Why is Virtual Leadership important?
There are numerous reasons why firms of all sizes have remote employees. Large firms have multiple offices across the country or the world and small firms may have remote employees to conserve expensive office space. Additionally, firms require specialized staff; offering flexible or remote work as a benefit is an excellent recruiting and retention tool. Organizations must be agile, investments have been made in cloud technologies, and staff expect mobile access to everything, making virtual employees more commonplace.
As leaders we are seeing our teams are becoming increasingly geographically dispersed which often leads to working with remote employees to accomplish daily tasks. But how do we manage team members when we can’t walk up to their desk, coffee cup in hand, to tell them they are going to need to go ahead and come in on Saturday?
How is Virtual Leadership Different?
There is a difference between management and leadership. Management can be defined as the role of organizing and controlling tasks. Leadership is the role of motivating and supporting others to complete tasks.
There are many forms of leadership, from autocratic to laissez-faire to transformational, each requires different skills and are better suited for specific tasks and employees. Effective leaders are effective influencers; compelling others to meet goals. Great leaders inspire greatness in others and align firm and employee values to achieve organizational objectives and vision.
Great leaders have to further hone their skills when dealing with remote individuals. Inspiring greatness in others requires building a relationship. Long-distant relationships are infamous for having additional challenges.
Leaders have to continue to focus their core motivational skills to provide guidance to their virtual staff. Virtual Leadership builds trust, empowers employees, increases collaboration, and resolves conflicts.
What skills do Virtual Leaders need?
Trust and Accountability
Trust is essential to running a productive, high performance virtual team. Subordinates need to trust that although they are remote, they will get the support they need from their leadership. Leadership needs to trust that employees will remain focused on the tasks assigned.
Trust begins with hiring the right people. Ethical and honest employees are attracted to organizations which expose similar core values. Leaders are responsible for fostering a culture of trust and honesty throughout the organization.
Setting reasonable expectations, providing the right tools to accomplish tasks, offering open and honest feedback, and adequately recognizing and rewarding valued accomplishments will build trust.
Leaders must provide a framework of policies for remote employees to meet goals, such as work hours, meeting attendance, performance benchmarks, and service level agreements. Ensure the employee understands that they are accountable for the tasks assigned. Remote employees build trust by being available during designated times, competently completing tasks, and proactively communicating challenges.
Engagement and Empowerment
Remote peers may not have the same exposure to team and firm culture. Effective influencers encourage peers to be engaged, share ideas, and connect with others. This may include additional encouragement to participate in events and training especially when it is integral to the firm’s culture. Leaders cannot let virtual employees be just another silent attendee. Directly request input frequently to keep them engaged.
With the establishment of trust, virtual leaders need to empower remote employees to direct their own effort towards organizational tasks. Employees should have input into goals and how to accomplish them; great leaders convey the value of employee input and act on it.
Communication and Collaboration
Virtual leaders often have to expend more effort to support remote team members to foster collaboration and ensure positive communication.
Clear, concise, consistent, and continuous communication is a key to successful remote employees. In order to foster cooperation between team members, leaders need to establish communication schedules similar to weekly stand ups or scrums. Remote meetings may need to include consideration for multiple time zones, technology limitations, and even language or cultural barriers.
If possible, bring the entire dispersed team together for an annual conference. If it isn’t the full team, attempt to bring together individuals who work on similar projects or who are in the same region. This provides the opportunity for collaboration and teambuilding.
Conflicts and Cooperation
The lack of direct personal interaction increases the opportunities for miscommunication and conflict. Opinions on the best course of action will differ, emails don’t have tone or may reflect language efficiency, and other technologies may not facilitate improved cooperation. Deadlines can be missed and remote team members can be acutely impacted by such occurrences if exceptional communication doesn’t occur.
Leaders understand that conflict in a team is unavoidable. High performance teams need time together to work through team dynamics; referred to as “Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing”.
Conflict resolution involves stages including understanding the disagreement, clarifying goals, identifying options, and agreeing on a resolution. If there is ongoing unresolved conflict, then it may be necessary to bring remote individuals together to work on a resolution.
Firms that foster a culture of trust will also cultivate cooperation. Leaders who encourage collaboration and cooperation will also notice that remote employees will promote thoughtful solutions to conflict.
What unique challenges do Virtual Leaders face?
In order for remote employees to be successful, they will need to be able to communicate and collaborate with team members. Firms have vast choices for telecommunication, remote access, collaboration, virtual meeting, and other technologies. Additionally, software is available for project management, shift scheduling, team calendars, time off planning, etc. Virtual leaders will need to be familiar with the options and choose the appropriate tools that address their remote work challenges.
Establish and Publish Policies
Firms should establish and publish guidelines for remote work. Remote employees should sign a telecommunications agreement that includes an understanding of who’s responsible for providing equipment and internet connections, establish work hours/schedules, time off, etc.
Employee’s work environment should be dedicated and free of distractions. Schedules should include facetime, either through video calls or physical meetings, as part of teambuilding. Remote workers should be hyper vigilant of letting the team know when they are unavailable and changes to schedule.
Leaders need to set agreed productivity level monitoring with remote employees; think “SMART” goals. Virtual leaders monitor productivity and communicate expectations and results frequently as part of the schedule.
Once policies are established and remote workers have been integrated into a team, virtual leaders need to remain vigilant for signs that remote work is not the right fit for an employee. Issues to watch for include reduced productivity, delayed responses and feedback, patterns of tardy or missed meetings, and other noticeable lack of engagement.
When issues are identified, virtual leaders must reinforce expectations. Continued performance challenges should be escalated and reviewed. If necessary, alternatives to remote work may need to be discussed. Remote work may not be the best fit for an employee. Flexible office schedules can be an alternative based on tasks and deadlines.