In the last article we considered the challenges of dispersed and virtual leadership. Here we identify how to establish and develop good practice in changing times as virtual leaders. It doesn’t have to be difficult but it takes intent and personal change from the leader. Recognising that ‘what got us here won’t get us there’ is valid for where we find ourselves now.
Enhanced and evolved leadership is required. In some areas, more of what you did previously and less of some things too! This is a longer article but full of thoughts and approaches. Leading virtually is more than ever about other people, their situation, needs, enabling and empowering them. Time to step up.
Start from within
The saying goes ‘change starts with me’. Any external change requires internal change from the virtual leader. Examination of own leadership practices, behaviours and personal change. Covey’s ‘start with the end in mind’ is valuable here. Some questions for leaders to consider for themselves:
- What is going to be required of me by the external environment, the organisation and my team(s)?
- How is our work going to shift in the coming months?
- Previous feedback, what does it tell me about where I need to evolve my leadership?
- What is going to hinder me from changing myself and styles?
- How do I understand where the team is at and what they need as a team and individuals?
- Where do I want my team to be in the next 6-12 months in skills, behaviours, knowledge and responsibilities?
This change won’t just happen, it requires intent and investment by the leader. In doing so it will become more embedded, sustainable and a more natural extension of self.
For many virtual leaders, working with dispersed employees will be a big change and challenge for them. Not having people in the immediate vicinity to turn to requires a mental shift as well as a physical one. Being honest with themselves about how they are adapting and what they need to change is vital. Checking in with peers – what are they doing, how are they stepping up, what are they learning?
Use employee expertise – not the virtual leader’s
Heroic leaders take it upon themselves to try and do it all. Wise leaders utilise and set expectations of the experts that lie within their teams. Leaders spend tens of thousands recruiting the right people, these are the experts in their teams. But so often under utilised.
Employees want to perform, deliver and be engaged in their work. Utilising their potential more enables the virtual leader more capacity to focus on bigger picture strategic activities. Here’s how to utilise this expertise:
- Set out your stall and agenda regarding increasing ownership and responsibilities by team members. Transparency is key.
- Describe your picture, story or vision of what you want this to look like and operate.
- Explain why you are doing this. Both your personal reasons and the opportunities it presents the team
- Set your expectations and understand theirs.
- Arrange 121s to examine what each member brings professionally, team wise and personally. Share personal expectations and needs to individuals.
- Reinforce changes in team meetings.
- Provide continual feedback to individuals and team on what you see, hear and experience around changes.
Finally, to make this new regime successful it is vital that the leader focuses on what they should be doing. Encroaching or micro managing will undermine your experts and achievements.
Shape virtual team and leadership communication
As soon as teams become dispersed communication changes. What communication guidelines or protocols need to be researched, discussed and agreed with the team? What are their needs and views? How are they finding the current set up? Without clear approaches to communication in place, mistrust and miscommunication develops. Honest and open conversations around:
- Available communication approaches that could work for the team and business needs. Barriers to team communication?
- Frequency of formal and informal communication.
- Duration and meeting format.
- Format of virtual communication – calls or video format.
- Roles in communication and meetings.
- Team and individual behaviours that help and hinder communication.
- Nature, frequency of 121 conversations
- Emailing protocol – less is more.
- Making use of social media platforms for ad hoc conversations
The practice of creating virtual time before meetings to have informal group catch ups works. Replicating normal office conversations is valuable team time. Take time to celebrate birthdays, happenings and other good news. You would in the office, so why not here too?
Maintaining periodic review and feedback, enables the adjustment of communication approaches until working solutions are found.
In addition, what needs to evolve about your communication? What do people like and don’t like about your approaches? What needs adapting? Are you a teller or questioner? Being a teller is about your needs, not theirs. Learn to listen more than you speak. Adopting a coaching leadership style will transform communication and relationships.
Finally, as leader you will have access to more information about organisational activities. Keeping people abreast or organisational happenings, changes, news and updates is a vital link to others. Providing a rich and meaningful connection outside the home environment. As well as supporting mental well being of employees. Encouraging team members to share their conversations with others from the organisation will help too.
Importance of relationships and collaboration
It is very natural in virtual working for people to just focus on what is immediately around them. Relationships suffer. Long established relationships are impacted. A temptation to simply live in their own virtual world and systems. The virtual leader’s role is in enabling and reminding around relationships and collaboration. Using the technology to create opportunities to collaborate.
Maxmising Zoom whiteboards and breakout rooms enables people to be and work together. Setting expectations that team members use the tech to work together. Whilst relationships shouldn’t be forced, encouraging people to communicate to each other outside of email. Part of the communication approaches could be around having social time at the start fo the day, in small groups or as a team.
