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How to Be an Effective Virtual Leader

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

It has become a widely accepted prospect that most companies will offer flexible schedule options to all employees post pandemic. Many of the organizations that stressed about remote work in early 2020 are now seeing the positive effects and embracing the idea that people can be successful in a remote environment.

In fact, studies show that employees can be more productive and more engaged when working from home. According to a Harvard Business Review study, results indicated that when a group of employees was moved from an office to a virtual environment, output increased by 4.4% with no deterioration of work quality. A recent Gallup survey published that 90% of employees believe flexibility in their work schedule positively influences their engagement. And Global Workplace Analytics has reported that, "a typical employer can save about $11,000 a year for every person who works remotely half the time." I encourage you to do your own research here as well, the statistics are hugely in favor of remote work supporting all aspects of an organization from increased employee productivity to significant employer savings.

Despite statistics, many organizations have identified challenges with this transition and are uncertain of the actual impact remote work is having on their company culture. Leaders are trying to find their way in establishing a virtual presence and creating engagement within their team. In a post COVID world, it is likely that companies will shift to either fully remote or flex work schedules: so how can leaders not only become more effective but learn to thrive in a virtual environment? The answer lies in the demonstration of the same leadership qualities that were effective in an office setting: identification of challenges, creating a culture of engagement, managing productivity, and establishing a leadership presence.

Identification of Challenges

Some commonly expressed virtual challenges have been low employee engagement, distractions, distrust, communication, unclear boundaries, building trust as a new leader, onboarding, technology, work-life balance, and work ethic. Interestingly, these are the same challenges that leaders faced in the office as well.

To make real change and impact challenges within a team, a leader must identify what is not working. The first step to being an effective virtual leader is the same as being a strong in-office leader: get to know your team in their environment and seek to understand where the opportunities lie:

  • Schedule regular check-ins

    • Connect with your employees and ask them what’s working and what’s not to find out where they are struggling

  • Plot out pulse checks

    • Quick surveys can help you to understand common themes among your team and to uncover best practices

  • Bring people together

    • Monthly virtual lunches are best because they create an informal space where people may feel more comfortable speaking up to discuss and solve common issues as a group

BEST PRACTICE: Establish a balance of one-to-ones and group discussions around common challenges and the sharing of best practices: it creates varied opportunities to identify what’s not working and provides people with the individual support they may need while also engaging them to connect with their coworkers on a shared goal.

PRO TIP: If you are trying to get the group to speak up and share workplace challenges, I recommend avoiding the widely embraced virtual happy hour as it can become too informal and this may discourage people from a work environment discussion.

Creating a Culture of Engagement

Engaging a group virtually can be a challenge but so can engaging a team that is in an office. Let’s face it, annual retreats or live team building sessions were not the glue that held a team together, rather, the coffee chats, leadership support, weekly check-ins, informal office rapport, inside jokes, and impromptu vent sessions are the factors that build a bond and ultimately engage a team. The next step is creating these moments in a virtual format:

  • Create space for informal dialogue

    • Allow time for employees to catch up at the beginning of a meeting and then segue into the work discussion

  • Adjust to the needs of the team rather than your own

    • Some leaders will find it hard to move fluidly from formal to informal and will want to stick to the business, instead of forcing a team to adjust to your needs, focus on theirs instead and understand that by allowing them time to disconnect they are further rooting themselves into the new culture and engaging deeper

  • Stand up an engagement committee made up of leaders and individual contributors on your team

    • Once individuals are elected to this group, empower them by sharing your expectations and then allowing them to conduct pulse checks and take ownership of approaches to group engagement. It is helpful to schedule routine check ins to ensure they have what they need from you and to reiterate your trust in their decisions.

  • Don’t prescribe to a tool just because everyone else is using it

    • Listen to your team, observe what they need. Many people loathe the virtual happy hours while others need it to feel sane, some people love screen time and want to see your face while they are talking to you while others would much prefer a phone call. Take the time to ask your team what they want and don’t assume anything. I recommend creating a set of questions around preference and asking every individual on your team what they prefer, this will inform how you adapt your use of technology and other devices to best suit individual needs.

