Remote control: the rise of the hybrid CEO

Remote and hybrid working isn’t just for employees – CEOs are logging in remotely, too. What does it mean for working culture?

Whether we liked it or not, among the kids’ schoolbooks and the empty takeaway boxes, working from home was the norm for many people during the pandemic. And remote and hybrid working are still in vogue. According to the Office for National Statistics, the proportion of hybrid workers in the UK rose from 13% in early February this year to 24% in May. As many as 14% of British workers were fully remote.

Of course, these figures include not only employees but also chief executives, traditionally seen as office stalwarts given their position and status. But can the boss really work as effectively in their converted barn or their garden office?

What do people want from their CEOs?

Mark Chaffey of technology talent hub hackajob is one of these hybrid CEOs. “If a CEO works remotely, they have a little bit more headspace to shut out the noise and do any deep work which is really important,” he says. “Remote working forces a culture of output and accountability rather than a culture of presenteeism and micro-management. I’ve found it largely positive.”

David Tuck, group chief executive of Kin + Carta Europe, is another hybrid boss who believes this set-up works. “Most organisations have a few offices across the country or globe, so CEOs have almost always been hybrid. And working from home enables some focused work, such as strategic initiatives or prepping for board meetings,” he says. 

“The fundamental question is, what do people want from their CEOs? Their time? Rarely. It’s usually their energy. Their energy is what feeds and drives people. That’s best done in person, but it can be done remotely too.”

But not all CEOs feel the same. Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings has said that he does not see “any positives” in remote working, and David Solomon, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, famously denounced the practice, declaring it “an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible”.

Their energy is what feeds and drives people. That’s best done in person, but it can be done remotely too

Research from global recruiter Robert Walters earlier this year found that 60% of professionals feel disengaged under remote working due to a lack of face time with leaders within their organisation. They claimed that their output and morale were lower as a result of seeing their CEO just once a week. 

Staying visible as a remote CEO

The research concluded that remote work was killing company culture, even at the top. “There are functional and operational elements of the CEO role that can be done remotely, and there are benefits from having more personal thinking time,” says Toby Fowlston, CEO of Robert Walters. “But when it comes to the softer aspects of leadership, it requires a high degree of face-to-face interaction. You really need to sit down with them over lunch and have honest and authentic conversations. Younger workers also need to watch and learn from their ‘grey-haired’ bosses first-hand. Without all of this, you end up with echo-chamber management.”

When it comes to the softer aspects of leadership, it requires a high degree of face-to-face interaction

Dan Goman, CEO of digital media supply chain and distribution platform Ateliere, agrees that less visibility, over time, does equal lower morale. This is despite Goman hailing the success of Ateliere’s move to a hybrid schedule consisting of two days in the office per week. “We’ve seen higher employee satisfaction, and we’ve seen higher productivity overall. Retention and engagement rates have been off the charts. And personally, I am connecting differently with staff, via recorded video messages or internal company newsletters. But I do all this from the office. Sometimes I am the only one here, but it is important for me as a leader to be visible. People want to see me here and be ready to give them quick answers, support and feedback.”

Chaffey doesn’t see this as an impediment to his leadership role. “I work one day a week in the office and the rest from home. I don’t see hybrid working as an issue, because we have an all-hands meeting every Wednesday, so the company knows that they will have that interaction with me every week. They can submit anonymous questions in real time, every week, and I make it clear that people can always come to me directly if they ever have any questions or queries,” he says. 

“Because I outline all this so heavily, people have got more access to me now than they ever have done previously. Employees really value the trust I give them. They feel empowered and supported and I think this is better than me being in the office five days a week.”

Hybrid working is a mindset

Another remote CEO, Simon Waterfall of premium craft soda-maker Soda Folk, says he misses the camaraderie of the office and being able to offer quick support to colleagues struggling professionally or personally. “You can’t take them for a coffee if they’re 200 miles away. But personally, I enjoy the fewer and more focused meetings and not being dragged into office politics,” he says. “We try and meet up regularly, particularly when we need creative brainstorming sessions. So, perhaps if you’re a creative business, hybrid working may not be the best long-term answer. But really, working as a hybrid CEO is a mindset and it’s certainly something you could also do in a FTSE 100 business.”

Anita Williams Woolley, professor of organizational behaviour and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, agrees. “You can still be a role model if employees have access to you,” she says. “You don’t need to be in a specific physical location. If companies are committed to hybrid working, then it can be more effective if CEOs are also working in the same fashion. It will ensure that all systems and processes work well. It could be an issue for some employees if they see their boss working remotely and they have been denied the option to do so themselves.” 

It seems that, provided you give your people the choice of hybrid working, it can be a successful model.