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​​Digital Leadership: New Work Experience, New Leadership Practice

Jason Diamond Arnold

August 24, 2021

As the work experience for individuals and companies continues to rapidly evolve beyond an actual “workplace” and into a comprehensive work process that isn’t bound by a physical location, good leaders are looking for effective ways to adapt and evolve with the systemic shifts taking place in our world. Leaders at every level of an organization need to develop proven skills, and practice those skills through new means to effectively influence others toward a common purpose and common objectives—regardless of where they are physically located.

For the past few decades, work has been rapidly migrating toward the use of technology platforms and virtual meeting places to help them improve efficiency and effectively communicate in a blended world of physical and cyber presence. Those that had already made the shift before 2020 absorbed a global crisis more effectively, but even progressive companies scrambled to look for ways to keep business moving forward and their employees engaged at a high level. In fact, those that adapted their leadership practices to digital platforms effectively in a virtual world saw increases in employee engagement, even though they weren’t meeting face to face with their people.


Digital Leadership

But leveraging technology in the transactional, day-to-day task management part of work is only the first step to leading effectively in today’s hybrid workflow. It’s more than just learning how to use virtual collaboration software like Zoom, Slack, or Microsoft Teams. Today’s leaders need to know how to practice digital leadership skills that influence others in both a physical and virtual workspace.

Digital leadership is the practice of using digital assets to effectively influence others, aligning corporate strategies, elevating performance, and pursuing common business goals—regardless of their physical location. Today’s leaders need to leverage digital assets like performance and project management software, as well as collaboration and assessment software through one integrated workflow to practice their leadership skills anywhere, anytime, anyplace.


Digital Leadership Best Practices

Through our collaborative research efforts with established leadership development philosophies, and data analysis of Inspire Software users, we’ve discovered several key insights that will help today’s leaders apply proven best practices in leadership through digital interfaces.


Shift Your Mindset From a Place to a Practice

Most of us are familiar with the highly publicized movement in the mid-2010s, when mega-organizations like Yahoo and IBM began to experiment with migrating their operations to a hybrid workforce, where large portions of the organization were “work-from-home” employees. Shortly after Marissa Mayer took over as Yahoo’s new CEO in 2012, she controversially called the work-from-home employees back into the offices in 2013. In 2017, IBM abruptly shut down its remote work experiment and everyone was ordered back to their traditional in-person workplace.

But why did these two corporate giants reverse course on remote work experiences? It wasn’t because of lack of productivity! A 2017 survey by Harvard Business Review identified a toxic divide that had emerged between the in-person and remote workforces. Remote workers felt left out and not taken as seriously as the in-person employees. In-person employees were suspicious of remote workers, stuck in a mindset that if you’re not in the office, you’re probably not really working. The reason remote work was failing was largely due to trust issues from both traditional and virtual employees.

Today’s leaders not only need to shift their own personal mindset about remote work and the idea that the most productive work is done face to face, but they need to help the organization develop a culture of trust for how people work, live according to the mission and values, as well as how to objectively analyze performance. Digital leadership involves using digital media to promote and practice the vision and values of the company while using those digital assets to help in the execution of strategy.


Create Strategic and Performance Transparency

Organizations have struggled for years to move strategic execution of corporate goals out of physical or electronic spreadsheets and a roll call of accomplishments at executive meetings to digital platforms that give a line of sight to every employee in the organization—not just the CEO and executive team. Creating digital dashboards and real-time status of OKRs and goals through software, accessible to all leaders and employees (within proprietary information limits), engages employees by giving them a line of sight into the work they are contributing to, while giving executives critical insights into how the organization is performing toward those goals. Creating strategic and performance transparency aligns goals and efforts across the organization.


Champion Digital One-to-one Conversations

Having regular one-to-one (1:1) conversations, in person or via videoconference, continues to be a decisive best practice for leaders when it comes to elevating performance while increasing engagement and retention. 1:1 check-ins became even more critical during the global crisis in 2020. Remote employees who have regular one-to-one virtual conversations with their team leaders are more intent to remain with—and perform for—the organization than those employees who felt isolated from their team leaders.

But our research reveals that it takes more than just having one-to-one meetings to see significant benefits—it takes intentional, quality conversations between individuals and a leader to have a deep impact on employee performance and engagement. Before conducting a 1:1 check-in—in person or virtually—leaders and individuals should:


Digitally Prepare for One-to-one Check-ins

Today, leaders who use digital assets to briefly (10 to 15 minutes) prepare for one-to-one conversations with team members significantly increase quality of conversations with their team members. To take it a step further, team leaders who have direct reports who use digital platforms to prepare for virtual or in-person check-ins make it even easier for leaders to give them the direction or support they need to accomplish their work—regardless of where they are accomplishing that work.

Digitally Assess the Performance Needs of Individuals

Digital leaders need to regularly assess the performance needs of the individuals they are attempting to influence through online or mobile assessments that evaluate and analyze an individual’s skills and motivation toward the goals they are pursuing. Through performance and engagement or pulse survey software tools, individuals are now able to communicate more effectively their moment-to-moment performance needs. In turn, these quick assessments give leaders greater insights into how they might direct or support their team members’ skills and motivation in person or virtually.

Digitally Respond to the Performance Needs of Individuals 

In the same way individuals and leaders can digitally assess their performance needs, digital assets can help individuals and leaders better respond to their performance needs. Whether you're meeting in person or virtually, a digital platform that aligns performance goals to these conversations is a great place to ask clarifying questions or document critical conversations about progress toward important business goals. Responding to performance needs on a digital platform helps engage team members whether they're in a physical office space or working remotely.

Digitally Appraise the Performance Needs of Individuals

Although there has been a major movement away from the traditional annual performance reviews, appraising performance remains a critical practice for leaders in organizations. Using a digital platform not only helps in the moment-to-moment performance needs of an individual, but it is also a great tool to create a running narrative about an individual employee’s performance accomplishments. Digital performance appraisals also can be a critical source of information and HR-related challenges or improvement opportunities. When leaders take the time to digitally appraise an individual's performance on a quarterly or triannual basis, the are authoring a grand historical narrative about the organization and the many characters who are helping them on their journey toward business excellence.


Effective Digital Leadership

Effective digital leaders are aware of business goals through digital dashboards and analytics, regardless what context they are leading in. Digital leaders help everyone align their roles and responsibilities to those business goals by making them part of a performance process that can be easily accessed and understood while updating progress on performance goals.

Effective digital leadership helps an organization to create workflow and business processes that allow common and new technologies, products, and services to remain agile and responsive, while also making sure that any existing legacy applications and IT operations are being maintained and aligned to the new technology that supports the entire business process.


Inspire Software can help your organization create digital leadership capacity at every level of your company and meet the new demands of a truly hybrid workforce.