Successful leadership in a virtual environment
The rise of ‘e-leadership’ and having virtual teams spread across different geographies has picked up greatly over the past two decades. It’s never been so easy to connect with experts across the globe without having to travel. After several months of working from home during lockdown, we’re all now pretty well adjusted to this set up.
As we mentioned in our future of the office article, remote working is a trend that’s been accelerated by COVID-19 It’s an option that many employers and employees alike are keen to continue for the remainder of the year, despite the government’s suggest that “those who can return to the office, should” earlier this month.
We’ve largely managed to remain productive in our home offices, even if they’re kitchens or sofas. But if remote working really does become an integral part of your team’s work (in inevitable, home) lives, how can you encourage success and strengthen business over video calls?
Leading a team to success virtually is no mean feat. It’s much harder to observe progress and make valuable connections with your employees without having regular in-person catch ups. Meetings held on Zoom and conversations on the team Slack channel don’t encourage the same kind of collaboration that’s so important to breeding innovation. As much as the screen facilitates business, it can hold back the human element that’s so important.
Don’t panic if you’re starting to feel like everything’s out of your control. In our recent survey we found 62% of small business owners felt entirely or slightly out of control. It’s normal to feel like you don’t know exactly what’s going on at the best of times, let alone when we’re going through a pandemic.
There’s no right or wrong way of doing things when so much is changing and unknown. The most important thing for any leader to consider in times like these is how to ask for help. Seeking advice and information from diverse sources is immeasurably useful right now. Often outsiders can see something you miss and can offer alternative routes to consider, so get on the phone and build yourself a bigger picture.
Establishing decisive plans quickly will benefit your team and business more than deliberating for too long and lacking assertive action. Being adaptive in times of uncertainty is an essential part of strong, convincing leadership. You’re not striving for perfection right now, you’re trying to mitigate and contain risk.
Communication right now needs to be more than simply touching base. You need to convey the seriousness and potential impact of the current climate with your team. Don’t try to sugar coat too much or you’ll lose their trust. They need to hear an accurate, current picture of what’s happening and what your position is. Leading with transparency and consistency will help create a more stable business environment.
Make sure you’re super clear with your team about what you expect from them too. Manage expectations on an individual level by setting clear targets or KPIs. Make sure you decide how and when to measure these. You don’t want to be too overbearing and end up micromanaging, but it’s very easy for employees to feel isolated in this work set up. Building a clear process and allowing them to demonstrate their progress to you is healthy and useful.
Gaining and maintaining your employees’ trust will have a positive impact on the team and ultimately your bottom line. People are the most important element of any business. Respecting and empathising with them is necessary if you want to make the most of their time working with you, and get the most from them in return.
Understand how different people like and want to work, and what their current working environments are like. See how you can accommodate or help them reach their potential. If there’s less work on at the moment, could you offer training to help them develop skills that would benefit the business?
We’re all taking video calls from personal spaces, and yet we’re probably sharing less about our personal lives. Granted, there may generally be less to chat about but those short moments ‘at the water cooler’ or as we pass each other’s desks are useful and help build a team socially. Recreating this virtually is not easy. Instead, ask yourself what the ultimate effect is – feeling a sense of belonging, loyalty or even just recognition – and think of how else you could encourage these things. Connecting personally doesn’t need to be invasive, but the ways you allow your teams to socialise will have an impact on productivity.
Showing your employees that you care about them is significant in helping them achieve their best while working for you. Encourage action over punishing mistakes: not acting is worse than messing up. We’re all adapting so cut slack where it’s due.
No, we’re not talking about dancing. Establishing a specific day and time to reconnect as a group will help maintain a sense of normality. It can be easy to shift meetings bit by bit, but keeping a regular diary slot for the team to discuss what they’re working on is so important when we’re all physically disconnected. Knowing what’s going on in other areas of the business is useful, and sharing progress or ambitions will help your team feel connected.
Your general aims and priorities should be clear to everyone. Work these out with managers and delegate efficiently. Clearly communicating the relative importance of your main focus areas is useful in establishing the direction and strategy you’re working towards. These can shift as time goes by, so make sure you’re having discussions and are open to tweaking your main focus areas. An open and consistent dialogue is the key to strong, dependable leadership.
According to a 2014 study by Harvard Business Review, the most effective virtual teams are small ones. If you can, try to create smaller ‘squads’ if your teams are over 13 people. It’s far easier to manage what’s going on and make sure everyone can freely ask questions or get feedback when they’re dealing with fewer people virtually. Definitely keep key company-wide or large team meetings – but allow for smaller factions to develop to keep everyone feeling involved and less isolated. And definitely don’t forget about the importance of a one-on-one in letting people feel appreciated.
Decide where you don’t want to be spending money and time, and make that clear to everyone. This will lead to a healthier understanding amongst the team of the direction of your business, and should help your employees know where their energy is most valuably spent. Ideally, by setting these out clearly before decisions between investing in two ‘priority’ areas come up, you’ll know immediately which to work on first.
Agree early on which channels should be used for what and make sure everyone is aware. For example, be clear about what can be a quick email response and what should be a phone call. Setting this out early on will keep everyone on the same page and avoid misunderstandings or misinterpretations. You want to keep ‘I thought that was obvious’ to a minimum.
COVID-19 is primarily a health crisis but it has sparked significant economic and social ones too. Be aware of this and let it drive your empathy towards your team. Showing you understand and respect what’s happening to the people you employ will mark you out as a stronger leader.
While remote working has been a blessing for countless businesses during the lockdown period, it certainly isn’t perfect. There’s no easy way to observe engagement and monitor productivity. But, if you design tasks clearly and carefully, set deliverables and targets, and work out how your employees can show these to you, you’ll have a close grasp of what’s happening. This will help them maintain focus and productivity.
Staying assertive and communicating as much as possible, and with regularity, is the simplest way to appear a strong leader. You may not know all the answers, and that’s okay. Focus on rapid decision making and setting out clear business priorities. Your reaction to something not working out is often more important than doing the right thing in the first place.
For more advice and information on how to adapt your business to the current climate, head to our COVID-19 Impact Support Hub.