In March, when the country went into lockdown, most professionals became virtual workers.
Since then, as restrictions have eased, some have returned to the office. Whether your team is fully virtual or hybrid (a mix of people in the office and others working from home), you will need virtual leadership to excel for the foreseeable future.
Here are some ideas on how to be successful when you can’t all be together:
- As an innovative professional, how well are you nurturing your productivity, plus that of your team? I know of people who have been sitting in front of video meetings from 8am to 8pm! While that might feel like working hard, it will be draining creativity and focus. Not only that, but it models a poor way of working to the team. Instead, plan breaks to refresh and recharge, and expect others to do the same. One tip is to start meetings at five past the hour and finish by five to the hour, giving everyone a much-needed break.
- As a leader, give up on control. With a virtual team, it is just an illusion anyway! Transition your leadership style from directing and micromanaging to facilitating, where you focus on supporting each team member to do their best work. Agree what they need to do, how they’ll report progress or request help from you, and then get out of the way. You’ll notice motivation soar as people have the autonomy to do great work, with your support when they need it, and feel trusted.
- Develop your understanding of your team. Start with yourself: what are your preferences when it comes to keeping in touch: phone, video calls, chat? What are your strengths and your weaknesses? What about your own biases? What about your team members? Find what works best for all of you and agree your team ways of working together.
- Build common ground, to connect. Many aspects that stand out when you’re in a room together are less prominent in virtual teams. Gender, ethnicity, generation, appearance and nationality all take a back seat for once (hooray)! Try using other things to build rapport and connection. Try comparing what team members can see out of the window, the books and films they’ve enjoyed, plus how they keep fit. Find common threads and use these to build rapport and trust.
- Clarity is crucial, along with ensuring that others understand what you mean. This also applies to how you’ll work together as a team and all aspects of virtual meetings: from purpose and objective, to what the time plan is, to what actions have been agreed and how these will be followed up. Clarity reduces the scope for confusion. It also makes meetings shorter and more effective!
- Make your virtual meetings short and engaging, rather than deadly dull, longwinded affairs. Draw people in by using stories, which are memorable and grab people’s attention. Use visuals over words when presenting, and annotate your slides as you go – there are options for this in PowerPoint and other software.
- Blend your work, asynchronous (different time) working as well as meetings, to avoid being ‘Zoomed out’! Back-to-back virtual meetings are not effective nor sustainable. Use asynchronous working together, supported by tools such as recordings, chat and collaboration tools, to allow people to join in and do the work when it suits them. This works for those who have responsibilities such as looking after children and also frees up night owls to do their work late or early birds to start before breakfast. It’s motivating and breaks the cycle of endless video calls!
- Some people think that virtual working is all about technology. It’s not. The technology is an enabler. Once it’s working, focus on all the things that make an effective virtual team and on developing your own virtual leadership. That is what will make the difference.
- Have fun and bring in more of the tangible world that is missing at the moment to your work. Why not deliver a carefully selected package of food and drink, or just a bag of sweets, for your next team meeting and turn it into a celebration? Remember people’s dietary preferences and requirements of course!
- Remember that things will go wrong. Don’t try and be perfect. Instead create a learning environment for your team, where you can all build on what works and turn around the things that didn’t for the next time.
All the best for your own virtual leadership and for lots of learning in the months ahead as everything changes again.
Dr Penny Pullan, virtual leadership expert at Making Projects Work Ltd, and the author of Virtual Leadership: Practical strategies for getting the best out of virtual work and virtual teams, available for £19.99
About the author
Dr Penny Pullan was forced to go virtual nearly 19 years ago when 9/11 stopped her from travelling for months. Since then, she’s worked virtually and helped others to learn the skills to do so effectively through her company Making Projects Work Ltd. Her book: ‘Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams’ has become a bestseller in the pandemic and is available at https://www.koganpage.com/product/virtual-leadership-9780749475963
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