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Virtual Leadership: How to Effectively Lead Virtual Teams

Teams have been gradually shifting from meeting rooms to chat rooms. Here are a few valuable tips to help you lead your online team.

By Fellow.app  •   April 20, 2022  •   10 min read

The COVID-19 global pandemic has brought about a huge shift from in-person teams to remote work. The change has likely brought a bunch of new and unique challenges to your team, including the big head-scratcher of virtual leadership. Think about it like this: For great team collaboration, you need to forge a working environment that leads to strong relationships among team members. The inherent distance between remote team members makes doing so trickier. 

However, it’s not impossible! Below are some valuable tips to help keep you and your virtual team inspired and productive while working from home.

What is virtual leadership?

Virtual leadership is leadership done remotely rather than face-to-face. We know that answer may seem a little obvious, but it is accurate: Your leadership responsibilities don’t change when you switch from in-person to online. You remain the architect of your organization’s vision and the foundation of its work culture. You still motivate employees to perform at their best. How you handle these responsibilities, though, changes. Leading remote teams often requires a different approach than leading in-person ones. 

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Why is virtual leadership important?

While the pandemic put the pedal to the metal on switching from in-person to virtual work, the writing had been on the wall long before. As technology advanced, offices became less and less necessary. And sure, remote working might never fully replace in-person work, but it’s almost certainly here to stay long-term. 

As a result, virtual leadership becomes necessary. It’s not quite the same as a traditional leadership role – it requires a different mindset. You’ll need to get a bit more creative to keep employees feeling engaged with their work despite their physical distance from their coworkers. 

“The choice is really: are we passengers on this tidal wave of change?” says CEO of Shopify Tobi Lutke, “Or do we jump in the driver’s seat and try to figure out how to build a world-class global company by not getting together that often?”

Important tasks and skills for a virtual leader

Again, effective virtual leadership isn’t that different than in-person – what changes is how you do it. You’re still responsible for steering the ship and setting a company vision to inspire your team. You’re also still responsible for pushing your managers to push their own teams. Generally, the main issue when switching to a virtual working environment is a decrease in collaboration given the lack of face-to-face interaction.

Fret not! Below are a few skills and leadership strategies you can try to help your remote employees stay on track.

1 Staying in touch with your team 

As a virtual leader, you can help your team thrive from home if you stay proactive about communicating with them. Interaction tends to suffer in a remote setting: Why send Slack messages or reach out to team members when you could just power through work? If that sort of thinking continues, your team might not share important info well enough to do anything effectively.

When you can’t rely on physical proximity to stay in touch with your team, you can try holding meetings more often. For example, you could set up monthly or semimonthly one-on-one meetings to understand the challenges each team member faces. You could then work with your team members to overcome these obstacles. In addition, smaller team meetings at the beginning of the workday can allow employees to share the progress they’ve made on their latest tasks.

2 Tracking expectations and goals 

The typical day-to-day operations of most virtual teams can be chaotic – even at the best of times. That’s because an in-person workspace gives your team a consistent schedule, so everyone works on and completes tasks in roughly the same window. But with the switch to online, your team can set their schedule around when they do their best work. Those hours probably won’t look the same for everyone. As a result, you need to adapt your expectations and goals to your team, not the other way around.

There are plenty of ways you can do so. For example, you can set objectives and key results (OKRs) to define company goals and ideal deadlines. You can then store your OKRs somewhere the whole team can see from their computers. Lots of programs, such as Fellow, come with OKR storage spaces and let you track progress on each employee’s tasks. That’s how you get in front of potential issues before they become serious problems – all without in-person work.

3 Communicating well in writing and speech 

Being a good speaker isn’t just about what you say but how you say it. Yes, your words are the foundation for making great points, but facial expression, tone of voice, and body language matter too. These cues can be hard to see as a virtual leader since you’re limited to writing and phone calls. 

Video conferencing is an obvious solution, and though it’s convenient, it’s not perfect. Poor video quality can cause employees to misinterpret facial expressions. That said, it’s often a step up from writing, which can cause worse miscommunications since there are far fewer voice cues to convey tone. Word choice is your friend here – everything you say should be simple and clear yet just detailed enough.

4 Being compassionate

Staying in contact with your team members is key for sharing and receiving updates. It’s also essential in keeping them engaged with the rest of the team, their work, and the whole organization. So when you meet with your team, don’t just focus on what they’ve done for the company. Ask them how they’re doing and show genuine interest – show that you really mean it. This sort of empathy and compassion are among the best skills a virtual leader can learn.

