Nomadic Dreams and Business Realities

In a typical Fortune 500 company, on any given day, only half percent of the workforce reports to a traditional office. The rest work from home, at client sites, or are constantly in transit. Studies of economic activities between world cities like New York, London, Tokyo, Frankfurt, or Singapore over the last decade show increased inter-organizational activity and networking.

Being nomadic is today’s condition, but it is not at all that glamorous. Neither is it all that fun. I remember sitting in my room in the basement in a small suburb of an even smaller town in central Norway thinking: “wouldn’t it be great to travel and work globally. I would see so many people and places and still get paid for it”. Well, now I do, and it is not entirely without its problems. For instance, I am not a good sleeper, and being without sleep when travelling is a significant deterrent to long journeys. Secondly, I have a horribly inflexible biological clock, so any time difference takes me weeks to make up for. This pretty much rules out a seamless transition between the US and Europe, just to give an example of a trajectory I often follow. Thirdly, I have a family. I also happen to like my wife and kids, so I see no particular benefit in being away from them (apart from getting more work done).

The Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells has described the last decades as an evolution into a “network society.” This society has ever more computerized work processes. Employees travel more. Electronic flows enable the exchange of information through and between large cities. Information goes through the Internet, but also through corporate Intranets and other elite information networks. These enable access, communication, and action across great geographical distance.

If nomads float on the top, they lose influence. Their managers, meanwhile, struggle to hold teams, projects and companies together. Leadership From Below, Chapter 1: Finding Your Place of Impact, page 11.

The flipside of a nomadic workforce is a lack of influence over matters that require sustained interaction in one location. If nomads float on the top, they lose that influence. Meanwhile, their managers struggle to hold together teams, projects, and companies.
How should you manage your mobility to be most efficient as a leader? You need to be where it is strategically most important to be. If you cannot be there for some legitimate reason, you need to compensate, maybe with more frequent emails, phonecalls or action through proxies like colleagues, friends, gifts, or other indirect means of influence. Whatever you do, don’t assume that power resides on the surface. You are not powerful because you have frequent flier status on ten different carriers – you are powerful because you get your company’s view across. Leadership is almost always more forcefully expressed in the more mundane actions like remembering your contacts by sending them a Facebook message when their birthday comes up, or doublechecking to confirm that a speaker is indeed coming to the right address. The contemporary leader has in many ways become his or her own secretary. We cannot affort office support anymore. Moreover, we are not in the office, so there is nobody there to support. The mundane tasks, however, persist, and may lead to an unprecedented new level of boredom. Or, you may choose to embrace it.

To every bottom-up leader out there, whether you are a CEO or a clerk. Live a little. Have some wine by the computer! Those big board decisions will come, too. But your moment responding to an e-vite about the five-year birthday of a colleague’s son might be your smartest business move this year. Or, it may just make someone else happy. Both would be worth it.


About trondau
Trond A. Undheim, Ph.D, is a co-founder of Yegii, Inc. and Vidian Ventures. A former Director of MIT Startup Exchange & Sloan Senior Lecturer, WPP & Oracle exec., EU National Expert, and serial entrepreneur (VC, incubator, think tank, search engine), ), he is an active participant in the global venture ecosystem. His first book was Leadership From Below (2008). Trond holds a PhD on the future of work & AI/cognition.

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