Shanghai … wait, what?

Referring again to this article in the New York Times about how a few major U.S. companies are handling the post-Covid work environment. With some employees returning full-time to the office. Others are working exlusively or almost excluisively from home. And many dividing their time between office and home.

“Though most evidence that remote workers are at a disadvantage is anecdotal, at least one study, led by researchers at Stanford University, suggests they are less likely to be promoted than their in-office peers. In the experiment researchers randomly assigned workers at a large travel agency in Shanghai to work remotely or in the office for nine months. Though the remote workers were 13 percent more productive, putting in more hours and making more calls per minute, they were promoted about half as often as their in-office peers.”

“They can get forgotten,” said Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford and one of the study’s authors.

But wait, what, Professor Bloom? That’s Shanghai. Those are Chinese. What does anecdotal evidence from China tell us about how Americans benefit or lose out if and when working remotely? Stanford University !

Face-time with management

A fascinating article in the New York Times about how a few major U.S. companies are handling the post-Covid work environment. Some employees are returning full-time to the office. Others are working exlusively, or almost excluisively from home. And many are splitting the time between office and home.

There are, of course, consequences for each choice. And in the U.S. some companies are concerned about reduced opportunities for those folks who are less present in the office. Why? Reduced face-time with management.

This is a clear statement about the nature of leadership in the U.S. business environment: Get face-time with your boss !

If you collaborate with Germans, ask them if less face-time with management would be a disadvantage or an advantage. And when you do, read to them, as best you can this, well-know, German figure of speech: “Gehe nicht zu Deinem Fürst, wenn Du nicht gerufen wirst.”

Phonetically: Gay nisht tsu die nem first, venn doo nisht gay-roofen veerst.

“The Office”

The Office“ is an American comedy television series adapted from a British series of the same name. The series depicts the everyday lives of office employees in a branch of a fictional paper company.

The office’s manager, Michael Scott, constantly interrupts his workers in an attempt to inspire them and win their approval. His efforts usually fail in a humorous way. Although this is a comedy, the manager’s frequent attempts to keep updated on his employees’ work and interact with them personally is similar to actual office environments.

Lincoln visits troops

President Abraham Lincoln was know for making unscheduled visits to Union officers and troops. Successful American leaders never lose touch with their people. Conversely, capable team members find ways to remain in constant communication with their team lead and other important members of management.

Fill the vacuum

I supported Stefan and his team for well over a year, as part of a larger organization. He was in his early 40s, spoke great English, had a clever sense of humor, managed a team with roughly one hundred people in Germany and the U.S. each. His staff of seven managed well the two hundred. Stefan travelled to the U.S. three to four times per quarter.

During dinner after a two-day workshop Stefan turned to me and said: „John, I get the feeling whenever I come to the U.S. that my people here don‘t even know who I am.“ He had a funny kind of smile on his face, perplexed.

I sensed what was going on. „Well, Stefan, when you come over who do you typically meet with?“ He went through the list: his direct reports, senior-level management in other departments, a handful of selected subject-area experts in testing, manufacturing, supply chain, and two or three German delegates to the U.S.

„Am I leaving a vacuum?”

My response: „Remember what we‘ve discussed over the last few months about American leadership logic. If you‘re not present in the eyes and minds of your team here, they will automatically orient themselves towards the strongest of your American direct reports. They won‘t have any other alternative.“

„Am I leaving a vacuum which is being filled?“, Stefan asked. I nodded. Both of us had gotten through our burgers, were eating our fries and drinking our juices. The background music was loud, but we could discuss further, nonetheless. We were in a college town, it was the middle of the Fall semester. Thursday evening. The place was full with students, faculty and university administration types.

„Americans like to know who their team lead is, and the strategic direction“, I said. Visiting as often as Stefan did was good. „But, you have to take the time to visit the troops, as we Americans say.“ See MBWA

“Your organization and people.”

„Town Hall meetings and such?“ I responded with a yes. „And have open office hours at set times and make sure folks know ahead of your visit. If you can fit it into your schedule, got out for lunch and dinner with members of your organization. Give them a chance to interact with you in an informal setting. They‘ll bring up what‘s on their mind if they feel comfortable with you.“

Stefan paused, ate a few more fries, took a sip of his juice and responded: „Yeah, but I don‘t want to get too involved. That could bother my direct reports. I mean, it‘s their organization, their people. I don‘t want to interfere in their work.“

That was pure form German leadership logic. You see it in the German military, where an officer from one level has to formally ask an officer at the next lower level for permission to visit that officer‘s troops. An American manager reserves the right to reach out to anyone in their organization, at anytime, and almost anywhere, with just about any question.

„You determine to what degree you get involved.”

My advice to Stefan was that he would in no way be perceived by his American reports as getting too involved in their work. On the contrary, they would be very happy to have a boss who is involved, who takes the time to become familiar with their teams, their work, the details.

„You determine to what degree you get involved, Stefan. At a minimum be present, ask questions, listen carefully, respond to their questions, observe. Most importantly, take what we are discussing now to your American direct reports and decide together the appropriate level of interaction you should have when you‘re in the U.S.“

I then added: „And while your at it, keep your eyes open for American colleagues in senior-level management who might be applying their leadership logic to their German teams, and possibly causing some irritation by perhaps being too present when they are in Germany.“

Stefan smiled in a mischievous way. „What?“, I asked. „I can think of at least three Americans, all first-rate team leads, who do just that.“ We laughed.

