What is virtual leadership? How you as a manager can lead people virtually? These are the questions I face quite frequently when discussing with people about my work. For sure people know remote work – working from home, sometimes or as a permanent solution. People also know the leadership style “management by email”, when manager is sending only emails – even though sitting in the very same building.
Leadership, and especially virtual one, is not so tangible than management. Therefore it is difficult to see what it means in daily work life. Of course there are theoretical definitions about virtual leadership as such, but regardless of the definitions leaders need to practice virtual leadership in workplaces. Leader’s task is to lead a group of people to a success – and that is the same task also virtually. In daily work life, leadership means small actions and issues that are showing to the personnel joint direction and signals that their competence is appreciated.
Even though the face-to-face interaction is not there, the basic human needs are. Herewith some views what virtual leadership means in our daily work life.
1. Create a sense of belonging to the team
People want to feel the sense of belonging to the group, to the team. And as people are not seeing each other, it easily creates a feeling of being distant. But all virtual team members are sharing the same feeling. It is a task for the manager to create a collective atmosphere, and it can be done via listening, talking and e.g. humour. You can ask how people are doing without seeing them. You can choose what you are talking about, what is the tone of your speaking. And you can use humour in appropriate situations, such as having technical problems with Wi-Fi connection, to open the atmosphere.
2. Show the joint vision
People need to know what is the big picture, what is the motive for the work. You can be creative when showing the vision virtually. Create a picture and share it online, give a speech, play a song that supports the vision with a message in the words. Use all the possibilities together. And yes, you can use the company strategy and vision presentations as well, but pick only couple of slides and explain in your own words what it means to your team specifically.
3. Lead the individuals in the team
When leading virtually, it is easy to forget individual employees and only deal with virtual team. If you are organizing only team meetings, without individual discussions with team members, it will lead to a situation where employees are loosing their individual targets; am I going to the right direction in my work? Every individual is different, and good leader is able to adjust leadership style according to the person. That is not easy, but very rewarding when practising it. In virtual leadership, this means calling to one member but sending emails to another and organizing face-to-face meetings with third one. Depending on the individual needs of the team members.
4. Lead the team of individuals
And you must lead the team as well. Leading is not about giving orders and controlling if people have done their tasks. It is about providing people the possibility to influence, have different opinions, admit own mistakes; giving the stage to the team members. All this creates the sense of belonging to the team. You can have a speech alone in virtual meetings, if that is needed to convey a message, but it should be supported by additional discussion with the team.
5. Listen people without seeing them
When leading virtually, it is difficult to listen people as you cannot see the non-verbal cues how they understand you and if they would like to say something. It is very easy to just talk without giving a possibility (break) to others to say something. You need to practice to deal with silence; you don’t need to fill in all the breaks with talk. In virtual meetings it takes more time before people dear to comment or say something as they wait if someone else will do that. The opposite challenge is a team, where everyone is speaking a lot and at the same time. In that situation, everyone needs to practice to slow down – and manager needs to practice chairman skills.
6. Take a virtual coffee break
Yes, you can have a virtual coffee break with small talk ☺ And that is the key to successful virtual leadership. Sometimes you need to take it easy and give people an arena to discuss also other than work issues. People need to learn to know each other also virtually. In addition, virtual coffee breaks are important in the process of forming the group dynamics, building foundation for trust.
When leading virtually, it is important to create a structured approach to the daily operational management. It leaves room for leading people, instead of focusing on organizing and controlling things. And leading means taking it sometimes easy, listening people and what they have on their mind, taking the virtual coffee cup and organizing time for just being together virtually. Introverted leaders might find virtual leadership very empowering tool, as they are able to use their natural capabilities in non face-to-face environment.
What kind of experiences have you had about virtual leadership?
Consultant & Business Coach
noname Consulting, Finland