What does it take to be a great virtual leader?
Clear Communication. Holding self and others accountable. Providing and being flexible while maintaining productivity and meeting deadlines.
The more the workday changes – from home offices and remote work weeks to flexible schedules, finding the best way to communicate expectations and maintain accountability and performance standards, managing virtual teams requires the same fundamentals essential to any great leadership position.
“It brings you back to the basics of leadership- creating an environment where people feel welcome, safe and that their contributions matter”, said Katie P. Desiderio, a faculty member and executive director for graduate business programs and assistant vice president for corporate educational partnerships at Moravian College in Bethlehem.
Leadership, she says, is about human performance.
“It [virtual working] puts you to the test. We can easily get comfortable when we are face-to-face and make assumptions about how we interact with people. Leaders move people forward, and how you are doing that in a virtual space can be a real challenge,” she said.
She said a lot of managers who fall prey to “micromanaging” their teams do so unintentionally.
“The hardest thing for adults is unlearning- now you have to unlearn those things that won’t work, especially in a virtual space,” Desiderio said.
Effective virtual teams have trust at their core. And a good virtual team or meeting leader doesn’t have to be the traditionally assigned manager.
“You can lead from any seat. With leaders it always starts with you. Leadership starts right here, right now, when you realize the influence you already have,” she said.
Tony Grycewicz, vice president of talent management for Tower Health in West Reading, said even though virtual team leadership is different because the medium is different the same practices and techniques are the same.
Clear performance expectations and work parameters, as well as frequency of check in contacts are important in maintaining an individual’s performance, Grycewicz said. “Working from home is not easy. There is a different level of distraction and discipline,” he said.
Management styles may need some adjusting, too, according to Grycewicz.
For those who like to be active on the floor, from walking around the office to having quick informal chats, the move to working online has meant some adjustments.
“They almost have to schedule time to check-in [now, and] that has created some adjustment. For those leaders who are more regimented, they can slot those times into a calendar,” he said.
For schedulers who don’t need as much contact as their more extroverted counterparts, the virtual atmosphere may work more easily. But the more social aspects of working, such as gathering in break rooms for a cup of coffee or joining colleagues for lunch, is harder to replicate in the virtual environment.
“A box of donuts or ordering in pizza, those things are harder to do and we’re trying to find ways around that,” Grycewicz said of social connections with virtual teams at Tower.
Ken Byler, owner of Higher Ground Consulting Group LLC., in Souderton, Montgomery County, said virtual leaders need to be more vulnerable with their employees, something that makes many uncomfortable during normal conditions.
“It’s not about weakness but being able to say, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I need something.’ Modeling vulnerability will build more trust in their team members,” Byler said of effective virtual leaders.
Those who can laugh off the noisy garbage truck pick-up, or remain nonplussed while a youngster runs around the room during a Zoom meeting, show others they are human. Byler said handling those displays with ease makes people more trustworthy.
The behaviors healthy teams’ model – trust, flexibility, a common goal – are even more vital in a virtual environment.
Handling healthy conflict is another aspect of an effective leader, whether in-person or virtual.
“Just because you’re working remotely doesn’t mean you have to agree with everyone. If you are used to debating [issues or processes] onsite, you have to be willing to debate virtually, too, though it may look different,” Byler said.
While some team members who need more social contact may also feel isolation more keenly, there are ways to provide interaction with remote employees.
Communication methods may need to change. Email may prove too slow, so a phone call or text message could become more effective. It’s also a more present and human contact.
“Most managers have this idea that efficiency is the most important thing, but remote efficiency looks different,” Byler said of trying different approaches to manage virtual teams.
Holding one another or subordinates accountable may likely need a fresh approach, too. Byler recommends a one-on-one approach regardless of whether subordinates work on site or from a remote office.
“If you’re used to holding people accountable in team meetings by calling them out- which isn’t a good way to do that – a spouse or kids could be listening,” during a virtual session, he said.
Instead, schedule time for a virtual or old-fashioned telephone call – away from the larger team, to address performance issues. A lot of managers and team leaders don’t like accountability conversations, but allowing performance issues to persist may mean late work or missed deadlines that impact the larger team or business successes, according to Byler.
Regardless of whether employees are conducting business on, or off, site, he said great leaders will model healthy people management practices.
Better meeting planning and facilitation will naturally create better meeting outcomes. “Most people are just trying to shift their current meeting structure to a virtual environment, and it’s a disaster,” Byler said.
To be most effective virtual meetings should focus on one or two agenda items, and encourage some healthy debate around those ideas.
Proposed business outcomes need to have buy-in from everyone on the team and be summarized easily, so employees understand and commit to their part of the project.
“If you’re not able to make those transitions you’re going to struggle,” Byler said.