For many large and global companies, leading virtually with remote teams is nothing new. However, for smaller businesses, the covid pandemic of 2020 has forced them into a strange new world. This step change would normally have taken years to bring about in ‘normal’ times. The shift has been colossal and not without opportunities and challenges. There are some needs that are no different to working face-to-face (f2f); such as:
- Strong leadership and teamwork.
- Clarity of purpose, vision, and goals.
- Skills to carry out the job and use the technology.
- Commitment to complete the job.
- Collaboration and sharing of information.
If leadership skills are weak in the f2f environment, then greater problems can occur when leading virtually. The old-styles of command-and-control, ‘need to know’ information sharing, or micromanaging do not work well with a dispersed team. Leading virtually requires stronger and different abilities.
There are some great benefits in leading virtually, not least the cost savings of venues, travel, and time. More people can be involved as geographical distance is no longer a problem, unless there are time differences. Some research shows that productivity has also gone up in this period.
Views from a Virtual World
The practical information listed below is from those leading virtually in large global, manufacturing, voluntary and small independent businesses, as well as delegates on our workshops. I am incredibly grateful for their input. It is divided into the challenges, what works and what doesn’t work in terms of technology, people and meetings.
The Key Challenges
- Some found there was no time to prepare properly, even though the news headlines in January indicated trouble ahead. Did any of us know then what would really happen and to what extent? We were launched into an era of ‘suddenly’ going online, which we were not prepared for either emotionally or technically, and were not equipped for either.
- We needed to roll out the technology efficiently and professionally, listen to Government advice for safe workplaces and implement solutions, although these keep changing.
- It has been a challenge getting people on the virtual journey and comfortable with the technology.
- It is easier when the technology is good and widely used, and there is already a strong culture of remote collaboration and connectivity. However, for some smaller businesses there can be a variation in technology, connectivity, and quality of broadband.
- Some workers are key and need to work on site and others work from home, which is perceived differently to working on site. This creates challenges around communication, sense of fairness, risk, and can disrupt team dynamics.
- Team cohesion and engagement are harder to manage and require more time, energy and creativity by leaders. In the cut and thrust of dealing with a crisis, the needs of the team can be overlooked.
- Greater empathy is needed to understand how people are thinking and feeling, so it makes it more difficult virtually to emotionally support the team and create positivity. Emails need to be managed carefully and a focus on verbal communication is important to keep people together.
- There was a need to deploy counselling, Mental Health First Aiders or training on mental resilience for the emotional response to the pandemic. A key concern was how to handle situations where you are presented with two options, both of which are bad choices, such as coming to work and risking infection, or staying at home and going against company policy.
- It can be difficult with virtual coaching and development to ensure that there are small timely course corrections and support. The tendency is to check in before and after activities, rather than supporting and working together during. Development and training activities are not so natural, and it can be hard to gauge participant engagement, especially in large groups or when videos are off.
- Senior leadership engagements, e.g. the CEO or COO visits, create a challenge on how to make virtual visits, such as remote factory tours, inspirational.
- A poor physical environment for home workers can generate bad posture, demotivation and an unprofessional appearance.
- The stresses of home working can be enormous for many reasons. The signs of mental ill-health may be missed or overlooked with a restricted virtual view.
- The quality of meetings can suffer from a lack of:
- imagination to make them interesting,
- discipline in contributing,
- consequences for not attending,
- challenge for not using the video.
- The timings of meetings can be too long and there is also the impact of time differences for global events. There is a growing problem of virtual fatigue due to one meeting running straight into the next with no natural breaks.
- The virtual meeting may not provide the opportunity to talk on an ad-hoc basis, which is important for rapport building or for picking up signs of conflict or mental ill health.
- Access to information is critical and there is a danger of assuming people have what they require, which includes clarity of the results required.
What Works Best
Creativity can turn these challenges into opportunities. The following aspects are found to work well.
- Regularly picking up the phone for that personal touch and to avoid ‘virtual burnout’.
