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Suddenly, You Are a Virtual Leader

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Amid the global pandemic of the Coronavirus, many companies are rapidly implementing mandatory work from home policies. While remote work is not uncommon for some companies, the scale and immediacy of these initiatives pose new and significant leadership challenges. Of course, this will not be as simple as sending employees home, asking them to sit in front of a laptop and phone, and then expecting them to keep calm and carry on. These are uniquely unsettling times. Executives who suddenly become virtual leaders may need to modify their usual management techniques and processes to help their teams succeed in this new business situation, while also demonstrating understanding and compassion in supporting individuals.

The typical office environment is filled with social cues that grease the interactions of co-workers and managers. Check-ins on projects happen almost casually, questions are answered with a few steps to the next office, and modifications in project timeline expectations can adjust with little formality. When everyone works remotely, those informal and often subconscious social cues are lost.

This puts a responsibility on the shoulders of the remote manager to recreate the guidance and feedback that employees typically find at the office. And it is fair to say that not all leaders are inherently equipped for managing remotely. The leader that is charismatic, inspirational, and strategic in an office setting may chafe against the disciplined, high-touch, individualized management style that will best support employees working remotely. The executive whose leadership style centers on large group meetings will face new challenges. Many leaders will need to significantly adjust their style to meet these new demands. For virtual leaders, over-emphasizing management fundamentals will be the key to team success and to offering individual reassurance. 

Challenges for Remote Employees

Here are five challenges that all virtual employees are likely to encounter:

  1. Discipline, process, and structure are essential, but can be difficult to maintain when surrounded by myriad distractions in a home environment.
  2. Isolation, despite Internet and phone options, can mean less communication and support.
  3. Guidance and direction are at a much greater premium, especially when the manager is inexperienced with supporting a home-based workforce.
  4. Ambiguity on the measures for performance success create additional concerns.
  5. Personal trust could be tested among team members, especially when work products go beyond individual contributions.

Management Goals for Virtual Leaders

To meet the needs of remote employees, virtual managers will want to consider the following practices: 

  1. Clearly outline expectations, with measurable milestones. This is critical in a remote setting, as the tacit approval that can readily be gained in a daily office environment has been removed. These established goals should measure desired output, not the process, especially as the manager will have minimal visibility on the employee’s work habits. These goals can help allay the concerns of the remote employee about meeting employer expectations in this new environment.
  2. Establish a systematic communication plan, including both individual and team components. More frequent team meetings will be necessary to replace casual office communications. Regular individual communications are also a must, to ensure that each employee is heard. Not all managers will relish this responsibility, but these communications are best done by telephone or video-conference—versus email or text—to allow more texture in the conversations. Be approachable and make sure your team members know you are always available.
  3. Devote more time to listening to virtual employees and understanding the challenges they face. This is a time of business and personal upheaval and strain in the lives of employees, and each will bear it differently. Really listen, tune in to what your employees are feeling, and understand these changes from your individual employee’s perspective.
  4. Provide systematic follow-up and effective feedback to keep employees on track. Successfully delegating responsibility to remote employees will be dependent on timely follow up. Structure feedback around the established milestones and tailor the comments to help guide future performance. For instance, “The extra analysis you added to the report was so valuable,” offers more guidance for future actions than does, “Great job.” Again, this is replacing the many informal interactions you and your team are used to in a traditional office environment.
  5. Inspire and build trust with employees to keep them motivated and engaged in contributing to the performance of the company. Share positive news from the company and achievements of the team. “Team, join me in congratulating Sarah on her accomplishment.” Building camaraderie from remote locations also requires providing a forum for some virtual water-cooler conversation. If you would typically drop a birthday card on the person’s desk, then go ahead and drop the card in the mail. Don’t forgo the football pool. Maintaining the company and team culture is more important than ever.

Success (or Failure) Is Up to You

Perhaps the thorniest challenge of working from home is that the amount of work you do is entirely your responsibility. For virtual employees and managers alike, your failure or success depends on you—your ability to focus, to hustle, to connect with colleagues and clients. When it's just you at home, you can't blame a pesky boss or chatty co-workers for your lousy or unproductive workday.

And even if you work as part of a virtual team, you're still the only team member around. Some folks love the thought of working in solitude, but even the most introverted among us can start feeling a little claustrophobic after a few weeks at home, alone, staring the same project in the face. It can get lonely. Be ready for that and try to schedule some connect-with-the-outside-world time, like a lunch hour (even if you take it at 3 p.m.).

In our response to the coronavirus, we are breaking new ground as a society. Skilled and compassionate virtual leadership will be a key element. It is worthwhile to be prepared.

This article was co-authored by Rodney Warrenfeltz, PhD, Managing Partner, LeaderMorphosis LLC.

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