Management in the future of work: digital leadership and systemic approach to management

We cannot talk about the future of work without talking about management. If an employee doesn’t leave a company but a manager, we must also recognize that what makes an employee to deliver his full potential or to waste it is his manager.

This is true at the individual level and even more so for the collective performance of a team.

So, as usual, we will look at this need in terms of the larger forces shaping the future of work.

The pandemic

It showed all the limits of a managerial model marked by the lack of trust and the need to control everything visually as we have seen previously.

At the end of the crisis, 20% of the managers did not want to manage teams anymore! To say that it was a very difficult period for them is an understatement but it is useless if we do not look at the causes of the problem. Yes, people were promoted to manager who should never have been and often did not want to be, but there was also a failure to give them the means to succeed in today’s world, which is also partly yesterday’s world, but before COVID put the system under pressure, business used as if nothing was wrong.

When people are remote, it is necessary to completely revisit the managerial posture but also a number of rules and control procedures that are not suitable.

But there is not only a trust and control problem, which has multiple sources, there is also a leadership issue.

Most managers totally lack what I call “digital leadership.” Not only did they suffer from it themselves, but they made others suffer even more.

Digital leadership is the ability to exist, to fulfill one’s role, within a distributed company where relationships are mostly through digital channels, with people who sometimes rarely or never meet physically.

First, there is the communication dimension. Many people don’t know how to write an email, or rather how to put a message in it without understanding the impact that reading the message has depending on the form, the tone used.

It’s even worse with messaging and chat.

But here I am only talking about formal communication. Leadership goes further. How to convey an implicit message, to reassure, to use humor, sometimes without saying a word (emoticons) and being sure not to make a mistake, to be well understood.

Existing as a leader in a group conversation is not innate and many managers have a castrophic attitude and communication in these contexts.

We can also talk about remote meetings. Here too, one does not exist in the same way as in a traditional meeting and a manager, more than any other, must know how to regulate them but also deliver implicit messages. Here again, everything has to be learned.

Once again, the pandemic did not create new problems but highlighted a host of pre-existing ones. Being aware of them is good, but admitting that the so-called return to normalcy will avoid having to address them is a mistake.

Another thing that the pandemic has brought to the forefront is just one aspect of what I wrote above. Most managers have an individualized approach to team performance (if you push everyone to their maximum, you will get the maximum out of the team) which is wrong. The sum of local maximums never constitutes a global optimum. This works in a logic of cooperation, not collaboration. To get the best out of a team, and especially in the context of service activities and high intensity “knowledge work”, you have to know how to work on the context, the system, the global framework and not only on each individual taken one by one.


Not much to say here except that we are talking about tools (video conferencing, chat) widely used by everyone in everyday life and with a certain fluidity.

It is interesting to see that if these tools have also massively entered our professional universe, the codes that go with them have stayed at the office door.

And using a tool from 2021 with a posture from 1990 does not work.

Here we are not talking about the arrival of consumer technology in the office, that has been done for a long time. On the other hand, we are talking about the behaviors that go along with it and make it an effective tool for communication, collaboration and leadership, and not, as it is today, counterproductive ones.


The tools available today and present in all businesses allow to totally transform the way we collaborate and work. The problem is that their use cases are poorly or not at all mastered and that they are used to work as before, ruining their value proposition and, worse, giving a bad image to the employees who see the problems related to their use instead of seeing the benefits they bring.

And this is even more true in a hybrid organization.

In the same way that one should not expect an application to work in a context where its assumptions are not valid, one cannot use the tools of modern communication, collaboration and ultimately management to work the old way.

Technology poses a real challenge to management if it is to deliver its full value, because “if we see computers everywhere except in productivity statistics” it may not be because of the computers but because of the way they are used. And at the team level, the way people communicate, work and collaborate is a managerial responsibility.

The evolution of society and the economy

There is little to say here except that our society is evolving towards flatter, less formal, disintermediated relationships.

And this goes back to what I wrote above: we use tools adapted to this expectation but with a totally inadequate posture. And nothing will change as long as managers and leaders do not set an example through their own use.

The transformation of service and knowledge work

You don’t manage a team working in a non-linear way following adhoc processes to process information and knowledge and people working individually following industrial processes on physical flows.

Once we understand this, we understand the need for the manager to think systemically rather than individually (96% of dysfunctions have a systemic origin and not an individual one) and, as a manager, how to make employees adapt and improve their processes instead of just following them.

This is one of the major issues of the future of work if you think that the future of work is at least as much about the content of work as putting Playstations in open spaces!

This transformation will not happen without managers, but for that to happen they must understand that they must change their posture, that their role must evolve.

Bottom line

I’m not going to get into the endless debate about whether the manager of tomorrow is benevolent, supportive, collaborative, a leader or not. The manager’s mission is to make things happen, and to do so, he or she has as many postures at his or her disposal as there are contexts in which he may find himself .

However, to achieve this, he needs two things: the right posture, especially in a distributed, hybrid and digitalized business, and an understanding of the levers at his disposal.

On the one hand, he will need to develop a new posture and embody it in the communication tools at his disposal and not only in an office or during a quarterly face-to-face kick-off that he imposes because he does not know how to address his troops in any other way.

On the other hand, he will have to understand that he cannot optimize collective performance by standing behind each individual but by improving their collective work approach and context and leaving them free within that system. Free also to participate in its improvement because in today’s world they impact the system as much as the system impacts them.

1Forces shaping the future of work in 2022
2The future of work is about…work and its future
3The future of work is not a promise or a dream
4The future of work is not a place or a time of day
5Future of pay and compensation: speaking the same language, paying in real time, making sense.
6The future of work: simple by nature, simple by obligation(coming soon)
7The future of work only the result is watched
8The future of work will rely on data and continuous improvement
9The future of work will be “agile by design”
10Management in the future of work: digital leadership and systemic approach to management
11In the future of work, engagement is measured in relation to the work, not the companny or the people
12Career management in the future of work: the art of adapting to the unpredictable
13In the future of work the employee experience is a background task, not a program
14The future of “care” at work: useful and productive
15The work of the future will be designed for humans
16The work of the future will be designed according to the “job to be done”
17The future of work will be automated with relevance
18In the future of work the mental load is the new workload
19The social link in the future of work: weaker, stronger
20The future of work will be digitally responsible
21But who is in charge of the future of work?

Image : digital leader de Alfa Photo via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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