As businesses adapt to the ‘new normal’, a significant component of their organization will be virtual teams. Silicon UK discovers the critical skills that virtual leaders need to be successful and, asks what being a virtual leader means today and into the future.
As the COVID-19 lockdown begins to ease, businesses are refining how their enterprises will operate in the new operating environment, which will become the new norm. It’s clear that for many managers, becoming a virtual team leader will be a unique experience.
While remote working is a crucial asset to companies during adverse times, challenges arise for leaders when communicating with employees, maintaining and monitoring productivity, and supporting new and existing employees.
According to Hogan Assessments, strong virtual leadership is the key to overcoming these challenges. Hogan’s science-based assessments, such as the Hogan Personality Inventory, are backed up by over 30 years of validated research and have identified five personality traits associated with effective virtual leadership.
A sudden shift to remote work can leave employees feeling displaced and fearful for their future. An effective leader should be able to face these changes head-on, mitigate this uncertainty and lead their team remotely without compromising on engagement or staff morale.
Leaders scoring highly on adjustment will remain calm and level-headed during stressful periods. The adjustment scale measures an individual’s stress-tolerance, optimism and composure in the face of change. These leaders will motivate their team to keep working, reduce panic and adapt to the new changes around them.
Remote work can be a lonely time, especially for those who rely on support and interaction from their co-workers, such as new hires. These employees may feel isolated and less comfortable seeking out help and guidance from their team members when there is virtual distance in place.
An effective virtual leader should take time to phone and check in with employees daily, without micromanaging or pressuring them about deadlines. Being approachable and available to listen to employees’ questions and concerns makes remote work feel less ‘lonely’ and overwhelming – especially for new hires who require additional support.
The virtual workplace can be demotivating for employees, with some lacking direction in their day-to-day activities. This can lead to chaos, as workdays become less defined, and productivity becomes harder to oversee. For workers lacking agency, leaders will need to allocate time and energy into re-defining activities, goals and deadlines.
Leaders scoring highly on ambition are well-equipped to sustain a productive team during a crisis. Ambition measures an individual’s competitive drive, perceived energy and goal-orientation. These leaders are highly self-confident, exuding high energy and drive to employees.
During remote work, companies will find it challenging to measure productivity using traditional metrics like hours spent in the office and will instead look more closely at results. An ambitious leader’s competitive, goal-oriented nature will suit a more results-driven virtual workplace, and their confident and proactive approach will inspire workers to play their part and remain productive.
With remote work comes a new approach to daily activities and processes. Team meetings become video calls; quick questions become instant messages. The inquisitive scale measures a leader’s idea-orientation and openness to new ideas, including new tools and technology.
Leaders scoring highly on this scale are imaginative, interested in new technology and curious about new and inventive ways to solve problems. An inquisitive leader’s creative thinking, although not without its faults, will be a major asset to a remote team as new methods of communicating and working become necessary, and work migrates online and to the cloud.
Business aside, a pandemic is a scary time, and many employees may be feeling uneasy or fearful while working remotely due to the events taking place in the world. An effective virtual leader should be empathetic, even in lieu of face to face interaction, and mindful of their employees’ wellbeing and capacity to work remotely.
Altruism measures an individual’s desire to help others and contribute to society. Leaders scoring highly here will make their team’s wellbeing a priority, supporting those in need and acting as a unifying force for employees during adverse times. As not every employee is in the same boat, being mindful of each employee’s personality, health, and personal circumstances are crucial during remote work. They will guide decisions on how best to manage these workers remotely.
Leaders then, need a range of skills to ensure they can manage their remote teams efficiently and effectively. Workforces that have had to adapt rapidly to new ways of working don’t just need training with what can be new tools, but also support for their wellbeing now and into the future. Don’t just rely upon email or collaboration applications to manage teams. Use group video and one-to-one conversations to stay connected to each team member who could be feeling isolated at home.
Virtual team leader
According to research from Capgemini trust empathy and, developing a high level of emotional intelligence are the keys to becoming an effective virtual leader.
“In a virtual environment, employees expect to be trusted and provided with greater autonomy to complete their work and fulfil their goals,” the report explains. “And that means enabling managers not to constantly keep checking on the productivity of their team members. Alex Turnbull, founder and CEO of Groove, a software company that has been working 100% remotely for the past seven years, says: “Badgering your people is a recipe for resentful, low-performing employees.”
Speaking to Silicon UK, Jessica Nordlander, chief operating officer, Thoughtexchange who has over 150 employees that commonly work from 145+ offices, explained her company’s approach to remote leadership:
“I think you can break this down in two different skill sets – the skills and experience to handle the complicated aspects of this change (choosing the technology, putting the structure and processes in place, ensuring privacy/security etc.) and, the skills and experience to handle the complex aspects (people feeling isolated, trust that was built on social cues now being eroded, leadership influence that was connected to the leader’s charismatic personality that doesn’t come across over zoom etc.).”
Removing or reducing barriers and friction for remote workers is key to being a successful virtual leader. “The best virtual leaders I’ve come across are facilitative leaders,” says 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. “They make it easy for team members to do the very best job that they can by serving and supporting them. They facilitate the engagement of individuals in the team and the tasks. They create a virtual team environment where each person can thrive and develop, and the team as a whole can deliver. They create structures and norms which provide clarity and consistency for people.”
More than IT
Research from Studio Graphene has revealed how UK businesses have managed the transition to remote working: 49% of companies admit they were not prepared to effectively transition to remote working. Only 39% already used technology that made remote working easy. Also, 72% of large businesses have had to invest in new hardware so staff can work remotely. Only 19% of microbusinesses have done the same and, 62% of large companies have invested in new software, compared with an average of 48% across all businesses.
