Dave Ulrich: The trade-offs between in-person and virtual work

HR thought leader Dave Ulrich discusses the changing nature of today's workplaces, and why they require different professional perspectives

Date published
October 12, 2021 Categories

A number of excellent research efforts (see the outstanding curation of this work by David Green and Sian Harrington) address emerging organisational issues (e.g., the ‘great resignation’, hybrid work, emotional and mental health, blended learning, distributed leadership, and so forth).

These efforts often report structured data that codifies experiences through statistics and leads to recommendations. In this post, I explore personal observations of how to respond to today’s challenges, leading to applications, questions, and future quantitative analyses.

In the last 18 months, I have led over 300 virtual webinars and podcasts from my home office (yikes!); but recently, I have led three in-person presentations (with travel!). Let me share some personal observations about trade-offs between these two types of work (see table).

The trade-offs between virtual vs. in-person presentation and work

In pondering these trade-offs, I envision long-term applications about the future of work for myself, but also adaptations for business and HR leaders. As with most qualitative work, these applications raise questions worth exploring.

Redefine the future of work

The future of work is less about where (home, office, remote site) and how (technology vs. face-to-face) work is done and more about why and what is done. In both virtual and in-person presentations, I want to share ideas that will have an impact (why we work) by offering innovative ideas in an engaging way (what we do).

For business and HR leaders, the why of work is about adding value to the marketplace (customers, investors, communities) by ensuring that each employee both finds personal meaning at work and connects daily work to customer value—no matter where that work is done.

Leaders can redefine work by asking employees the questions, “How does your work help you achieve your personal desires (to believe, become, belong)? What did you do today to create value for your customers?”

Come together to be together

I have learned to not present to an in-person group the same as if I am sitting in front of a camera. When in person, I engage by moving around, showing emotion, doing quick break outs, speed teaching, and holding rapid response question and answer sessions.

Likewise, individuals should not come to the office just to replicate what they have done at home. No one would wear headsets to a live concert or go to dinner with friends and sit there texting each other. Coming together at work should include personal collaboration that leads to debate, disagreement, and dialogue that shape ideas.

Leaders should ask: “How do we collaborate when together to create a positive community?”

Listen and hear to learn

Virtually, I use digital data collection tools (chat comments, pulse checks) to listen to participants. When in person, I also collect structured data, but even more, I observe non-verbal signals and participate in unstructured conversations before, during, and after a session to better recognise emerging challenges worthy of exploration.

In work settings, observing where and how employees spend their time and energy and engaging in two-way dialogues by asking employees what they think and feel is important. Hearing enables learning by going beyond listening to what is said to what is observed and shared.

Leaders should ask: “How can we better hear what people (employees, customers, investors, and communities) want and need?”

Be authentic always

Leaders as meaning makers start by being authentic. In virtual work, this means welcoming participants into my idea house and sometimes sharing my office knickknacks to connect with listeners. During in-person work, being authentic means chatting informally at breaks and lunches to connect with people.

In the office space, employees engage both with ideas and with one-on-one relationships by wandering around, visiting others’ offices or work sites, acknowledging personal office décor, being curious about both personal lives and professional duties. Authenticity shows one personally demonstrates empathy, shows emotion, and shares experiences that lead to interpersonal caring, being compassionate, and creating affirming community patterns.

Leaders should ask: “How can we show authenticity in our relationships with others?”

Keep focused on learning solutions

As a teacher, I am often tempted to share what I know through presentation, case studies, or action learning tools. But effective teaching is less about sharing personal knowledge and more about helping others learn what they need to know to solve their problems: what I call learning solutions.

Likewise, business and HR leaders are more effective when they coach others to discover what they can do to better reach their goals. At times, leadership requires holding others accountable for their actions; when this is done with positive coaching, employees are more likely to take personal ownership for their improvement.

Leaders should ask: “How can leaders help others find solutions to their challenges?”

These (and other) takeaways apply to both virtual and in-person teaching settings. They help me fulfil my teaching commitment to helping others learn. Perhaps they can also help business and HR leaders and individual employees respond to emerging physical, social, and emotional conditions.

Moving into a hybrid, blended, and new world of work will require continued learning through personal observations, relevant applications, and probing questions.

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