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Ingo Kallenbach

Leadership in an agile world (10): face time

How to lead your team by encouraging spatial proximity
Companies like to call themselves modern when they describe that the door to the executive's office is always open. In this context, catchwords such as "flat hierarchies" or "short decision paths" are used.

The question is whether it is sufficient for employees to be able to address their managers at any time when they have questions or wishes? To polarize it: Should managers in the much-quoted VUCA world wait until employees come to them instead of going to them?

Do you know what is going on in the minds of your employees? How do they feel, what do they think and what is the mood in the office? More personal conversations can improve communication and atmosphere and facilitate agile leadership.

What opportunities are there?

Author Jurgen Apello describes that 95% of leadership consists of communication. How can good communication behaviour be implemented in closely timed daily schedules and how can pragmatic action be taken?

"Management by Walking around

A spontaneous visit to a planning meeting, a "stand-up meeting" or a coffee machine offers an excellent opportunity to listen to your employees, talk to them and discuss upcoming projects with them.

And the personal conversation doesn't have to be about work alone. Especially the meeting at lunch or after work proves to be a decisive factor for the team's performance, as a large part of positive changes can be brought about.

The start-up culture shows what has long since been lost in many companies: After work, you sit together for a while and exchange ideas. In my experience, this is an impossibility in most large companies: everyone is looking as quickly as possible for the distance to finally be able to pursue their own needs.

"Management by Sitting Around

Single and double offices will increasingly dissolve (see blog post on the Learning Journey). You should therefore relocate your workplace to your team from time to time.

This will bring you much closer to your team, give you information about what is going on in terms of content and emotion, and help you better understand what your employees are thinking about. The exchange between you and your team will automatically increase. Even if it is only a few steps to the neighbouring office, people are by nature rather comfortable and stay seated before they move.

The resulting proximity gives you subtle hints more quickly and enables you to react quickly. The prerequisite is that there is a culture in which "sitting around" is not equated with leisure or doing nothing, but an important part of work and building relationships.

"Management by Skyping around"

A study by economist E. Glenn Dutcher (2012) showed that screen work has a positive effect on productivity in creative tasks.
It is also known, however, that creativity is not purposeful without frequently bringing thoughts together and mixing ideas.

So the challenge is to encourage creativity, increase productivity, and communicate with team members to encourage creativity.

Solutions include applications such as Skype, Google Hangouts, Slack, Zoom and all the other apps that offer video functionality. These capabilities are already widely used. Just recently a customer told me that they are using a new 3D technology (from HP) for their videoconferencing, which allows an outstanding closeness to the other participants of the videoconference - and that completely without glasses. 8k monitors of the future will do the rest. So it won't be too long before videoconferencing is a good alternative to interaction. However, it will not be possible to replace face-to-face meetings. 

Challenges in the implementation of face time

Which hurdles make the implementation of face time more difficult? What should be considered in the corporate context?

Closely timed daily schedules
"No time" is the most common argument for behavior based on the paradigm of urgency rather than importance. Of course, every day has only 24 hours and there is enough to do.

Therefore the question is worth asking: What is important to you? And what is healthy for you, your team and your organization in the long run?

In the end, it is a question of personal attitude whether you want to be close to the team or avoid it.
Therefore, reflect: How important is closeness to your team really to you? There is no right or wrong here, but only an open analysis of your personal preferences and the derivation of appropriate measures.

Everyone is different
Some colleagues prefer to spend their day on their own, and exchange and communication with others are perceived as unnecessary or even disruptive.
So what to do about people who are uncomfortable with personal closeness? How do you find out what is important to these employees, how they feel and what questions they have?
One pragmatic possibility can be to use the coffee or lunch break to show personal interest. There are some companies where it is part of the corporate culture to arrange lunch with others. In this way, relatively casual closeness can be created.

Unfortunately, there are enough organizations in which the conversations change completely or silence occurs when the manager enters the room. Employees feel controlled and want to avoid mistakes.

This is evidence of an ailing organizational culture. This feeling of the employees can be softened by announcing and practicing spatial proximity of the manager to the team as a normal management instrument, so that with time more readiness for communication and informality develops.

Looking at this phenomenon in a broader context of organizational culture, it becomes clear that this pattern can probably only be improved by questioning your organizational culture and adopting a holistic approach that takes into account the various aspects and interdependencies of an organization (see Figure 1).


Healthy Organisation

Figure 1: Honeycomb model of the Healthy Organization (Kallenbach 2016)


The physical proximity between manager and employees is a good opportunity to solve challenges quickly and efficiently via direct communication. Especially in the digitalized world, the personal conversation remains an extremely important component for building healthy relationships and a common culture. The possibilities become more diverse and at the same time more differentiated. Which path you ultimately choose depends on your personal preferences and those of your employees. But one thing is clear: Waiting until someone approaches you is not enough ;-)

Here you will find more about communication, agile leadership, a healthy organisation and how we can support you if necessary.

Are you interested in leadership development? Then you are welcome to inform yourself about our services in this area or simply contact us.

Further blog posts from the series "Leadership in an agile world":

Leading in an agile world (1): the concept of agility

Leadership in an agile world (2): "working out loud"

Leadership in an agile world (3): scrum

Leadership in an agile world (4): barcamps

Leadership in an agile world (5): retrospectives

Leadership in an agile world (6): peer feedback

Leadership in an agile world (7): transparency

Leadership in an agile world (8): Delegation Poker

Leadership in an agile world (9): crossfunctional teams

Leadership in an agile world (10): face time




Apello, Jurgen (2018). Managing for Happiness: Exercises, tools and practices to motivate every team. Munich: Vahlen.

Kallenbach, Ingo (2016). Leadership in a Healthy Organization. Exceptional performance through potential development. Stuttgart: Schäffer-Poeschel.