Virtual leaders can’t rely on “business as usual”.

For leaders who are accustomed to working with co-located teams and having regular face to face contact with their colleagues are suddenly required to lead teams across distance – what can possibly go wrong?

The answer to that, unfortunately, is a great many things.  

Virtual leadership continues to grow in organisations, requiring managers to inform, motivate, coach and develop teams effectively whilst not occupying the same office space or often never having met the team members in the same room.

You might expect that leaders making this all-important shift in working practice would be fully trained and skilled up to do this.

But sadly, you’d be wrong.

A 2018 study (*) reveals that while 87% of people surveyed were required to lead virtual teams and manage their performance across distance, only around 16% of those surveyed had received any kind of training or support with acquiring the relevant skills needed.

It’s not difficult to imagine the impact of this.

Numerous studies into virtual team development indicate that a significant proportion fail in the short term to meet performance targets when compared to co-located teams working with similar performance indicators.

While this makes dispiriting reading at first sight, there is a bit more to consider here.

The studies show that those same virtual teams do eventually out-perform their co-located counterparts once they have got through these initial ‘teething’ stages.

What is needed is a skilled and self-aware leader who has the patience to wait for results and adapt their own leadership style to fit the demands of managing a remote team.

And it is not only a lack of training that leaves many new virtual leaders feeling somewhat clueless when facing the demands of virtual team development. It is also a lack of understanding.

To be blunt, far too many inexperienced virtual leaders believe that if they can master technology then they can continue to run their virtual meetings in exactly the same way as they ran their meetings face to face. In other words, to do what they’ve always done – except virtually.

So, alongside mastering the technology relatively little attention is paid to what might be called the ‘psychology’ of virtual leadership – in other words, the leadership strategies, skills and approach that help to achieve success without the opportunity to physically meet.

In part, this may be because new virtual leaders ‘don’t know what they don’t know’ – and as they do know that being audible and visible to their team is going to require technological competence it inevitably becomes top of the list of virtual leadership concerns.

So what is being overlooked?  

Here are three ideas to help virtual leaders move beyond technological competence and support their teams towards longer term success.

1)   Know yourself – build existing leadership skills and develop new ones

CEO of The Panoply Neil Gandhi speaks about the ‘Amplification Principle’ as a key consideration for virtual leaders. This is the idea that however you come across as a leader working f2f, you will be the same in virtual space, only ‘more so’. In other words, your strengths will be magnified but so will your weaknesses. Indeed, they may play out in virtual space to even worse effect than you might fear.

Thus, a leader who micro-manages her co-located team is likely to be just as interfering and intrusive in a virtual setting. Similarly, a boss who is the opposite – extremely ‘hands off’ and apparently detached in the face to face setting – may appear even more disengaged (and possibly uncaring) in virtual teamwork.

There is no ‘quick fix’ here, but starting from a point of self-awareness, asking openly for feedback with team members on a regular basis, acting upon it as appropriate and adjusting one’s style to fit the varying needs of individual team members – these are all great action points for remote leaders developing their teams towards top performance.

2)   Build relationships and engagement from the start

One challenge of leading virtually is that the opportunity for informal chats and impromptu social exchanges – such as when you bump into each other at the coffee machine is absent, and therefore has to be actually engineered, when working with others across distance. Yet those casual conversations are, as experience repeatedly tells us, the lifeblood of team development. We get to know (and hopefully like) our fellow team members when we know a bit more about them, and human nature is such that if we like people, we will generally support them, and work with them more productively, than if we do not.

And if you are by now thinking that this is absolutely obvious, you’re right.   However, it is such a natural part of team bonding when working together in the same physical space that its importance is often taken for granted.

One of the reasons why virtual teams often fail to meet objectives in the short term is because their leaders do not understand the importance of making opportunities for team members to get to know each other – and build supportive relationships – before getting on with the task at hand.

What does this look like? Having time for a sociable ‘chat’ at the start of any virtual meeting, creating routines such as a ‘Check In’ from each team member to share some aspect of their personal life before talking about work in progress, creating activities in team meetings where people are able to interact playfully and have fun – these are all ways to establish an engaging, vibrant and supportive team atmosphere from the beginning.

3)   Establish ‘swift trust’ and focus on outputs

For many new virtual leaders, the idea of ‘letting go’ of the reins of control is nothing short of terrifying. As a consequence, managers may end up doing the opposite and spending time in ‘checking up’ activities – contacting team members to make sure they are ‘on track’ with projects.

This is another key reason why virtual teams may fail. Individual members feel they are constantly monitored and have little freedom to explore their own approaches in achieving required targets, and their level of creativity and productivity drops. If virtual team members do not feel trusted by their remote manager to achieve the required outcomes in their own way, they will steadily lose confidence, commitment and energy.

Virtual leadership theorists such as Ghislaine Caulat speak about the importance of remote leaders focussing on ‘availability’ – signalling their presence daily as a supportive resource and sounding board for ideas to team members via online ‘drop in’ chats and informal exchanges using appropriate media. She also speaks about the value of paying attention to ‘outputs’ – results – rather than ‘inputs’ – the amount of time and kind of activities used to achieve them.

Show recognition, celebrate success

A further challenge in virtual leadership is that, by definition, the achievements of your team appear to be taking place entirely ‘behind the scene’ and giving them prominence and visibility requires a concerted level of attention.

Last but not least, virtual leaders who make a deliberate and sustained effort to openly praise team members, promote their efforts at all levels in their organisation, and reward their achievements are likely to find that they have built a team that can overcome the immediate challenges of achieving key goals across distance, and are ready to stay the course towards longer-term success.

To find out more about the courses we offer on leading remote teams, read more here.

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© Jude Tavanyar April 2019