Large companies with strong leadership promoting the innovative use of technology are more profitable, have higher revenue, and are more likely to lead their industries, according to a recent MIT study.
Tech leadership means something different in every organization, and I’ve been thinking recently about my own leadership in this area.
In China, embracing the innovative use of technology means jumping into the ubiquitous world of WeChat. I wrote last spring about how this mega-app is becoming an indispensable part of daily life. WeChat helps over 1 billion users buy almost anything, accomplish most daily tasks, and move with ease between their phone and the physical world.
It feels inevitable that such a powerful platform would creep into the workplace. Nearly 90% of Chinese workers say the app is their top choice for daily workplace communications, and the time an average employee spends in WeChat is increasing dramatically every month.
Combining text- and voice-messaging, document transfer, voicemail, and videoconferencing into one easy-to-navigate ecosystem, WeChat provides the same seamless utility in the workplace that it does outside of the office. The business card is a barely-remembered artifact at this point, and a typical business meeting wraps with plenty of time for exchanging WeChat QR codes.
I’ve been challenged to think about how to evolve my leadership style for a WeChat-mediated workplace.
I don’t know if my teams would quite call me a native user, but now that I can hold my own, I can take a minute to reflect on what I am learning from the experience.
WHEN TECH BLURS THE LINES, WORK HARDER TO DRAW BOUNDARIES BETWEEN PERSONAL & PROFESSIONAL TIME
Seamless. This word is inescapable when describing WeChat’s appeal. The app’s messaging feature makes it fast and easy to communicate with anyone across an organization (or outside of it for that matter), at any time.
Chinese companies overall have fewer “standard procedures” about how to communicate across titles and levels, and conversations tend to unfold at all hours with healthy doses of emojis, GIFs, and slang.
This is great because it facilitates quick action and organic conversation. But, it also contributes to an entanglement of work and home life. Unlike in the West, there are no separate accounts, no sending work calls to voice mail or taking an email break during vacation. There is simply WeChat, and it is “on” all the time.
This means employees at all levels feel growing pressure to make themselves available anytime a message comes through. They never shut their work brains “off,” and so miss out on the many ways that time spent out of office recharges and feeds creativity.
If my life as a leader has taught me one thing thus far, it is that we all need to find ways to disconnect and take a break. It is better for health, better for long-term happiness, and ultimately, better for long-term job retention and productivity.
My Takeaway: In a tech-mediated world, leaders need to set the pace. This means empowering yourself and your teams to create tech-free zones. Times of the day or week or month when it is permissible—even encouraged—to be “unreachable.”
HARNESS THE EFFICIENCY OF TECH TO DO A SELECT GROUP OF THINGS BETTER
WeChat makes countless tasks easier and more efficient. And, I have found that it enables me to build deeply personal relationships at scale.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of putting the time WeChat saves toward similar tasks on the seemingly endless to-do list of today’s leader. Answering one message begets another and another as we strive to move with strategic speed and efficiency.
Thinking back on my experiences over the past couple of years, it strikes me that there is a more enlightened way to repurpose this time. Accomplishing some tasks quickly leaves mental bandwidth and calendar space to prioritize things that will benefit from deeper thought and in-person interaction.
My Takeaway: Be diligent about identifying key initiatives, so that the “found time” created by technology can be reinvested wisely rather than sucked back into a black hole of endless daily tasks and checklists.
MAKE TIME TO MAKE AN IMPACT
Over the past few months, there has been a healthy dialogue around the now infamous “996” culture associated with China’s tech industry. In it, employees wear working from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week, like a badge of honor.
In my opinion, this conversation around the quantity of hours misses the much larger point. At the end of the day, it is the quality of the relationships we build that counts.
I venture to say that when our former bosses and co-workers struggle to remember how much we worked or what exactly we did, they will vividly recall the impact we had on them as people.
A couple of years into enjoying the efficiencies of the WeChat workplace, I am reminded that no amount of voice-messaging or collaborative document sharing can stand in for the genuine connections we create through real-world conversations.
My Takeaway: Lean on the power of tech to drive office efficiency, but remember to form quality relationships with the humans behind those blinking message icons.