For most leaders and managers today, the shift to virtual leadership has been a rapid one, with little or no chance to prepare. While there is no reason leaders can't continue to be effective and deliver value in this environment, it can take a shift in mindset and behaviours to adapt.
Eva Freedman, Associate Faculty Member at AGSM @ UNSW Business School and Co-director for the AGSM Virtual Learning Course, Leading Virtual Teams, shares her three top tips for success in a virtual environment.
1) Acknowledge you are operating in a new landscape
“It is not simply a case of moving your existing role to a remote environment, you are facing a whole new landscape. Acknowledging just how much has changed can help you truly appreciate the need to adjust your leadership practices and redefine your expectations,” says Freedman.
Managers tend to take on two broad roles within their organisation. Firstly, to develop and shape team processes and systems and secondly, to monitor and manager performance. They may not have been consciously aware of it before making the shift to virtual working, but it’s likely most mangers relied on the face-to-face nature of the workplace to perform these roles. The office environment fosters the ability to communicate, organically grow relationships, manage conflict, and monitor performance through sensory cues.
Traditionally, teams that work virtually do so because they are geographically dispersed and, have often come together to deliver a specific project. These teams usually have clearly defined goals, roles and timelines. The current situation is not the same. Managers are most likely leading business as usual, developing solutions to unchartered and rapidly emerging challenges and maintaining team performance by pivoting team culture to meet the needs of a remote environment.
“Add into this mix that many of your team members may be dealing with additional domestic issues, such as family health vulnerabilities, home-schooling, co-working with family members or isolation. It’s easy to understand why even the most experienced leaders are facing challenges moving to a virtual environment.
2) Recognise your strengths and areas for development
More than just reading about the traits of effective virtual leaders, mangers and business leaders should audit their own capabilities to understand where they can add value and how they can grow their skillsets.
“We all have values, habits and behaviours that underpin who we are as individuals and as leaders. Some traits and behaviours will help you in a virtual environment, while others will not,” says Freedman.
It is important to remember that today’s businesses are not just working in a new environment, they are adapting their team culture to fit as well. Those who thrive in this environment tend to be:
- Able to acknowledge current challenges, while still motivating and energising their team members
- Clear about team goals and how they align with organisational ones
- Willing to listen and consider new ideas from inside their team and external sources
- Great communicators, who can strike the right balance between keeping team members informed and overwhelming them with unnecessary detail
- Able to reflect on what is working and what isn't and making iterative changes
- Empathetic and able to demonstrate trust
- Transparent and prompt when it comes to challenging conversations or addressing performance issues
- Comfortable with technology and able to appreciate it as an enabler
- Self-aware enough to acknowledge their leadership strengths and work on their development areas
- Enthusiastic about self-development and continuous learning at an individual and team level
3) Commit to developing your leadership capability
Freedman states “creating a virtual team requires heightening of some of your own leadership capabilities. Whether you seek out formal development opportunities, learn from an experienced colleague, do your own research and reading, or a combination of all three, learning must be continuous.”
To maintain a positive team culture that values people and performance, some specific areas to focus on are:
- Leading team process by creating collaborative norms and processes, rewarding positive behaviours, celebrating achievements, and nurturing productive relationships with and between team members.
- Driving team wellbeing by role modelling positive behaviours, knowing how each team member is coping and what their challenges are, and making wellbeing a priority for your team.
- Developing a communication plan that gives the team clarity about how and when to communicate, sets a meeting schedule, and make the manager accessible to their team, so they know the best means to contact them.
- Creating an environment of trust, where the team understands where and how they can exercise authority and autonomy. Where they are expected to take a collaborative approach and how their manager will be measuring performance.
- Leveraging diversity and creating a culture of inclusion. When leading remotely, it's critical to make sure a culture is created where everyone is included, valuing diversity of thought and being sensitive to schedules and by having realistic expectations of working hours and availability.
- Making the best use of available technology. Align the technology use to your team goals, make sure it actually adds value, and supports team relationships, performance, productivity and communication.
To learn more about building the skills to lead more effectively in a virtual environment, join Eva Freedman and Co-Director, Christopher Bell and Adjunct Faculty member at AGSM @ UNSW Business School, on the AGSM Virtual Learning Course: Leading Virtual Teams
Combining live virtual workshops with action learning and coaching, Leading Virtual Teams will equip participants with a toolkit to adapt their leadership style to a virtual environment.