/fuehren-aus-dem-homeoffice-die-angst-kontrolle-zu-verlieren-ist-ganz-normal-a-3ca69c76-a039-40e2-91fa-0c27fca5ad9f

Knecht, Andreas (2020: Ziehst Du morgens Jogginghosen an, stimmt was nicht, in: Tagesanzeiger, 18.03.2020,

Kofler, Karin (2020): Hoffentlich gehen die Vorurteile gegen Homeoffice zurück, in: Tagesanzeiger, 15.03.2020,

Mair, Stefan (2020): Home Office und Angst vor der Rezession: Ein fataler Cocktail, in: Handelszeitung, 31.03.2020, www.handelszeitung.ch/beruf/home-office-und-angst-vor-der-rezession-ein-fataler-cocktail

Mair, Stefan (2020): «Viele organisieren auch regelmässig virtuelle Kaffeepausen», in: Handelszeitung, 13.04.2020, www.handelszeitung.ch/beruf/viele-organisieren-auch-regelmassig-virtuelle-kaffeepausen

Billing, Yvonne Due/ Alvesson, Mats (2014): Leadership: A Matter of Gender?, in: The Oxford Handbook of Gender in Organizations, March 2014, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199658213.013.009 

BMAS – Bundesministerium für Arbeit und Soziale (2017): Digitalisierung – Chancen und Herausforderungen für die partnerschaftliche Vereinbarkeit von Familie und Beruf, Berlin, www.bmfsfj.de/blob/75934/433b3a05df543f87bd2cce88ae6c7cf6/digitalisierung-chancen-und-herausforderungen-data.pdf (Zugriff: 09.06.2020).

Bruch, Heike/Block, Christina/ Färber, Jessica (2016): Top-Job Trendstudie 2016. Arbeitswelt im Umbruch. Von den erfolgreichen Pionieren lernen, Konstanz, www.interchange-michalik.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Trendstudie_Neue_Arbeitswelt.pdf (Zugriff 09.06.2020)

Dachler, H. Peter (2010): "Chapter 3 From Individualism to Post-heroic Practices in Organizational Research", in: Steyaert, Chris/ Van Looy, Bart (Hrsg.): Relational Practices, Participative Organizing (Advanced Series in Management, Vol. 7), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 41-53. doi.org/10.1108/S1877-6361(2010)0000007007.

INQA - Initiative Neue Qualität der Arbeit (2014): Monitor: Führungskultur im Wandel. Initiative Neue Qualität der Arbeit, www.inqa.de/SharedDocs/downloads/fuehrungskultur-im-wandel.pdf (Zugriff 09.06.2020)

Laloux, Frederic (2015): Reinventing Organizations. Ein Leitfaden zur Gestaltung sinnstiftender Formen der Zusammenarbeit, München: Verlag Franz Vahlen GmbH.

Weichbrodt, Johann/ Berset, Martial/ Schläp, Michael (2016): FlexWork Survey 2016: Befragung von Erwerbstätigen und Unternehmen in der Schweiz zur Verbreitung mobiler Arbeit, Olten, August 2016, irf.fhnw.ch/bitstream/handle/11654/24099/Weichbrodt%2c%20Berset%2c%20Schl%C3%A4ppi%20-%202016%20-%20FlexWork%20Survey%202016%20Befragung%20von%20Erwerbst%C3%A4tigen%20und%20Unternehmen%20in%20der%20Schweiz%20zur%20Verbreitung%20m.pdf (Accessed: 09.06.2020)