Leading Through Screens: How to Successfully Lead a Virtual Team
The way we live and work will never be the same following COVID-19 – I don’t think that’s breaking news to any of us.
As much as we detest it, the ‘rona has allowed us to sharpen our flexibility skills and experiment with the way we do things. For many organisations, having remote teams seemed impossible.
‘Lead a team through a screen? No way, that will never work!’, they scoffed. ‘We need to be able to see our team in the flesh, no one will be productive at home!’, they hollered.
And yet, here we are. Flying in the face of adversity – and pulling it off. I think it’s clear now that remote work does actually come with its benefits and let’s be real, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of it.
Out with the old, in with the new.
Gone are the days where there is only one way to work – that’s so 2019 *flicks hair*. Our world of work is going to be more of a continuum, filled with all sorts of arrangements.
*Picks up tour guide microphone* Folks, if you look to your left, you have your co-located workplaces. As you can see, everyone there is working in the same office, but maintaining a beautiful 1.5m distance from one another.
On your right, you’ll find the remote working organisations. Well, yes, you won’t actually see anyone there because they’re all at home. And then somewhere in the middle here, you have the blended model. You can see some of them in there, but the others are working remotely.
So, what does this mean for leadership, particularly for those finding themselves managing blended or remote teams?
So many different arrangements, so much change!
Well, we will be presented with some different dynamics and challenges to what we’re used to, but that doesn’t mean that it’s harder, it’s just different.
At its core, the ‘what’ of leadership will remain the same. You’ll need to articulate a vision, establish the direction, build a team, manage performance and recognise the contributions of others.
To do that, you’ll need to build trust, foster relationships and you’ll also need to work collaboratively. Those things won’t change whether you’re leading a remote team or a co-located one. But the difference between face-to-face and virtual leadership lies within the ‘how’ – the way in which you go about achieving these leadership goals.
We may have had a bit of practice and experimentation with it over the past few months, but we can’t consider ourselves experts on the ‘how’ just yet. Here are some things to consider.
Building Trust Remotely
Like in any kind of successful relationship, trust is absolutely essential. The same goes for effective leadership, virtual or otherwise. And when I say trust, I’m not just talking about your team trusting you, it needs to go the other way too. This is no one-way street!
But how do we build trust when we aren’t even in the same room? Now, I’m not going to lie, it does take a bit longer than if it were face-to-face, but it is absolutely possible and not any harder.
It all comes down to the leadership style and how it’s demonstrated.
Now, imagine yourself in a virtual world of work. You’re sitting at your computer, tapping away, and a conference call request chimes in. It’s your boss. You answer.
They skip the pleasantries as they are ‘direct’. They begin to interrogate you through the screen with their laser-like focus transfixed on the bottom-line results.
The forever unimpressed commanding style leader. via GIPHY
Would this make you feel comfortable and feel inclined to place trust in them? Hmm, probably not. So, I would strongly suggest avoiding a commanding leadership style, particularly if you are leading a virtual team.
A supportive leadership style on the other hand, has been found to build trust quite effectively within virtual teams.
Imagine that same situation, where you answer the video call, but instead, you’re met with the smiling face of your boss and they ask you how you are. But not just because it’s ‘just what you do’, they ask because they genuinely care about your wellbeing.
Supportive leaders strive to achieve consensus and are concerned with the satisfaction of employees. Their focus is on facilitating the work and empowering their team to do their jobs. Would you be more inclined to place your trust in this kind of leader? I think we know the answer to that one.
Remote Relationship Building
One of the other fundamentals for successful leadership is to build relationships – in all directions, internally and externally. But the difference between face-to-face and remote teams, once again is in the ‘how’.
Building relationships in a face-to-face context can and will happen organically. Sitting at your desk, you may overhear Juan talking about the footy to the rest of your colleagues. You love footy, so you spin around and join in on the conversation for a bit.
There will also be a lot of little sub-conversations happening throughout the day, with the person sitting next to you, with someone in the kitchen while you make yourself a cuppa. They happen all the time!
The desk, the watercooler, same thing.
But when you work within a dispersed team, these small conversations don’t really happen. Each time you want to talk to someone, it has to be intentional, not incidental.
Therefore, a leader of a remote team must put in a lot more effort and consideration into building relationships. Trust me though, it’s worth it.
This might mean that you’ve got to get a bit creative. Maybe you can host an online game where your team can chat to each other during it. Maybe it’s a virtual ‘Friday afternoon at the pub’.
Whatever it is, it’s very important to find and create regular opportunities to bring the team together and have a catch-up.
For those leading a blended team, with some in the office and some working remotely, you must also be conscious to not prioritise the team members that are physically sharing the space with you.
It can take practice but try to ensure that it doesn’t turn into an out of sight, out of mind situation.
Todd at his ‘Friday afternoon at the back garden pub’
For the highest quality of work, ideas and solutions to be generated, collaboration within a team is essential.
When working within or leading a remote team though, collaboration is going to look a little different.
I think we’re all aware by now that a distributed workforce relies heavily on technology for all communication and coordination between members. Collaboration is no different – remote teams need a toolbox filled with slick communication tools.
But what good are the tools if they’re not being used? Great remote and blended team leaders must consider how they can promote the use of these tools and integrate them seamlessly into their operating rhythm. However, this must be done through empowering your team, not dictating it.
The best way to do this is by leading by example. Put your money where your mouth is so to speak. If you’re going to talk the talk, you better be walking the walk.
To promote collaboration, remote team leaders should encourage and engage the team in decision making, ensure they coach their direct reports and genuinely show concern for their team members.
It’s Time to Recalibrate
Like I said earlier, virtual leadership does come with some different challenges, but that doesn’t mean it’s harder. We just have to readjust and learn a new way of doing things. If you find yourself leading a remote or blended team, don’t underestimate the differences, but at the same time, try not to feel overwhelmed.
Recognise that the context in which you are leading has changed and focus mainly on ‘how’ you are going to build trust, foster relationships and work collaboratively. Don’t worry – you’ve got this!