Digital Transformation Leadership

5 Principles of Virtual Leadership for Leading Teams Effectively during the WFH Era

As we approach 2022, we are at that two-year mark of having been familiarized, ravaged and compromised by the covid-19 virus. Many of us started working from home in 2020. And even after two years, after several doses of vaccines, there is no end at sight for us to return back to our offices.

The virus is not remotely extinct and it will definitely be a part of our lives for the rest of humanity. It will possibly end up being non-lethal like the common cold and cough.

With Omicron raging the world over and spreading like wild fire, my prediction is that we will spend 2022 as well working from the comfort of our homes, or should I say far away from the natural working habitat. I honestly don’t see us going back to offices.

My prediction is that for the year 2022, the top most priority or the element that differentiates between success and failure is, virtual leadership.

Working during the Pandemic

You might think that we leaders have become masters of virtual leadership with the experience gained over the last 2 years. Not nearly enough.

While the first year consumed us with gawking and getting our home offices ready, the second year we were playing catch-up to the year that we lost.

Most in the IT field working out of their homes have become task oriented, and they have started to get comfortable in completing the tasks. As the vaccination picked up and as the number of cases went down, before the Omicron variant of course, offices around the world started to open up. Many IT folks started to tailor their trousers for their incoherent waists.

Challenges of Remote Working

Now with Omicron, it appears in all likelihood that we are lurking towards a third year of working from our homes. This has put the focus back on leading teams virtually, because the way it was done the previous two years does not cut it any more.

There are a number of blinders that have set in, which will bring in a lot of inefficiencies. In the current scenario of home working, there is no longer room for interpersonal relationships. Leaders are becoming helpless. Their team control through physical presence and handing out directions is no longer working for obvious reasons.

In my opinion, leaders have reached a cross road where they must change their tact or pray to God that Corona vanishes away overnight.

To be fair, monitoring team’s work is not the same as it used to happen during office days. If a leader wants the same experience, asking your team members to turn on their camera as they work is not an option. So if you are a leader, then how do you get a handle on the team’s progress.

If you are not really in sync with the team’s deliveries, then how can you provide rapid feedback? Moreover, giving feedback remotely does not carry the same subtlety as a face to face interaction does. For example, a leader can pass on a feedback in a break-out area while working in an office. During remote working, either the leader has to provide the feedback in a group setting or 1-1. No matter how the leader passes the feedback to his team member, it will not be the same as a feedback in the break-out area. The remote feedback becomes official and on-the-record, as opposed to providing feedback casually.

The next big challenge is bringing the sense of working together as a team. I am not saying that it is not possible but it is not straightforward. Bonding the team to work as a group is not easy. This becomes all the more harder if you new team members who have never worked with others in an office setting. With remote working, the focus is always about completing tasks that are on your plate rather than building relationships and creating a positive environment.

With team work taking a hit, the next big challenge for team members is the feeling of isolation. We are physical beings. No matter how flat the world is and how remote working has eased the pains of travel and logistics, the experience of working in a physical environment is something most team members will miss dearly, and this will impact work most definitely.

Must Read: Are You a Leader or a Manager?

Principles for Virtual Leadership

These I believe are some of the major challenges that are in place for leaders, and the call is for the leaders to adapt to the new situation and continue leading the teams with the former glory. To meet the challenges head on, a virtual leader needs to make certain adjustments to the way you approach leadership. I have broken down the changes to be brought about into 5 principles. They are as follows:

  1. Lose the urge to control your team
  2. Empower your team to take their own decisions
  3. Trust, but verify – do not micromanage
  4. Outcomes are important, not the means
  5. Create an environment to get feedback from team

Lose the Urge to Control your Team

A virtual leader must start somewhere, and a good start will be, to lose control. It’s not easy as said but leaders must take cognizance of their control traits and muzzle it.

Lose the urge to check in on your team members every so often to check the progress. Trust your team members to come through with the goods and go from there. I have seen leaders track the logins and the breaks too. These should become immaterial in the world of remote.

What matters are the outcomes. Letting go of control is hard but it is a start and a must for virtual leadership to take shape.

Empower Team to take Decisions

Once a leader lets go of the control, the control cannot just vanish or stay in vacuum. That control needs to go into the hands of somebody.

That is where the leader empowers the team to self supervise and manage themselves. There is nothing better than instilling confidence in the team that the leadership trusts them to not only do the job, but also to manage themselves.

On a side note, a study published on Sage journal notes that team leaders often underplay the work done by team members to showcase the value of their leadership. As a result, these team leaders take all the control into their hands and ensure that the team members become only the doers with minimal decision making powers. This has the potential to derail performance.

Trust but Verify

There is a Russian proverb that translates to – trust but verify. During the Raegan era, this adage became popular and you may have heard it too.

Well, in the context of virtual leadership it is very apt. While you empower the team to manage their work and produce results, it is important that leaders check-in at a frequency that does not fall into the micromanagement category.

You know what I mean right? Do not micromanage the work like asking every few hours on the status. Instead, meetings like an end of the day sync or a daily stand-up as the day begins is a good idea to keep a finger on the delivery pulse.

Focus on the Outcomes, not the Means

The focus must always be on the outcomes.

How your team members come up with the goods and when they do it is immaterial for the most part. In fact, that shouldn’t be a criteria at all.

When you give the team the autonomy to manage their work, respect it and go after the outcomes rather than the means. Everybody on the team will have their preferred style of working.

I for one cannot brainstorm in a meeting. I need to be alone to come up with ideas. If I am forced into a brainstorming meeting, my ideas will be at best mediocre. A good leader would let me work the way that suits my style.

Victor E Frankl, a famous holocaust survivor has recommended that the statue of liberty be supplemented by a statue of responsibility. I will tell you how it connects to virtual leadership. While we give our team members the liberty to work in their style, they are expected to respond with the responsibility that is expected from them.

Create an Environment to Solicit Feedback

A leader in addition must also create an atmosphere of transparency where the team members can speak their mind without the fear of retribution.

There are scripted feedback surveys like the 360 degrees feedback, but the most effective is if the openness and speaking up happens in real time. In the virtual world, there are no informal forums like break-out areas and feedback does not always flow to the leaders.

It is in this context that leaders should put extra effort to solicit feedback and look at the feedback constructively.

Conclusion

Remote working is no longer new and research has shown that it is at par with office working.

The factor that can make this possible is effective virtual leadership. The leadership style change will not happen overnight. A leader must make conscious effort to bring about the changes in himself or herself and find ways to make the remote team work as though they were all co-located.

The five principles that I stated is just a start for the virtual leader to become a good leader in these pandemic times.

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