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5 tips for becoming a more effective leader for a virtual workforce

Effectively leading through a computer screen requires an extra dose of empathy and communication.

Whether you're a fan of remote work or not, leadership skills for virtual teams are increasingly becoming essential for managers everywhere.

According to Gallup, 76% of remote workers say their employer will allow people to work remotely going forward, at least partly. And while there is a fair amount of overlap between effective in-person and virtual leadership, there are some key differences to consider.

"Virtual leadership provides a unique set of challenges compared to in-person leadership," said Dom Barnard, co-founder of VirtualSpeech, a soft-skills training platform based in London. "For example, it can be harder to build rapport over video calls with the lack of body language cues and presence. It can be more difficult to build a strong work culture. And leaders need to have more trust in their employees, as there is less visibility on when the employee is working."

Tips to effectively lead virtually

If you're struggling to effectively lead through your computer screen, Barnard and executive coach Jennifer Elder, CPA/CFF, CGMA, suggest you consider these five tips on how to be a better virtual leader:

Get everyone on the same page about communication and expectations. One of the primary challenges of leading remote teams is figuring out how to communicate and coordinate. If you haven't done so already, get everyone together and decide on rules of engagement, including how everyone should communicate in various situations, when to expect a response, how often meetings will be held and for what purpose, and how team members will collaborate on projects.

As David Burkus points out in his book Leading From Anywhere: The Essential Guide to Managing Remote Teams, communication is actually more important for remote teams, but it should be used sparingly and strategically.

Working remotely allows team members to focus on value-creating tasks for long, uninterrupted stretches of time, according to Burkus. But that advantage evaporates quickly if remote workers are expected to always be available.

For that reason, he recommends that remote teams rely primarily on asynchronous communication channels, such as email, Slack, or Microsoft Teams, for anything that doesn't require an immediate response, and give everyone at least 24 hours to reply so they can focus on their work. He then suggests phone calls for one-on-one discussions and video calls for team meetings so that people are less likely to speak over one another.

However, it's important to be aware that when teams rely heavily on written communication, there is an increased risk of misunderstandings, according to Elder, who is owner of The Sustainable CFO, a consulting and executive coaching business in the Boston area. For example, you could send an email with straightforward feedback to a team member, but because they can't hear your tone of voice, it's possible they assume you're upset with them when you're not, Elder said.

"Our brains have a tendency to err on the side of the negative, so if I don't know whether you're happy or angry, I will assume that you're angry," she said.

With that in mind, she said it's always a good idea to infuse your written communications with as much positivity as possible, while also assuming positive intent from messages you receive.

Regularly remind team members of their individual impact and shared mission. Toiling away alone at your computer can get lonely, and it's often easy to lose sight of why you're putting in the work at all. Reminding employees of why their work matters is important for both in-person and remote teams, but it's essential in virtual environments because it helps unify team members regardless of how far apart they might be.

"No matter what position somebody is in, no matter what generation they're from, we all want meaning in our lives, we all want to know that we matter and what we do matters," Elder said. "So, remind people how what they do connects to the mission of the department, the mission of the organisation, and the greater good of the world."

She recommended regularly reminding your team how their work is making a difference and showing specific appreciation to individual employees.

"In the office, people would walk by and say, 'Great job on that', but we're not hearing that as much anymore, so make sure your staff knows you appreciate their work," she said. "And be specific about it. Don't just say 'Thank you for doing a great job', but 'Thank you for working on that spreadsheet. I love how you organised and colour-coded it.'"

Forge individual connections, and tailor your leadership approach to each team member. Without the benefit of face-to-face interaction, virtual managers will likely need to make a concerted effort to connect with each of their team members.

"You need to be proactive about staying in contact with your entire team," Barnard said. "This can be done in a number of ways, from setting up weekly catch-up calls to having frequent team meetings. These will help you stay abreast of what they're working on, how projects are going, what obstacles they're facing, and importantly, how you can help them."

Elder recommended leaders make time to regularly connect one-on-one with each team member to get to know them, see how they're doing, and talk about anything unrelated to work.

"An effective leader recognises that everyone on their team is a unique individual with a distinctive communication and productivity style," she said. "They understand that some people need more direction and guardrails on what they do and how they do it, while other people need to be left to their own devices and will be more productive that way."

Even if you have team members who have been with you for ten years, Elder recommended taking the time to ask them what you can do to support them. And if you think your soft skills could use some work, she suggested completing any course on servant leadership, communication, empathy, active listening, or understanding generations in the workplace.

Facilitate team bonding. In a virtual world, we tend to jump right into meetings and get straight to work, but that leaves little room for team bonding, which is essential for morale, culture building, and effective collaboration.

Virtual leaders can try to facilitate team bonding by assigning random pairs of employees to have a virtual coffee during work hours, opening conference calls ten minutes early to allow for pre-meeting chit-chat, designating a Slack channel as a "virtual water cooler", encouraging team members to schedule virtual office hours, planning occasional in-person team retreats throughout the year, and starting off meetings on an interesting note.

"Start off every meeting with an out-of-the-box question, like what was the most fun thing you did this weekend, what's your favourite restaurant, what's your comfort food, or what's the weirdest name of an animal you've ever heard," Elder suggested. "Anything that encourages conversation about something other than work or COVID."

And if you're looking for more ways to make the virtual workplace more engaging, consider consulting the increasing number of books on the subject, including Rituals for Virtual Meetings: Creative Ways to Engage People and Strengthen Relationships by Kürsat Özenç and Glenn Fajardo.

Give your team as much autonomy as possible. In virtual environments, you can't simply glance around the office to make sure your team is hard at work. In an attempt to regain that sense of control, some managers have resorted to employee monitoring software to "spy" on their teams, but research actually demonstrates that increased autonomy raises productivity.

Barnard recommended resisting the urge to monitor employees and instead to trust and support your team by setting objectives, offering feedback, and giving team members all the tools they need to focus on their work. Elder added that managers should involve their employees in any decisions that are going to impact their lives.

"We don't like change when it's imposed on us, and we have had almost two years of imposed change," Elder said. "Effective leaders are really learning to involve their staff in any change and give them as much control as possible."

Leaders should consider involving employees in decisions big and small, from return-to-office plans, all the way down to what they would like as a holiday bonus.

"The more you can involve your staff, the better," Elder said. "Then it becomes change by choice, versus imposed change."

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.