Leadership comes easily in an office, right? You can see people, observe their behavior, build relationships, go out for lunch, give guidance and motivate them to achieve great things. You can monitor performance, coach, share knowledge and create a positive vibe.
That’s the romantic view. Most people will have worked in offices where factors such as politics, personalities and patchy management stopped them from giving their best.
Many leaders create the conditions that enable their teams to flourish, but many more find this tough. In the latter group, some still work under the misapprehension that they can only manage teams effectively face to face in the same space.
Research shows that moving to a virtualized world puts leadership skills to the test. The evidence suggests that leaders need to be on their A-game consistently to have teams and communities deliver excellent performance while working away from one another.
In a traditional office environment where everyone is present, teams share a single physical and social context. A constant flow of visual and auditory information keeps colleagues in the know. Meanwhile, IT support, excellent bandwidth and friends nearby help oil the wheels of work.
In the virtual world, however, each employee’s home throws up different challenges: unique stresses, relationships and domestic circumstances. Everyone is their own tech support manager, battling with bandwidth and other background obstructions.
So, what makes a great virtual leader? Most studies and lists come up with the same traits: empathy, fairness, communication and listening skills, authenticity and decision-making. Leaders inspire and motivate their teams. The very best leaders set clear visions, bring people together and go out of their way to know people as people.
In the 1970s, American historian James MacGregor Burns identified two contrasting styles of leadership: the transactional and the transformational. The former is conventional management in which risk and reward function as key motivators and employees follow orders. The latter is a more egalitarian approach that focuses on empowering people and tapping into deeper needs and motivations.
My own organization’s research, in partnership with the Center for Evidence-Based Management, has found that virtual workers respond well to transformational leadership because the change in approach fits the new dynamics at play. Its findings also offer new understandings that leaders can apply to the management of virtual teams.
Trust is the foundation of effective leadership and teamwork. People need to feel it before they can build relationships, communicate and exchange information freely.
But trust doesn’t come easily in the virtual world because teams have limited opportunities for face-to-face, same space interaction. People also work asynchronously, which makes that little bit harder.
Transformational leaders have to be clear about their expectations from the outset and agree on the rules of engagement with everyone. They need to make more time to catch up with team members and get to know them as people. Proactively creating opportunities for colleagues to interact will also allow them to learn about one another’s skills, experience and concerns.
Providing the right support
An employee’s perception of supervisory support has a considerable impact on their performance and commitment. A leader’s trust will make that person feel psychologically safe to take risks without fear of being blamed or ridiculed should things go wrong.
Once again, however, virtual working gives leaders much less information to go on, which means that suspicion and misunderstandings will grow if both parties fail to make an extra effort to communicate or understand each other.
Virtual working also makes the command-and-control nature of transactional leadership nigh on impossible. It democratizes teams by giving individuals more control over their time, schedules and settings. Managers can’t peer over the shoulders of their team members. As a result, transformational leaders need to trust virtual workers to complete their tasks and meet expectations without micromanaging their diaries.
Creating social cohesion
The simple things that an office enables, like saying hello or having the occasional coffee, allow people to form friendly relationships and provide emotional support. The social cohesion that develops out of these small actions gives people the confidence to participate in intellectually challenging discussions without feeling challenged or insulted.
But maintaining that social glue for virtual communities is an altogether different prospect. Leaders have to make an extra effort to keep virtual teams connected through social gatherings and regular one-to-ones, using virtual tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
When a team or community moves to a more virtual model, there has to be an investment in friendships and the creation of moments for socializing online. Leaders themselves need to build better personal relationships with team members to understand what’s happening in their lives.
Virtual working is forcing organizations to rethink how they can get the best out of their people. Many employees are reporting that they feel more connected to their organizations. Perhaps leaders are starting to do what we always thought they did when they were in the office.
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