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16th October 2020

Virtual Leadership – Effectively Managing Virtual Teams

It is undeniable that the world has changed dramatically in the past ten months and so has the way businesses operate across the globe. The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it the need to make quick changes and adapt to new ways of working in a professional landscape riddled with uncertainty. Organisations were suddenly faced with the need to introduce remote working and figure out how to ensure that teams would still work as one, achieving targets and goals even when working remotely. How was this accomplished? How did people deliver effective virtual leadership?

Virtual leadership is a form of leadership in which teams are managed via a remote working environment. This is not a new concept as remote working was on the rise before the onset of the global pandemic. However, this year’s unprecedented events forced even organisations, for which remote working was not part of their long-term business plan, to design and construct effective virtual working environments for their staff in a short space of time. Thus, many managers had to quickly adapt to leading and managing virtual teams without having learnt how to do so. This raises a particular question – is virtual leading different from providing leadership face-to-face? Unsurprisingly, the answer is yes. While it is undeniable that traditional leadership qualities are still necessary e.g. influence and accountability, managing virtual teams effectively requires specific skills.

So, what are the key skills for effective virtual leadership?

Flexibility

Effective virtual leadership requires a blend of transactional, transformational, and situational leadership styles to overcome the challenges that undeniably arise when managing virtual teams. A virtual leader must consider carefully how to balance monitoring work output with giving employees sufficient autonomy, whilst adapting their approach to fit the situation. Transformational leadership is particularly important in facilitating the attainment of goals by encouraging ‘out of the box’ thinking and idea sharing within virtual teams. Virtual leaders need to have an acute awareness of themselves and their impact on others in a virtual environment.

Digital Fluency

A necessity for successful e-leadership is the ability of leaders to understand digital technologies and how they can best be employed so that they can educate, guide and encourage their team to use them most effectively. Staying connected and collaborating remotely requires the efficient use of e-mail, video calling, IM/chat programmes, etc., and it is the responsibility of the virtual leader to choose the ones that are most appropriate to use within their team. A leader’s technical competence is important to evaluate whether selected tools are fit-for-purpose, reliable to use, and responsive in real time, while also supported by the organisation’s IT infrastructure.

Proactive Communication

Virtual leaders need to set mutually agreed team objectives and communicate clearly and frequently with remote workers. They should be responsive to questions and problems and ensure that information is both received and understood. Virtual management also requires specific communication skills to handle tensions and dilemmas that cannot be resolved in person. Evidence shows that the most effective approach is to discuss relationships and conflicts in a supportive way to enhance the virtual experience.

Trust

Building strong relationships based on trust is a key ingredient of successful virtual working. A virtual leader should talk about trust explicitly in the early stages of team formation and dedicate time to ‘contract’ how the team will work together. This can be facilitated by creating a welcome note, establishing ground rules for procedures or processes, or introducing everyone on the team at the start of a video conference. Presenting some element of informality and spontaneity to formal meetings, such as ‘virtual coffee breaks’, can also help people relax and connect.

Clarity

Knowledge-centric team culture is important to ensure team members share tacit knowledge and experience. However, establishing such a culture in virtual teams might be a challenge because knowledge is scattered among the geographically distributed team. Therefore, virtual leaders need to establish new and clear ways of facilitating the transfer of knowledge across the virtual landscape. For example, the use of different online platforms, such as Microsoft SharePoint, can allow team members to easily create and share files, document libraries, lists, and workflows. This would encourage and allow team members to collaborate virtually and discuss their learning, opinions, suggestions, and anxieties freely.

Recognition of Achievements

Virtual team members often feel that their achievements are not noticed or recognised by the rest of the team as they are not physically present in the office to get praise in front of their colleagues. To ensure that motivation and work satisfaction of team members remain high, virtual leaders can recognise and give praise for the achievements and accomplishments of their team at virtual team meetings so that everyone can share in the celebration.

How can Impact help?

At Impact, evidence-based practice is at the heart of our business, enabling us to share up to date knowledge and the most rigorous best practice with our partners and clients. This includes keeping ourselves informed with the latest research about effective virtual team working and e-leadership so that we can help our clients to implement cloud solutions successfully and achieve better performance via remote working, cross-collaboration and e-learning.  We offer virtual workshops, seminars, as well as one-to-one coaching. So, if you think that you or your business could benefit from learning more about how to work virtually more effectively, you can contact us here.

 

Bibliography

Holland, J. B., Malvey, D., & Fottler, M. D. (2009). Health care globalization: A need for virtual leadership. The health care manager28(2), 117-123.

Liao, C. (2017). Leadership in virtual teams: A multilevel perspective. Human Resource Management Review27(4), 648-659.

Marinescu, P., Toma, G. S., & Ştefan, C. A. (2015). Leadership for the Virtual Age. Ovidius University Annals, Series Economic Sciences15(2).

Strang, K. D. (2012). Constructivism in synchronous and asynchronous virtual learning environments for a research methods course. In Virtual Learning Environments: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools and Applications (pp. 1466-1480). IGI Global.