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09 April 2020

How to be an effective leader in a virtual environment

The COVID-19 pandemic is something we’ve never experienced before. It’s changed both our professional and our personal lives, including a huge collective switch to remote working. This new “normal” requires a deep change in behaviours and mindset for both leaders and employees.

The importance of clear and effective leadership is now more vital than ever, especially as working remotely is a new and unknown concept for many people. A pandemic like this creates significant uncertainty and nervousness, therefore requiring leaders to be extra vigilant in paying close attention to their teams and in steering the business.

From helping employees to avoid feelings of isolation to changing up the way your team works, here are some key points for how to lead a team effectively during this time of distance working.

Place trust in employees

Remote working requires a high degree of trust. In particular, a mindset and culture where people continue to do their job to the best of their ability even when there’s no traditional “supervision”. Leading effectively in a virtual environment means putting trust in your employees. It’s important to check in with your team regularly through email, calls and video conferences, but not in a way that they feel they are constantly being checked up on and watched.

Change up the way your team works

It’s important to understand the personal circumstances of your team in a way you might not have before. Everyone’s context for working from home is unique and requires different types of support. Rather than completing work tasks each day, it may be useful to move your team to a seven-day cycle to deliver work outcomes or perhaps members of your team only work mornings or afternoons to focus on their family commitments. Setting tangible deliverables and managing outcomes, rather than tasks, enables people to better balance their work, life and family commitments.

Have a calm and positive mindset

Be mindful that the emotional and social needs of your team are going to be heightened during this time. It’s important to lead with deliberate calm, optimism and realism. Encourage your team to avoid opinion-based commentary when staying informed.

Maintain social connections virtually

Working from home comes with the risk of feeling isolated. Particularly for those employees who have never worked remotely before and could be experiencing “virtual distance”. It’s key to create and maintain social connections virtually to lift team spirit and create a sense of belonging.

Those short conversations between colleagues whilst in the kitchen making a coffee may seem trivial, but they’re a hugely important part of the workday that can impact on both mood and performance. Try and replicate these virtually by having direct lines of communication within your team; this could be via instant messaging, a team WhatsApp group or weekly video conferences. It may feel a little out of the ordinary to begin with, but you can still do the activities you would normally do in person in a virtual setting, like having lunch together or Friday afternoon drinks.

Be authentic and empathise

There is a huge amount of uncertainty and fear currently, so employees are not just looking for clarity from leadership, but they are also seeking reassurance and encouragement. Emotional intelligence is key right now, as managers need to be able to empathise with their team and help them with any concerns. Authenticity is also vital. Employees will soon see through a leader who is only pretending to care, so it’s important to be completely transparent and honest with your team.

Account for the wellbeing of employees

Given the unprecedented situation that we all find ourselves in, the wellbeing of your team members is something that needs to be considered. Many will have experienced significant upheaval in their work and personal lives.

The non-separation of work and private life can lead to self-management needs employees didn’t have before, such as taking scheduled breaks. Where you can, promote guidance and advice for creating a balanced, productive day. It’s useful for remote employees to develop rituals and have a disciplined approach to managing the day, such as scheduling a start and an end time. And of course, leaders and managers must be a role model for these behaviours.

Take a look at our Guide to Working Remotely here for more tips when working from home.