What Is Lost when Working Remotely? What Is Gained?

GW’s Mayberg Center hosted a talk on the changing nature of work in its Leadership Lunch series.

Chava Shane
Leadership expert Chava Shane appeared virtually at a Mayberg Center event. (William Atkins/GW Today)
November 15, 2021

By Greg Varner

For many people, the world of work has changed drastically as a result of COVID-19. Many people have been working remotely. Others have lost jobs or been required to learn new workplace routines.

But the pandemic has accelerated changes that were already in progress.

That’s according to Chava Shane, an expert on leadership and the world of work who was the guest speaker Wednesday at a virtual lunchtime event sponsored by GW’s Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Dr. Shane is founder and CEO of AmplyPhi, a global organization that helps leaders become more effective.

The conversation, one in an ongoing series of Leadership Lunches, was hosted by Erica Brown, the Mayberg Center’s director. Dr. Brown began with the subject of COVID-19. She referred to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal suggesting that the debate about whether work should be remote, in person or hybrid is actually too narrow, pointing to larger issues of freedom, flexibility and meaningfulness at work.

Dr. Shane agreed, saying that the pandemic has raised questions that most people didn’t ask prior to the onslaught of COVID-19 — for example, whether it is really necessary to have a meeting in person.

Working remotely raises its own questions and issues, Dr. Shane said, noting that colleagues working virtually experience less nuanced interactions with one another.

Dr. Brown joined her in lamenting the lost “serendipity of the hallway,” saying that it might lead to a loss in the creativity and innovation that can be sparked when people meet randomly at the workplace.

An analogous comparison, Dr. Shane said, could be the difference between looking for a certain book or article online and searching for it in the library. Searching online, you might not find the helpful volume on the library shelf next to the one you’re looking for.

For managers, Dr. Shane said, the question arises whether it is truly necessary for employees to be physically in the workplace. Managers need to balance their own preferences with the reality that companies are having trouble finding people willing to come into work.

“There’s this new thing of wanting not to lose the people who work for you,” she said.

Dr. Shane said it should not be assumed that people working remotely are less productive.

“It’s very hard to convince me that when we were all in offices all day, people were much more efficient,” she said. Most people genuinely want to bring their best selves to work, she added, but excessive administrative tasks can sap their spirit and make them feel caught up in the daily rigmarole.

“You didn’t become a teacher to do grades,” Dr. Shane said, but added that such mundane tasks come with the job.

Other times, bad bosses can be a problem, she noted, which usually doesn’t mean they’re bad people.

“I want to believe there are very few bosses who don’t want to do a good job,” she said. “They mean well, but they don’t have the skills to be a good boss. And I’ve seen it everywhere — less in the military, mostly in social and government and academic organizations.”

Dr. Shane mentioned a distinction drawn by the late Peter Drucker, a famed management consultant, between leadership and management: “Leadership is doing the right thing, and management is doing things right.”

If people feel they’re working for someone who isn’t competent, Dr. Brown pointed out, it can lead to a domino effect making mediocrity the standard.

The most important task for bosses now, Dr. Shane said, is to decide what it means to be engaged and to communicate expectations clearly.

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that life might end in a moment, Dr. Shane said, but basic principles remain unchanged.

“The key to moving forward,” she said, “has to do with learning from those who are smarter than you.”

 

Politics and Society

News

Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership Opens

March 27, 2017

The center will provide graduate level training for Jewish educators, certificate programs for Jewish nonprofit professionals and convene academics and practitioners.