How to Be an Effective Virtual Leader

Updated: Jan 12, 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 whil