Ritam Gandhi, founder and director of Studio Graphene, said: “The lockdown has been a wake-up call for all businesses. While some already embraced practices to enable employees to work remotely, a great many were caught out when offices closed – they did not have the tech in place for staff to work effectively from their homes.
“It is positive, however, to see two-fifths of businesses take it upon themselves to offer digital skills training for staff, and generally invest more heavily in new tech. Once we return to something resembling normality, this will equip more workers to choose where, and when, they work. The seeds for the flexible working revolution have truly been sown, and the pandemic will certainly accelerate the move towards employees doing their jobs outside of the office’s four walls.”
For some, working remotely often alone is nothing new. It’s the groups of employees who have little or no experience of working in this environment that need to be supported the most with strong virtual leadership.
“Virtual working has become a hugely important part of the crisis response playbook for COVID-19,” the report from Capgemini concluded. “However, a pandemic like this creates significant uncertainty and nervousness. It creates an extraordinary situation that requires leaders to be extra vigilant in paying close attention to their teams and in steering the business. The move to virtual working becomes more than a change of modus operandi – it requires a deep change in behaviours and mindset for both leaders and employees.”
Using the latest communication technologies effectively is a core component of leading virtual teams. Paul Russell, MD and Founder of luxury training firm Luxury Academy told Silicon UK: “Being a good communicator is undoubtedly one of the personality traits that makes an excellent virtual leader. Good communicators listen as much as they talk and will be able to recognize and respond to how well or poorly a team member is coping in the virtual environment.
“Virtual working really isn’t for everyone, especially those who need that face to face interaction to motivate them, while other team members will thrive and surprise you with their increased productivity. With strong communication skills, the virtual leader can adapt working practices to suit individual team members better.”
With Nicole Alvino, co-founder and chief strategy officer at workforce communications platform, SocialChorus concluding: “Post lockdown, organizations need to demonstrate that they are still a trusted source of information as well as maintain the trust and faith in their employees.
“Leaders need to continue to communicate authentically and transparently and encourage a two-way dialogue with employees at all levels. They must also maintain the option to work flexibly and remotely since we have proven it can work. There will be additional challenges with mental health and caregiving that will extend far beyond lockdown, and leaders need to show empathy to their employees for employees to continue to maintain trust in their employers.”
Being an effective virtual team leader means using the available tools and technologies effectively, but also, understanding in detail the remote challenges teams now face. There is little doubt that some leaders will already have the skills and attitude needed to make the new normal across their enterprises successful. There will be a learning curve for everyone. Ensuring the wellbeing of remote staff remains paramount is the key to successfully managing virtual teams.
Silicon in Focus
Ryne Sherman, Chief Science Officer, Hogan Associates.
As Hogan’s Chief Science Officer, Ryne is responsible for managing the primary functions within Hogan’s industry-leading research department, including client research, product development and maintenance, and Hogan’s research archive and infrastructure. His research on the psychological properties of situations and their interaction with personality has been awarded federal support from the National Science Foundation, and in 2016 he was named a “Rising Star” by the Association for Psychological Science.
How does managing a virtual team differ from managing a physical office-based team?
For the most part, effective leadership is effective leadership, whether you are managing a team face-to-face, or virtually. However, some subtle differences emerge when leading a remote team.
First, a remote leader needs to be more attuned to the needs of individuals on the team. Some workers will need lots of guidance and supervision, and others will be happy to go it alone. Determining how much time to spend connecting with team members is essential because both overdoing it and underdoing it is equally problematic.
Second, when leading virtually, the team leader can miss out on connecting with other team leaders about the long-term strategy. This runs the risk of becoming an isolated unit, disconnected from the larger business. Leaders who are skilled at connecting – even virtually – with other team leaders are better able to make decisions that are in line with long-term plans.
What are the unique characteristics successful virtual leaders have in common?
Perhaps the most essential characteristic of a virtual leader is versatility. You have to balance the needs of each individual on your team with the needs of the team and the needs of the larger business. You need to be capable of quickly switching from tactical operations within the team to more strategic, business-wide operations at the organization level. You will need to set aside time to ensure you are not becoming out of balance, focusing too much on one area and losing track of another.
Are managers generally equipped with the skills and experience they need to leverage communications technologies to their best advantage?
This is where versatility and adaptability play an important role. People who are versatile and adaptable take a “more is always better” approach to learning. They have a strong desire to learn and explore new technology. They also adapt quickly to changing circumstances and find ways to make things work despite challenges. There are big individual differences in the ability and desire to pick up new skills, and those who are most versatile and adaptable can quickly make the transition.
What are the key challenges of mass virtual/remote working becoming the ‘new normal’ from a leadership perspective?
Perhaps the most challenging aspect concerns building trust. All teams, in fact, all relationships, are founded on trust. With in-person teams, you build trust through daily actions and interactions. As those actions and interactions can be more limited on virtual teams, it can be harder to build that trust. Leaders and teams who can quickly build trust while working virtually will be well-positioned for success.
Is there a risk of micromanaging a workforce because they are all online and available?
Indeed, there is. This is why trust is so critical. If a leader doesn’t trust his or her workers, the leader will spend inordinate amounts of time trying to check their work, see if people are working at the right time, and questioning their productivity. Leaders who don’t trust their employees are at a high-risk for micromanaging them.
Are there any personality traits that make a good virtual leader?
The most critical personality traits for an excellent virtual leader are versatility and the ability to pick up new skills and information quickly. Technology is a crucial aspect of remote leadership, and it changes frequently. So those who are best at adopting new technology into their work will make better virtual leaders.
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels.