In many organizations, remote work was the great equalizer. Suddenly, “buttoned-up” senior leaders who struggled with authenticity were taking video calls from their bedrooms while kids screamed and dogs barked in the background—just like the rest of us. But while remote work may have made senior leaders more approachable, it hasn't necessarily made them more visible, accessible, or available.
Accessible Leaders Are Good for Employee Engagement
Research from Emplify names “leadership availability”—the degree to which leaders are approachable, visible, accessible, and readily available to all employees—as a key driver of employee engagement (the company has since been acquired).
An oft-cited 2019 Glassdoor study backs this up. Quality of leadership is the second strongest predictor of employee satisfaction behind culture and values.
“Employers looking to boost recruiting and retention efforts should prioritize building strong company culture and value systems, amplifying the quality and visibility of their senior leadership teams, and offering clear, exciting career opportunities to employees,” said Andrew Chamberlain, Glassdoor’s chief economist, in a written statement.
Louonna Kachur, senior vice president of human resources at Resultant, says leadership availability and career development actually go hand in hand—and lack of access to leaders can accelerate turnover.
“Employees today want to understand what it takes to get to the next level of their careers, and they want access to mentors in leadership who can provide that guidance,” said Kachur. “But if employees aren't connected to people at the leadership level, they might think that the only way to get what they need is to move on. And we want the organization to be a lot stickier than that.”
Lack of leadership visibility can also lead to a dangerous “us and them” mindset where people don't see the organization as one team but two separate factions—”senior leadership” and “everyone else.”
“People will be more effective leaders when their behaviors indicate that they are one of us, because they share our values, concerns, and experiences, and are doing it for us, by looking to advance the interests of the group rather than their own personal interests,” wrote psychology professors Kim Peters and Alex Haslam in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article.
How to Increase Leadership Visibility
In most organizations, it's unrealistic for leaders to maintain close, authentic relationships with every individual employee. But there are ways to increase leadership visibility and create connections between employees and leaders, even for large teams and remote workforces.
At the start of the pandemic, Resultant began holding weekly “computer-side chats” with its CEO to share important updates as the organization transitioned to remote work. The standing virtual meeting consistently saw such high attendance that leadership decided to keep it on the calendar even as people began trickling back into the office. The content of the fireside-style chats has evolved to include debriefs on big company decisions, client success stories, updates on what's happening in the market, and perspectives on current events.
“Computer-side chats have allowed everyone inside the organization to get to know their CEO as a human and in turn allowed leadership to connect with the audience in a way that hopefully creates connection points for later, too,” said Kachur. “It has changed how we work.”
Earlier this year, as Emplify neared its one-year remote work anniversary, leaders saw the “leadership availability” engagement driver drop to an unprecedented low.
“It makes sense that leaders wouldn't feel as approachable, visible, accessible, and readily available when everyone is remote. The informal interactions that used to happen naturally at the office had been replaced with formal, structured Zoom meetings,” wrote one Emplify executive in a LinkedIn post.
To remedy the issue, the executive leadership team set up an “Ask Me Anything” tour. Once a month, each senior leader met for 15 minutes with a department on a rotating basis. During those 15 minutes, employees could ask the visiting executive any question. It didn't take long for leadership availability to emerge as a top driver again.
At Resultant, department heads offer the opportunity for employees to come to them with questions during virtual office hours.
“Pre-pandemic, I would sit in a conference room every Thursday so anyone could stop by and ask a question or just chat for a few minutes,” said Kachur. “We wanted to create that same feel in a virtual environment, so now department heads will open up an online chat room where anyone can pop in. It's a virtual representation of a room where people can float in and out, open-house style.”
Big Ideas for Your Organization
We're at an inflection point when it comes to re-engaging and retaining employees, and increasing leadership visibility is a piece of the puzzle not enough companies are thinking about. To create authentic connections between employees and leadership, Kachur offers three pieces of advice:
- Tailor your approach to what employees want. Every organization is different, so gather feedback from employees on format. “The first iteration of the Friday computer-side chats was a Friday newsletter, but our people don't read newsletters. We've spent a lot of time surveying on the backend to find out what people will engage with,” said Kachur.
- Create discipline and predictability around your initiative. Whether it's a fireside chat or an “ask me anything” rotation, it's important to establish a consistent rhythm. “You have to keep it predictable,” said Kachur. “The computer-side chats are short enough that everyone can keep it on their calendar, and it always happens on Fridays at the same time. People come to office hours because they know exactly what they're going to get from the experience.”
- Invest in the content. “People will only keep attending and engaging if the content is intentionally thought out and well communicated,” said Kachur. “We've never made computer-side chats mandatory, but we've seen consistently good participation because the content is useful to people.”
Having quality leadership is only half the battle. For leaders to be truly effective, they must also be visible.