There is no doubt the lock down is and will change how we live and work. After we are ‘let out’, work will not be the same again and we need to accept that. Virtual working and dispersed leadership working was happening, it’s now simply been accelerated. Organisations and employees will have different needs, wants and expectations of each other. There will be challenge about HOW we work and lead in organisations. Any economic fallout will exacerbate this. One of the key challenges and changes is around how to lead people and teams now. Leading teams who are now virtually, geographically, socially and personally dispersed.

Once a team becomes dispersed and works virtually, the whole team dynamic has shifts. What worked pre-dispersement may not be effective now. Here are the key challenges surrounding virtual leadership and the dispersed leader . Similarly, these challenges also present great opportunities for all leaders and managers.

Dispersed Team and Social Dynamics

Once employees are no longer ‘local’ to you and each other, processes, communication, performance, interactions, needs all shift. Humans are relational beings, they need opportunities and engagement to feel part of something. ILM research supports this – 84% of workers report improvements to work-life balance, but lack of team identity can cause loneliness. The traditional team mindset will hinder change and performance. Leaders need to consider how they will now support and manage in different ways. What is the regularity of interactions and nature of these interactions? What does the situation require of the team? How do we need to change? What is the dispersed leader’s availability to employees? How will they engage in a more personal way?

Similarly, how does the dispersed leader bring or create a social dimension to the virtual workplace? How do they still make it a creative, meaningful and purposeful place to be?

Leader Centricity and dispersed leadership

Traditional leadership has the leader at the centre, the focus of the teams. Direction, activity, support all stems from the leader. This ‘heroic’ leadership will fail in the dispersed world of work. Control doesn’t translate well into virtual working. Dispersed leadership is different. How will team leaders reverse the traditional structural pyramid, where they are no longer at the apex? How to recognise their role is to ensure all their employees have what they need to deliver and perform. What of their leadership behaviours and thinking needs to shift? With dispersed leadership it’s not about you, it’s about them.

Many teams will have up to 5 generations working in them. With each generation having different capabilities, thoughts, needs and expectations. The comfort older generations have with dispersed working will be different to millennials.

Team Responsibilities

Following on from leadership centricity, team responsibilities also need to shift when working virtually. No longer can the team expect to be fully led around team responsibilities. Virtual leadership should enable the team to take more responsibility for their own support, development, coaching and decision making. Similarly more responsibility for activity on internal and external stakeholder relationships and communication. Both in return require the virtual dispersed leader to invest in team development, skills, trust and ‘radical’ delegation.


Communication is how we get work done, connect and interact, spiderweb like in organisations. Again, what approaches to communication worked pre Covid 19, will have mixed results during and post it. Being less centrally located, employees will have different needs. Frequency, type, nature of conversations, style all need to be re-considered.

Our previous dependence on emails, combined with being distant from teams has consequences – 88% remote workers struggle with consistent working practices and miscommunication, while 83% feel overwhelmed by emails (ILM). So how will dispersed leaders establish and hone communication within and to their teams? How do their teams want to communicate? What is going to work for them? How will the dispersed leader facilitate this conversation?

Dispersed Leadership and People Development

However diminishing there will always be a place for face to face training. Online learning, blended learning, self directed learning are more present. People are realising that even in these times learning can and has to occur and is effective in differing approaches. Conversations around 70:20:10 again abound. The dispersed leader is critical in ensuring this development continues. They are also critical in changing how they engage in development conversations and activities. Historically leaders adopted a ‘fire and forget’ mindset. They sign off the development and then it is someone else’s ‘problem’. People development is at the heart of people performance, growth and engagement. Now more than ever.

Additionally, the dispersed leader who increasingly adopts a coaching style will thrive in this ‘new’ world order. The less centric they become and more people focussed the more relationships and behaviours in the team will evolve. Until ‘new’ is more established, leaders need to keep a people focus front and centre. Coaching is powerful here.


Many business systems and processes were not designed to work in a dispersed way. Similarly, team processes may not be fit for purpose. Forcing teams to spend significant time being inefficient or trying to make these processes work. Conversations of required processes, changes and what is going to work for people and teams is essential.


According to the average manager spends in excess 12 hours a week in meetings, more for senior managers. Trying to maintain this in a more virtual world is problematic. Re-establishing meeting protocol and behaviours is essential. Meetings take a lot of mental and emotional energy, this is increased when adding the virtual dynamic.


Current working from home set ups sees virtual calls contending with illness, children, partners, pets, deliveries all coming into the daily work equation. It’s ok if these distractions happen, many happened before all this, it is just magnified now. It is all part of work life and will continue to be so for a while yet. The normal focus in work won’t be present. Dispersed leaders need to acknowledge and embrace this as part of the working norm.

Finally, it would be easy for leaders to wait until work returns and ‘normality’ resumes. These people may be left behind. Being on the front foot and initiating new conversations within teams and organisations now creates a preparedness for today and tomorrow. Embracing the dispersed nature of business. These leaders will stand out, showing different solution focused thinking. Leaders who change now will bring difference and resilience to their teams.

In the next post we will identify how to become a great virtual leader, adapting existing skills and behaviours as well as honing new ones.

Nick Howell coaches leaders, managers and businesses. His focus is around people, performance and behavioural change. Supporting leaders to create the teams and performance they want and need to achieve organisational success.