Meetings

One way to get a sense for the importance of short lines of communications within an American team is to observe those lines. Team meetings: How often are they scheduled? How long do they last? Who takes part in them? What topics are addressed? How much detail do they go into?

Team or staff meetings play an important role in American teams. They help management and the team maintain an overview of their most important work. Information flow is supported. Current developments, problems, complexities can be addressed immediately. If well run, staff meetings can be motivating. Management remains „in touch“ with the team.

Frequent meetings are standard practice in the American business culture. According to the National Statistics Council, 37% of managers and white collar worker time is spent in meetings. Other data indicate there are 11 million business meetings every day or roughly 3 billion meetings per year. According to a Verizon study, „Busy professionals attend over 60 meetings each month. However, most say they cannot attend all meetings to which they are invited due to the tremendous demands on their time.“

The Verizon study found that “different meeting types were characterized by different patterns of meeting purposes. On average, in-person meetings are more likely to be sales-related, video conferences are more likely to be centered around updates and information-sharing, and audio conferences tend to consist of updates, brainstorming, and strategy development.”

According to a study done by the University of Tulsa and the University of Arizona, about 25 percent of American business meetings were between 31 and 61 minutes long. “The average time participants spend to prepare for, travel to, and attend an in-person meeting involving five people is 53 hours and 24 minutes. This is more than three times the time involved in an audio or video conference meeting.”

When meetings are required somebody must decide who should be invited and who should be excluded. One researcher found that “not having the ‘right’ people is one of the leading causes of unproductive meetings.” More than a third (34%) of 3M Study participants report only some (30%) relevant people attended meetings.

A common complaint from American businesspeople is that key decision makers are not present at meetings. Therefore, much time is wasted discussing topics that no one at the table has the authority to make decisions about.

However, another study encourages meeting planners to exclude senior-level leadership if at all possible. “Avoid and resist senior managers and directors attending your meetings unless you can be sure that their presence will be positive, and certainly not intimidating. Senior people are often quick to criticize and pressurize without knowing the facts, which can damage team relationships, morale, motivation and trust.”

Social Media

Social Media: forms of electronic communication (such as Web sites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content. First known use: 2004.

Most of the earliest and most prominent social networking software has been developed by Americans. Some examples include:

Myspace – founded by Americans Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe in 2003. It allows users to gain a network of friends, post profiles, blog, form groups, and exchange music and videos.

Facebook – founded by Americans Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz, and Chris Hughes and Brazilian Eduardo Saverin in 2004. It allows users to “friend” other people, exchange messages, organize events, post information, and join groups.

Reddit – founded by Americans Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian in 2005. It allows users to submit content with a bulletin board format, in which users vote to determine the organization of the posts.

Twitter – founded by Americans Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, and “Biz” Stone in 2006.

Tumblr – founded by American David Karp in 2007. It allows users to post content to a short-form blog, which can be followed by other users.

WhatsApp – founded by American Brian Acton and Ukrainian-American Jan Koum. It allows users to send text messages, images, video, audio, and location information on smartphones.

Snapchat – founded by Americans Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown in 2011. It allows users to send videos, photos, text, and drawings to a controlled list of recipients. 

Presence During Crisis

After the successful raid that killed Osama bin-Laden, the White House released a photo of the scene in the Situation Room during the raid. The raid was planned over a period of several months, during which the President was involved in the details of the raid.

According to counterterrorism chief John Brennan, “The president had to look at all the different scenarios, all the different contingencies that are out there,” he said.

In times of domestic crisis, U.S. leaders often make public visits to the stricken area to show personal concern for the affected people and to depict themselves as someone who leads from the front.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, President Bush was criticized for his slow response to the storm. Rather than landing in New Orleans to look at the devastation from the ground, he viewed the damage from the air on the way from California to Washington. Many analysts criticized his leadership for failing to survey the damage on the ground.

In contrast, after Hurricane Sandy struck New York and New Jersey in 2012, Obama quickly visited the affected areas multiple times to meet with local leaders and affected families. President Obama was praised for working with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican who in the past has been extremely critical of Obama’s leadership.

Obama’s rapid response and both leaders’ willingness to put aside partisanship was put forward as an example of effective leadership at both the national and state level.

Nuts and Bolts

In the U.S. business environment, managers expect to be kept informed of even small developments in projects under their supervision. In practice this means that managers are often cc’ed on routine emails relating to the „nuts and bolts“ of a project, even if the content of the email does not require input from the manager. This practice is done to ensure that the manager has situational awareness of his team members’ work.

MBWA

Management by walking around (MBWA) was an idea made popular by the 1982 book „In Search of Excellence“ (Tom Peters, Robert Waterman) emphasizing the need for senior-level management get back in touch, or to be in closer touch, with their organizations.

MBWA recommended unscheduled visits by managers to their teams, in their operations, in order to ask questions, offer support, and to answer questions „at the ground level.“

Although thought by many readers of the book to be something new, MBWA, like so many other business management fads in the U.S., has been practiced by Americans in leadership positions for many generations.