- You can create more interest by using a range of digital platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, WhatsApp, XM Reality, Augmented Reality (google glasses, etc), video updates, social media and much more. New ideas are continually coming on the market to meet demand.
- Training helps confidence in speaking, hearing and seeing yourself, as well as ensuring better eye contact. On-line Toastmaster International Club membership is a great way to try out different techniques and get constructive feedback on your virtual image and leadership. It can also help with learning how to share desktops, presentations, slides and become tech-savvy in a safe environment. This can make it second nature to click the ‘video call’ button without pre-thought. I have found it invaluable.
- Not accepting calls or emails after a certain time at night so you can get that essential rest and sleep.
- You will improve your leadership by being a resource for the team, getting out of their way and doing small things to show you care.
- Try using 60% of your contact time coaching and motivating rather than telling them what to do.
- There is a greater need to listen hard and use your emotional intelligence.
- Integrity is a critical leadership skill, and you can demonstrate this by keeping your promises and continuing things that are important, such as reviews, training, networking, etc.
- It is important to implement Health & Safety regulations for visual display equipment and consider the time spent on digital usage. It is the discipline of getting up and being active at regular intervals.
- You can go walk-about and speak to those key workers still on site (at a social distance!). But, it is equally important to make the effort to call home workers for a chat, which is unrelated to work, to find out how they are feeling.
- If you are brave, consider changing the culture to a ‘results only work environment’ rather than hours worked. It is proving successful for some organisations.
- Establish ground rules (even for mature teams) on when they are working and what the shared expectations are. Flexible working from home is not a free for all!
- Build confidence in people who are not so comfortable in technology and recognise their progress.
- Structure meetings so that the sessions are not too long (maximum 90 minutes) and they have clear expectations, coupled with good time keeping. You can ensure the team has time to sustain relationships and keep connected for morale and support by making space for informality. This needs scheduling into the time frame.
- Managing virtual meetings effectively and feeling confident to bring it to a close when the topic or the conversation has ended.
- Ensure everyone is aware when the breaks are and encourage them to take a proper break; rather then look at emails or make calls!
- Encourage people to contribute and give recognition for those that do.
- There is a focus on best practice
- You can be creative, use a variety of media and have some fun, surprises, and a break from work aspects. A Voluntary Centre manager is wearing a different Christmas item each day this month, so people don’t know what to expect at the daily briefing. Others in the team are following suit, so this is spreading a little laughter and lightness in what are dark times for them.
- Allow thought space between meetings. For example: one company has a rule that all meetings start at quarter-past and finish on the hour.
- Make space and time for show and tell activities to provide opportunities for the team to contribute cross functionally and get recognition.
- It is important to quickly challenge negative behaviours and inattention in online meetings. You can be a role model of politeness and discipline.
- Recognise people’s innovation in using digital tools. We are all learning and finding better and better solutions.
What does not work
These aspects are found not to work in leading virtually.
- When days are stacked with back-to-back virtual meetings, this consumes the time available for essential phone calls.
- People choosing not to enable their video. We need to see to communicate sometimes and it feels emotionless when you talk to a black screen. It is also harder to judge engagement.
- The problem of working from home can be distractions like children, pets, postal delivery and other interruptions. Even for people on site, there can be noise and multiple distractions in an open plan office.
- There is a risk of becoming a slave to technology and sending emails at unreasonable times of the day.
- There are risks in assuming people are OK and will contact you if they are not; or the leader is not pro-active in checking in on their team before problems become serious.
- Making it all virtual and not going walk-about or making contact regularly, or inadvertently ignoring some people.
- It can destroy trust by micro-managing or focusing on the time spent working rather than results.
- Beware assuming that the non-virtual routines that work will translate well into a virtual setting.
- Being soft on unacceptable behaviours. There is a greater need to challenge, promote and role model desired behaviours in a virtual world.
- Another danger is focusing solely on task delivery rather than collaboration.
- It is ineffective to have long meetings (over 90 minutes), run over the agreed time, or be long winded.
- Poorly run, unimaginative meetings with no agenda demotivate people and create reluctance to attend.