BEST PRACTICE: Arm yourself with a list of the top 5 Netflix shows or movies that people seem to be interested in, also have a few light-hearted, personal stories that you can readily share at any time. This will equip you with the tools to have a more casual conversation while also demonstrating empathy and your willingness to engage.

PRO TIP: If a work discussion gets off track for a few minutes, allow a bit more leniency than you did in the office, this is your team’s way of fulfilling their basic human need of connection and interaction.

Managing Productivity

The tools used in your identification of challenges and creating a culture of engagement will support you in managing productivity. Once you are clear on what your team needs and how they want to be engaged you will have clarity on when you should be checking in and how people want to manage their time. There is a balance of flexibility and structure that needs to coexist to ensure maximum productivity in a virtual environment, or any workspace for that matter:

  • Demonstrate empathy and respect for people’s situations

    • Your employees will be managing life and work, often at the same time, and they will appreciate your patience. A big piece of being an effective leader is moving away from an authoritarian style and establishing an empathetic and balanced approach.

  • Provide Structure and create an accountability plan

    • While patience is important you will also want to put a clear structure in place so that people know what is expected of them. If you need to, set standard business hours where people can be easily reached, set business goals and priorities, and be sure to set timelines for completion.

  • Build Trust

    • A challenge with the virtual environment is that we cannot see each other, and this may build a certain level of distrust among coworkers. As a leader, be sure to create space for your teams to share their work with one another during meetings, even if the work does not overlap. You can also recognize work accomplishments and met deadlines to keep everyone informed that work is happening even if it is not seen.

BEST PRACTICE: Schedule a team meeting where everyone works together to create ground rules for a virtual environment. Once the ground rules have been established, give space for feedback or objection, then move to an agreement with your team to stick to the rules set. You can use these rules as the foundation to hold people accountable and gain a consensus on buy-in.

PRO TIP: Demonstrate respect for people’s situations, whatever they may be, and practice tolerance in meetings if something doesn’t go exactly as planned.

Establishing a Leadership Presence

As a leader, two of the most important things you can do each week are carve out uninterrupted time to work and carve out time away from work and technology. It will not do your team any good if you are depleted, overworked, and constantly connected. With a refreshed and renewed presence, you will better serve your team by identifying where they need you the most and how you can best show up for them:

  • Plot out time on your calendar to fully disconnect

    • Ensure that you have a plan for your time, whether it is to take a hike or read a book. If you are rested and energized, you will be able to give more to your team and will often pick up a nonverbal expression or tone that you may have otherwise missed. This is perhaps the biggest difference from in office to virtual leadership: your mere presence in an office commanded a leadership undertone and provided you with the luxury of mild distraction but as a virtual leader your face-time is limited and your interactions are often less, so you need to make that time count by being as alert, energized, and present as you can be.

  • Remove virtual obstacles for your team

    • During your check-ins, make sure individuals are set up with the appropriate technology and that they understand how to use it. Some challenges will be out of your control, but many will be fixable: make the time to connect with someone in tech support and ask them if they can be available to assist your team with any of their technological needs. Providing the name and # of someone who can help rather than simply directing your employee to the portal will make them feel like you care and will give them the momentum to solve the problem on their own.

  • Virtual trainings are significantly more effective when facilitated without video.

    • It is proven that an audience digests 20% more information when they are viewing content rather than a facilitator’s face. Video meetings are great for team gatherings, brainstorming sessions, and perhaps one-to-one check ins but when it comes to absorbing content, they are counterproductive.

BEST PRACTICE: If you are conducting a training for your team or sharing a lot of information, rather than having everyone’s face on camera, simply display the content. It will be easier for you to read notes that you may have as well and will add value to the presentation. I also recommend having a co-host, someone to support you in case there are any technology issues, this way your sole focus in on the content.

PRO TIP: People tend to pretend they understand something if no one else seems to be having an issue, so make sure you specifically ask if there are any technological challenges to accomplishing work during your one-to-one.

Putting it into Practice

As you move through the 4 practices to becoming an effective virtual leader, you will surely identify other ways to improve your effectiveness. Your value as a leader will not lie in how much you know or how well you can dictate to others, your value will be demonstrated in your ability to be flexible, pay attention to your team, and understand what they need from you to be at their best while driving everyone toward a shared goal. These skills will support you in your leadership development and presence via any platform.

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