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.
- lesson 1: no trust, no team. Trust is a crucial factor for effective collaboration on any team. Effectivevirtual leaders look for new ways to infuse team spirit and trust into theirteams, helping to boost cooperation.
- lesson 2: create a «high-touch» environment. Collaborative software and video conferencing platformscan help employees interact with one another regularly, encouraging collaboration and relationship-building.
- lesson 3: conduct effective v-meetings. In the absence of regular face-to-face contact, holding frequent virtual meetings becomes increasingly important to keep everyone on the team informed and aligned.
- lesson 4: empower and motivate team members. People areoften expected to work more independently in virtual teams. Effectivevirtual leaders set up a system to monitor progress and follow upfrequently but avoid micromanaging.
- lesson 5: soft skills are essential. Soft skills are particularly important for virtual leaders, as they must work to maintain frequent communicationamong members, inspire people to achieve goals and manage conflict.
No trust, no team
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:
- Early on during the teams formation or transition to a virtual environment focus on (re)creating rapport by hosting several virtual meetings to build relationships, create a sense of purpose and address team goals.
- Explicitly use techniques and technology to encourage open and honest communication during virtual meetings.
- Empower people to make (and then act on) decisions.
- Find ways to help people interact informally outside of the teams work.
Create a «high-touch» environment
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:
- Create opportunities for virtual coffee chats, lunches or virtual happy hours to help people engage with other teammembers.
- Use videoconferencing versus audio-only meetings to foster engagement.
- Find ways to highlight the accomplishments and contributions of different team members.
- Have team members from different locations pair up/partner and rotate these pairs/teams periodically to help build new relationships, particularly with people from different functions or geographies.
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»?
- Deliberately make time for connecting people and deepening relationships at the start of every v-meet- ing when peoplefeel «checked-in» to a meeting they tend to stay more engaged.
- Use technology to stay connected the use of break- out groups, polls and chat functions help to promote a two-way dialogue.Use texting or instant messaging to check in periodically outside of meetings.
- Eliminate useless meetings. Confirm that a meeting is necessary and then explicitly involve people in the meeting agenda toensure high levels of participation and engagement.
- Hold shorter, interactive meetings and use email or other communication tools to share information.
- Consider rotating the facilitator role to engage other team members in meetings.
Empower and motivate team members
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:
- Make «care calls» to periodically check in on team members.
- Set up smaller teams composed of people interested in specif- ic topicsso they can work more autonomously on projects.
- Provide virtual feedback or coaching in a timely manner.
- Find ways to highlight the accomplishments and contributions of teammembers.
- Celebrate success as a team with virtual office parties or team lunches over video conferencing.
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:
- Using assessments and individual development plans to help develop virtual leaders.
- Conducting virtual team-building sessions to help team mem- berssocialize and get to know one another.
- Continuously assessing the development needs of team mem- bers then conducting skill-building focused on identified areas ofimprovement.
Leadership matters more than ever in uncertain times. With remote working and virtual teams becoming the new normal, attributes such as self-awareness, empathy, humility, agility and resilience are even more important if leaders are going to effectively build trust, develop strong relationships, coach from a distance and hold employees accountable for performance. Our research into what differentiates top- performing virtual teams and themost effective virtual leaders underscores the importance of these soft skills and highlights ways leaders can build trust, encourage collaboration, conduct effective meetings, and empower andmotivate employees in this new, more virtual workworld.