There is a natural risk where communication and relationships aren’t in place that a ‘them and us’ dynamics develops. Bringing people together enhances team unity. Ensure that even in your team you remind people of their purpose and create a vision binding people together.
Following on from this. How well do you know your people? Really know them? Beyond surface information. Getting to really know your reports will enable the leader to engage at an emotional level, not just transactionally.
Develop and ensure clarity
Effectiveness in a dispersed setting requires absolute clarity. Utilising experts and evolving communication will help but more is needed. Onus is upon the leader to scene set, allocate, support and check in. Poor clarity leads to loss in effectiveness and engagement. Employees may not have complete access to all the information or sources they had previously. Geographical distance will mean that any loss of effectiveness may not be picked up quickly. Creating conversations, clarity and processes around:
- Work allocation.
- Roles, responsibilities and interdependencies.
- Expectations from each party.
- Team and individual support.
- Stakeholder engagement.
- Authority and sign off.
Clarity is not about the virtual leader’s interpretation of clarity. But being absolute that people have the clarity they need to perform.
Above all, don’t force old processes. Accept that new or different processes or approaches might need to develop. That’s ok. Shoe horning old processes into a new situation will only present further issues. Be open to change.
Setting realistic expectations is critical. Within this agreeing what accountability over deliverables looks like. How will performance be affected by working apart? What adjustments does the leader need to adopt? Expectations around working hours, performance and working together can all be discussed and agreed. Just because the team is not together, doesn’t mean performance stops. Delivery still needs to happen as agreed. Understand from the team what changes might need to be made around accountability to maintain performance.
Virtual leadership support
A shift to dispersed working requires changes to attitudes and approaches to support. No matter their expertise, abilities or confidence, people like, need and want support. It just needs to be adapted. All who thrive in a team environment will find lone working a challenge. Support takes many guises, it’s about finding what employees want or need.
Checking in on is not checking up on. Being proactive with and for people shows care an interest. Conversations can be about ‘stuff’ not always about work. That’s ok. Being proactive and sensitive develops trust. Support has many fronts – work, social, emotional and physical. The virtual leader’s duty of care is extensive.
Keep development conversations alive
Development risks taking a back seat in a more dispersed environment. However it still needs to happen, it’s just how it is done. Something, however small is better than nothing. Areas to consider for the virtual leader:
- Seek coaching opportunities with reports.
- Opportunities to peer coach
- Identify online learning that people can sign up to e.g. Udemy, Alison or LinkedIn learning.
- Create times for team members to share and develop each other.
- Ways for the team to develop the team.
- Up skill each other on tech the team uses.
- Formalise development time in the week.
- Share articles or research with the team and create time to discuss.
- Liaise with HR or L&D to understand corporate opportunities and online subscriptions.
Regular conversations around team and individual development, maintains employee engagement and engagement performance. If left to own devices employees may not naturally focus on their development whilst working at home.
Similarly, maintaining development as part of 121 conversations is essential. It’s not just about development, these conversations are about engagement, investment and being present for employees.
To maximise effectiveness, employees of all generations need to develop familiarity with online tools and and tech. Where are all of your employees competence on ALL of your platforms and tools? Different generations will have different capacities to adapt. 121coaching conversations creating opportunities for all to be brought up to speed on the systems they use.
However it’s not just about employees abilities! Trainingmag.com reported that whilst 87% of managers say online meetings tools are critical, only 10% of them are competent in their use. Food for thought…
Developing a virtual culture
Virtual or dispersed teams can and will develop their own culture. Again it is partly determined by virtual leader approaches, behaviours, style and language. Also important that the team have a hand in helping to discuss and shape this. If there is no investment in the culture, it will shape itself and embrace negative aspects of the team behaviours not just the OK ones.
Therefore, all investment in the team and individuals will add value to creating a working virtual culture. Whatever the leader did pre dispersed working needs to be replicated virtually too. If not more so.
Times are a changing. They have been, are now and will continue. Current virtual or dispersed working will not all suddenly stop when ‘normality’ returns. Focus will be on the virtual leader and how they achieve performance with their teams. Organisation will question how they need to operate and the place of fixed location working. There is still an expectation to perform.
Whilst principles of good leadership still remain true, the HOW of leadership needs to adapt and evolve to respond to a new different climate. Yes there are challenges, but also huge opportunities. Key is being present and involving the team. But leaders do need to step up to the plate, their employees are looking to them, now more than ever.
Nick Howell works with leaders and teams to examine and develop individual and team behaviours that enable performance. Coaching and training businesses, leaders and teams to success. Contact him today and have a conversation about transforming how you and your team work.