You should remember that a work-from-home position can cause team members to feel isolated, which can negatively impact their mental health and productivity. It’s on you to counter these feelings, and showing employees that they’re more than just a cog in the machine can help. Regular old conversation – almost like the type you’d have with friends – can help your team adjust to remote work. 

5 Using the right communication platform 

As team communication tools get better and better, you’ll have more and more options to speak with your team. But with so many choices, do you send a quick message through chat, write a longer one through email, or schedule a video meeting? Each one has its benefits and drawbacks, so you should learn the type of message best for each communication route. For example:

  • Chat. An instant messaging system such as Slack or Teams is best for quick questions that don’t require much detail to answer. Use your chat tool to get clear but short answers, share deadline updates, or discuss other small things.
  • Email. An email is best for sending one or more recipients long, detailed messages they can look back on later. Usually, emails are best for in-depth directions for a complex project or major company updates that affect every team member. 
  • Video calls. You can use a video call for both major and minor updates. They also come with the added benefit of building better connections within the team. That said, overusing your video conferencing platform can lead to too many meetings and take your team away from its work. You should make your video calls short if you hold them daily, or you can hold a more comprehensive call later in the week. 
  • Phone calls. Since most people have phones, regular old phone calls remain a viable option. They’re often a step up from chat or email, but they don’t have the body language cues of video conferences. Either way, a phone call will still take time away from your team’s other tasks, so keeping it short and sweet might be best.

6 Encouraging honesty and openness  

Collaboration is the bedrock of productivity whether your company is in-person or virtual. For collaboration to thrive in any setting, you should encourage an open and honest work environment where everyone can share ideas. Physical proximity goes a long way in building these connections, and doing so online can be a bit tougher. But you can do it! 

Virtual honesty and openness start with staying in touch with your team. Do that, and you’ll have plenty of chances to model an open dialogue. You can then encourage your team to follow suit. You should avoid shooting down any ideas – being dismissive can make your team afraid to share their thoughts. And that sort of peer feedback is super valuable. It’s how you learn what works best for your team when you can’t be right next to them.

7 Making yourself approachable

This tip may seem strange for a virtual leader, but just because people can’t physically visit your office doesn’t mean you can’t be approachable. If anything, that distance is one of the most important reasons to “keep your door open.” That might mean keeping your little Slack circle green around the clock instead of gray. It could also mean straight-up saying that you’re here if your team members need to talk. Knowing that you’re there to support them can help everyone feel more comfortable with remote work.

8 Giving your team the right resources

Remote work is a significant change – years into it, your team might still feel weird about it. It doesn’t help that, in all likelihood, your team won’t have all the resources to do their job at home. To help keep your employees working at their best, make sure they have everything they need for their jobs at their home office. For example, you could give your team members stipends to buy the tools that might work best for them. These tools could be anything from a new desk chair to a whole software suite.

What are the challenges of virtual leadership?

Any major change in your daily operations comes with its fair share of challenges, and shifting to a remote model is no different. You’ve already learned some of the new skills you’ll have to learn, and below are some obstacles to look out for too.

  • There are many distractions

Some employees thrive within an office environment because it’s relatively free from distractions, so they can get more work done. However, in a remote business model, you might have to contend with your team’s kids, pets, and other distractions to keep their attention. Even the TV two rooms over or the kitchen with all the tasty snacks can be distractions.

  • Not everyone will be able to adjust

Younger team members will have grown up with video conferencing technology, so they’ll likely have no problem adapting to remote work. But older team members can be a different story. Most older team members will need an adjustment period to get used to the work-from-home setup, and some might struggle more than others. In addition, their lack of comfort with online tools could potentially cause them to disengage from their work entirely.

  • You could lose sight of the big picture

As you and your team continuously adapt to remote work, you may spend more time putting out fires than guiding the company. That’s inevitable: When you first switch to remote work, it can feel like all hands on deck. And even after you’re long adjusted, every new remote hire you make introduces the potential for a bit of chaos. If you lose sight of overall business strategy while you solve problems, delegate certain tasks to managers so you can focus on the big picture, 

Success no matter the setting

Ideally, switching from an office setting to a virtual one would come after a long planning period. However, as the pandemic shows us, the choice isn’t always in our hands. It’s best to have tools like Fellow in your corner so that you all can stay on your feet as you adjust – and long after. With top-notch goal-tracking tools, online meeting templates, peer feedback features, and more, Fellow has almost everything you’ll need to lead anytime, anywhere.

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