**The Leadership Challenge of Managing a Distributed Workforce**
Managing a distributed workforce is undoubtedly a difficult task that many bosses are grappling with. Despite years of trial and error, finding a solution to this challenge remains elusive. David Ricks, the Chairman and CEO of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, discussed this issue during a virtual roundtable hosted by Fortune Media and BCG. He highlighted the unique circumstances of his employees in China, Japan, and the Bay Area, and emphasized the need to address the leadership challenge of managing a diverse workforce.
**The Three Distinct Groups of Employees**
Eli Lilly’s employees in China and Japan are accustomed to working in the office daily because remote work is not prevalent in these countries. Ricks attributed this to multiple factors, including small living spaces and cultural norms. In contrast, the tech workers in the Bay Area have found comfort in working from home and are reluctant to return to the office. Lastly, the manufacturing shift workers at Lilly do not have the option to work remotely and continue working tirelessly on-site. Balancing the needs and preferences of these three distinct groups of employees poses a significant leadership challenge.
**The Importance of Creating a Sense of Purpose**
According to Ricks, employees need to feel connected to something larger than themselves in order to perform their best work. However, conveying this sense of purpose to a diverse group of employees has proven to be extremely difficult. The challenge lies in appealing to the individual motivations and values of each group while still fostering a cohesive and productive work environment.
**Understanding the Regional Differences**
The return-to-office dilemma is less complex in Asian countries compared to the United States. Remote work never gained as much traction in countries like China and Japan, where work processes are deeply rooted in in-person interactions and group communication. Japanese companies, in particular, have shifted away from remote work as only 25% now offer it as an option. This stark contrast in work culture makes it difficult for American executives to convince employees to return to the office, especially when remote work has been successful for their international colleagues.
**The Challenge of Convincing American Workers**
Despite numerous attempts by executives to highlight the benefits of in-person work, the majority of American white-collar workers remain reluctant to return to the office full-time. Surveys have disproven claims of increased productivity in the office. This resistance to in-person work has forced companies to rethink their approach, leading to the widespread adoption of hybrid work arrangements. This compromise, wherein employees are expected to come into the office for two to three days a week, has become the new norm in many companies.
**Addressing In-Person Workers**
While the focus often falls on remote workers, it is important to acknowledge that there are still many jobs that cannot be performed remotely. These “around the clock” in-person workers have been carrying out their roles without the option of remote work. This explains why remote work is still the minority in the United States, with 59% of full-time employees working in person. Frontline jobs in industries such as retail, manufacturing, and hospitality inherently require in-person work.
**The Toll on Executives and Managers**
Navigating the complexities of managing a distributed workforce has taken a toll on executives and middle managers alike. The constant back-and-forth between executives and employees, along with the multitude of demands they face, has caused increased burnout among employees at all levels. This has resulted in a record number of CEOs leaving their positions. Middle managers, in particular, are burdened with executing executives’ directives while simultaneously addressing the concerns of their teams. This burnout and low morale can have detrimental effects on the organization.
**The Puzzle of the Post-Pandemic Workplace**
Creating a cohesive and productive workplace in the post-pandemic era is a puzzle that executives like Ricks are still trying to solve. With teams spread across different countries, roles, and priorities, the task of managing such diverse groups is daunting. Despite the substantial investments in time and resources, there is still no definitive solution in sight. What is clear, however, is that forcing employees’ compliance with a particular work arrangement is not the answer.
In conclusion, the challenges of managing a distributed workforce are significant. Organizations must find ways to balance the needs and preferences of different employee groups while fostering a sense of purpose and unity. Understanding regional differences and the unique work cultures in various countries is crucial. Additionally, acknowledging the contributions of in-person workers and addressing their needs is equally important. Ultimately, creating a post-pandemic workplace that promotes productivity and employee well-being requires innovative and inclusive leadership strategies.