The future of work is changing the nature of strategy and leadership, presenting organizations with management challenges that business schools are eager to help solve. In recent years, a number of top schools have created courses that focus on preparing company executives for the coming workplace revolution.
There are three big shifts. First, demography, with people living longer, sometimes becoming centenarians, and working later, even into their mid-70s. Second, technology. Some part of most roles will be automated so there’s a real focus on upskilling and reskilling inside organizations. Third, social change, with more women taking senior roles, and people of any gender taking on dual careers, leading to a greater focus on flexibility at work.
The coronavirus pandemic has also had a profound impact on working practices. “It has ‘unfrozen’ much of what we thought of as normal working practices, and has led to a significant rethink — flexibility and learning will be even more important,” says Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice in Organizational Behavior at London Business School.
LBS has created The Future of Work, an executive education course that focuses on building the ways of working needed to thrive in a new digital era. Gratton explains that, “the impact of technological platforms and of agile working has been to join employees together in more collaborative ways. This has reduced the traditional power of the leader – people now have more access to information and more personal agency”.
So, the role of the leader becomes two-fold: to look inward and, in an authentic way, describe the purpose of the company; and to look outward in understanding the many stakeholders who will play a role in the success of the company.
Leadership now requires empathy and purpose
The challenge for business leaders, says Gratton, is to “realize that power has shifted and that empathy and purpose are key”. And a permanent move to flexible working (in time and place) requires more thoughtful job design. In the LBS course, Gratton starts by looking at the major trends that are shaping organizations and how these will change over time— so that participants can plan.
Then, she shares some of the fundamental theoretical frameworks – around trust, networks, work design, learning – that executives need to use. The participants also see examples of how other companies are experimenting with these ideas, before creating an action plan for their own workplace transformation. “For many this is a transformational time when they reset what they want to achieve as managers,” Gratton says.
In Finland, Aalto University Executive Education offers the Hybrid Leadership course, which presents participants with an opportunity to reimagine how teams work and how people are led. “Work has constantly been changing, but currently, the speed of change is faster than ever,” says Minna Wickholm, Business Area Director for Open Programs at Aalto EE, stressing how technology will free up human work for higher-value tasks.
“Complex and creative work, disconnected from time, place and employment, requires relatively autonomous employees who work together effectively and in alignment,” she adds. “As a result, many large organizations are currently moving from vertical governance structures towards more hybrid structures.”
Creating trust and harmony among teams
The future operating environment calls for a combination of transformational leadership (inspiring and mobilizing innovation and change), and a simultaneous focus on managing day-to-day operations and results with a high level of role and goal clarity.
“Leadership will need to be situational, incorporating aspects of different approaches,” says Wickholm. “The empowering and shared leadership styles are key enablers of distributed governance structures. Leadership contributes to an inclusive and psychologically safe organizational culture.”
During the Aalto program, participants reflect on successful hybrid leadership, and they develop the tools for creating trust and harmony among virtual teams. Much of the learning is facilitated through the sharing and interaction between participants.
Another option is the Communication and Persuasion in the Digital Age course offered by MIT Sloan School of Management in Massachusetts. The program equips participants with research-based strategies and tactics to communicate and persuade more effectively in the technology-driven era.
The course explores a variety of workplace communication topics, including the science of persuasion, listening actively, communicating in a crisis, storytelling, and adapting to social media. For each topic, participants have an opportunity to apply the theory through interactive exercises.
The executives leave with a stronger understanding of who they are as communicators, and new tools to persuade more effectively. “Work is getting done across different locations, time zones, cultures, and is enabled through an expanding number of communication technologies,” says MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Ben Shields, who teaches the course.
“To thrive in this dynamic environment, leaders will need to constantly assess their communication effectiveness and ability to motivate and inspire those around them to act.”