By Marian Evans, Founder & ConsultantFounder & Consultant, Elevate BC
As a business and leadership coach, one of the most common questions I’ve been asked in the last 2 years, even by experienced and established business leaders, is how they can better transfer their skills to the virtual environment.
One thing’s for sure: today’s leaders need to be on their game to foster teams that consistently deliver excellent performance despite working in different physical locations. But with hybrid and remote working here to stay, what steps can leaders take to get the most out of their teams? Here are my thoughts.
Developing a transformational leadership style
In the 1970s, the American historian James MacGregor Burns identified two contrasting leadership styles: transactional and transformational. The transactional approach relies on rewards and punishments to motivate employees and encourage them to follow instructions.
The transformational approach is more egalitarian and relies on offering personalised support and encouragement to each team member. An important part of the transformational approach is to take the time to understand what the needs and motivations of team members are and to align them with the goals of the organisation.
This leadership style works well in virtual environments and is a good fit for the new dynamics at play. Being supportive, genuine, passionate and trustworthy are all key characteristics of transformational leaders.
Choosing the right method of communication
The ability to communicate effectively is a vital skill for any leader, but in the virtual world, the way you choose to communicate becomes far more important. With in-person communication no longer possible, you have to choose the right way to get your message across, and that depends on what you want to say.
- Email: Emails are useful for some detailed messages, project requests and anything you may need a record of later on. However, you lose the tone and body language. An email doesn’t always land as intended.
- Video: In-person communication may not be possible with remote teams, but face-to-face meetings via video conferencing applications are the next best thing. Most people are visual learners, so video calls can help with understanding and engagement. However, be selective about the meetings you call and only invite those who need to be present – Zoom fatigue is real!
- Phone: Even with the digital platforms we have at our disposal, phone calls still have a place. They’re well suited to more formal or sensitive conversations that can no longer take place in person. Plus its easier to get a sense of how a message lands when we have a verbal conversation.
- Instant messaging: Apps like Google Chat and Slack and great for quick, informal chats with your team on their level. If you’re looking for a project status update, want to coordinate schedules or quickly check in with your team, instant messaging is the way to go.
Defaulting to trust over control
The virtual world can push leaders in one of two ways. The lack of visibility of your teams can prompt some leaders to seek more control, with tracking software and other tools allowing you to monitor everything from working hours to email activity. However, if you respect your team and care about their wellbeing and morale, I’d advise against this approach. Also you hopefully have more productive things to do with your time!
In my opinion, the best way to measure employee performance in the virtual world is through outcomes and goal completion. Specifically, measurable KPIs are crucial, as they help workers stay on track and enable you to identify any issues before they become something more serious.
Leading with empathy and making yourself available
When your teams work from home, some employees can have a hard time feeling supported. This is particularly true of new starters, who may not get the chance to meet their colleagues or manager in person.
If you’re faced with a physically detached virtual environment, it’s important to lead with empathy. Taking the time to check in with your team individually and getting to know them on a personal level can help eliminate the sense of isolation they may feel and create a shared sense of understanding.
Being open about your availability, scheduling one-on-one check-in meetings and taking the time to acknowledge everyone will also create a sense of humanity and help virtual workers feel like they’re part of the team.
Facilitating team bonding
In the virtual world, we miss out on the water cooler chats and impromptu catchups that help to create bonds and build culture. The sometimes awkward nature of virtual meetings means the tendency is to get down to business without the preamble and chit-chat that might otherwise come in person.
As a good leader, it’s your job to try and replicate these morale-boosting interactions virtually. Assigning pairs of employees to have informal virtual chats during work hours, starting meetings early to encourage conversations about non-work topics and arranging in-person activities can all help to fill the void that today’s virtual workplaces can create.