Virtual Leadership – the New Normal

If we had a dollar for every article written recently that started with reference to COVID-19, we could probably plan for early retirement. But as tired as the narrative is, this pandemic has turned the working world on its head; leaving us all, managers and workers alike, trying to figure things out.

We have been working from home for months now and as much as there is certain comfort that it brings – more time with the family, less time commuting and traveling – as leaders, we may have struggled with how exactly to lead a team, that may be miles away, under these circumstances. Virtual is the “new” physical, and our team’s connectivity with each other as well as productivity need to continue, if not increase, in this virtual world.

Virtual teaming affords many benefits including flexibility and availability. However, there are some risks that a team, distributed over a continent or the globe, presents, the most disruptive of which is probably falling out of alignment with the leader and other members. If left unchecked, it can have negative consequences for the organization. So how does a leader continue to lead, in this virtual landscape?

Here are some insights that may prove to be effective in managing the virtual dynamic.

  • Articulate team purpose & outline individual roles

It is essential that the leader gets back to the basics with the team by articulating the purpose of the team and detailing the individual roles. This will act as the white line in the road, keeping the team on track, keeping them on the correct side and giving direction while serving to cement the team’s cohesion. Remembering that each individual is literally on their own so their need to feel a sense of belonging is greater than ever. This exercise if conducted as a first step, will be the glue that binds you and provides your team with intentionality and a focused approach.

  • Re-invent your team’s mojo

Thinking of the team in a new way and using the opportunity to start new traditions or rituals, will give the dynamics a boost and morale right along with it. Remember, how you start is how you will finish, so use the first weeks to ensure that your team will last the duration. Decide to deliberately take every chance to create some fun ways to connect and establish traditions that will enhance the bonding between you and the team and between team members.

  • Keep your team accountable for progress and work capacity

As a leader, you will need to monitor how the team is performing individually and collectively, to ensure no loss of momentum and productivity. Use technology as well as psychology, to do this. The team as a whole will function better if they are being held accountable and being guided consistently. Of course, as the leader, this will require great discipline on your part but the results will be well worth the effort.

  • Availability and visibility of the leader is key

Statistics show that virtual distance can lower your team members’ trust by 83%, their ability to innovate by 93%, and their overall engagement by 80% [Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Survey (2018)]. As the leader, it is your responsibility to reduce these percentages and nullify the effects of distance. Keeping in touch frequently is the answer. Once the team knows you are there, working alongside them and visible to them often and regularly, the mistrust and lack of engagement will reduce.

  • It’s better to over-communicate than leave them floundering in silence

This is no time for giving into your awkwardness and uncertainties or trusting that the team will figure things out on their own. As the leader, you will have to communicate with the members constantly, as it is better to err on the side of over-communicating than – silence. Leveraging technology in this regard is your best option, using every means of reaching out to the team and to the individuals, that is available.

  • Boost team members’ confidence and encourage them to take the initiative

Like riding a bike, leading remotely requires balance. While you must ensure they are held accountable and maintain your leadership, you cannot possibly do it all. Over time, you can build up team members’ esteem and confidence. As they flourish, delegate and encourage them to take action, as they see the need. This will provide a return on your investment in leading and everyone will have a more positive experience overall.

  • Empathy and kindness go a long way

Make sure you look after the well-being of your team members as this is critical to their engagement and longevity. The virtual landscape is challenging for all involved so keep in touch with the members to ensure their boundaries are in place for good work life balance and that they are taking sufficient time for fun and family activities. You will need to exercise greater perceptivity when dealing with the individuals, so that any signs of self-neglect are caught early and addressed. Your leadership is probably most important in this area since it is up to you to create healthy dynamics and balanced conditions within your team.

As leaders, we may be readily familiar with transactional and transformational styles of leadership, and the pros and cons of each style as it applies to your team and industry. However, with the challenges of health and virtual distance we now face, leadership may need to go a step further into transcendent leadership, where you exercise the benefits of both styles and then some.

Merriam-Webster defines transcend as:

1. to rise above or go beyond the limits.

2. to triumph over negative or restrictive aspects.

Transcendent leaders rise above or go beyond the limits that were once accepted previously in a business setting. However, these days, it is not business as usual. The virtual team and its leadership cause us now to be aware of our internal limitations and consider going beyond these to explore what is required to achieve success in this new environment. Leadership now must consider operating with awareness, courage, respect and gratitude and most of all, the highest good of all stakeholders, especially for those you lead. Becoming a transcendent leader will be a stretch for some of us as it challenges the traditional beliefs and practices. However, if up to the challenge, this type of leadership is possible and likely the most practical and fruitful, given our “new” normal.

This article was informed by the following: