In these uncertain times, we believe leadership matters more than ever. As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, «social distancing» is becoming a new normal. Working remotely will likely become a more common environmental factor for leaders guiding teams and organizations in the future. In this context, leaders must master virtual work environments to keep geographically dispersed team members aligned, connected, engaged and performing.
Leading a virtual team or employees who are geographically dispersed can be challenging. In our extensive research, we found that more than 25 percent of virtual teams are not fully performing and 33 percent of teams rate their virtual leaders as less than effective. Making the current situation even more difficult for many leaders is that employees are scattered across different geographic areas and have little face-to-face contact with one another; information and priorities are constantly shifting; and there is little time to address individual needs.
Leading virtually is still leadership. Effective leadership remains the best predictor of success and long-term organizational viability, and this was true even before the emergence of the pandemic crisis. Effective leaders are «impact- multipliers,» who work through people, teams and organizations and rely on attributes such as self-awareness, empathy, humility, agility and resilience, even as some of the demands of leading virtually are different.
Our research identifies what differentiates top- performing virtual teams and the most effective virtual leaders. The insights from our global research highlight immediate opportunities for leaders to act in a virtual environment. Here are five lessons learned from our work with successful virtual leaders.
Five key lessons for leading from a distance.
Trust is a crucial factor for effective collaboration on any team. Virtual teams have a unique challenge in that they tend todevelop trust at the task level more easily than at the interpersonal level. The implication of this is that it often takes longer to build interpersonal trust when people are working virtually. Effective virtual leaders look for new ways to infuse team spirit and trust into their teams, which, in turn, can help boost cooperation. Our research finds that a few practical steps can make it easier to build trust among virtual teams:
Communications technology has made virtual teaming possible, but such platforms are obviously not a perfect substitute for human interaction. It can be easier for team members to become isolated, focusing solely on their work without a lot ofsocial interaction.
Collaborative software and video conferencing platforms enable employees to interact with one another regularly, helpingto create a high-touch environment that makes relationship building possible. A few other tips that virtual leaders can useinclude:
Conduct effective virtual meetings
In the current environment virtual meetings have emerged as a practical solution to bringing people together to achievegoals. In the absence of regular face-to-face contact, holding frequent virtual meetings becomes increasingly important to keep everyone on the team on the same page. However, many employees are oftendistracted and multitasking. What can leaders do to help enhance the quality of «v-meetings»?
People are often expected to work more independently in virtual teams, which makes it even more important to find ways to delegate work andprovide team members the freedom to make decisions on their own. Ofcourse, accountability is still critically important for virtual teams. In manycases, team members are dependent upon others to complete work, so leaders must facilitate open communication to ensure that everyone is productive. Effective virtual leaders set up a system to monitor progressand follow up frequently, but avoid micromanaging.
Here are a few practical tips to empower and motivate people in a virtualsetting:
Soft skills are essential
Our research found that virtual leaders and teams perform better when theydeliberately engage in «skill development» individually and collectively. Softskills, in particular, are important for leading virtual teams, as leaders must work to maintain frequent communication between members, inspirepeople to achieve goals and manage conflict. Some effective strategiesthat companies can use to bolster their virtual teams soft skills include: