Virtual Leadership: Opportunities and Challenges

In all articles by Martin Scheuplein

Good collaboration is becoming increasingly important in companies in the VUCA world.

But what if specialists with different areas of expertise work from different locations, as is often the case since the beginning of the COVID crisis?

Many experts think, that working from home is here to stay. In any case, this poses new challenges for your team leadership: Remote leadership and virtual leadership are the buzzwords of the day for managers in a dynamic environment.

Virtual leadership development

The “new normal” had already begun its triumphal march before the Corona crisis:
For example, home office work has been common for many organizational, strategic, and creative activities for several years now. No wonder, digitization enables (collaborative) work and learning independent of local presence. The number of “flexible workers” – including, for example, those who practice work & travel – has been growing steadily, even extending to permanent stays abroad.
When the pandemic happened it has given”remote work” another big boost.
A large number of companies and employees are taking advantage of the opportunities that have resulted from the fact that working from home has become the new standard.
But what does it mean for leaders?

How to be a good virtual leader

There is no doubt that the topic “leadership” is taking on a whole new meaning with the developments that have been ushered in: Remote leadership is more in demand than ever before. Digital offerings are available for exchange, communication, and project management.
But these cannot always compensate for the absence of the  “human factor” that results from a physical distance. The major challenge for managers and the team: When supervisors, team leaders, or project managers are located in a different place than their team members – and these, in turn, have no personal touchpoints due to different work locations.
Responsibilities of a virtual leader:

  • The manager has to keep track  – and, if necessary, control – of who is work allocation, progress and deadlines. It is important to gain a holistic overview of the team.
  • It is important to ensure that everyone in the team is pursuing the same goal and does not lose sight of the strategic objectives.
  • Each individual must get the support that is needed.
  • Communication between team members must be guaranteed.

The “human factor” is a crucial concern in remote leadership: good communication and interaction are the primary factors. In this new situation, managers and project leaders take on a coordinating function on the one hand – they have the overview and keep “the big picture” together.  At the same time, they act as coaches and enablers– they act as supporters and mediators, especially for their team’s openended questions.

What is virtual leadership?

In the VUCA world (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity), work is changing faster than ever before. The current focus shifting towards working flexibly. Classic leadership cannot be fully adopted here, because virtual teams work differently. In light of these circumstances, new roles and ways of working are required. The term “virtual leadership” sums up the resulting change in situations that a manager has to face: Above all, communication is changing – and with it the work culture. Additional technologies are required to manage the associated processes.

Virtual collaboration: Trust instead of control

Less control, more freedom: Managers do not always find this maxim easy to accept.
The fear of declining motivation prevails. But does this scenario correspond to reality?
Numerous studies point in the opposite direction: If the team works completely or to a considerable extent on a remote basis, results and not attendance hours count.
This leads to a mindset shift on all sides – and changing priorities.
Employees and managers focus on what really counts. However, where daily contact is lacking, clearly defined KPIs are needed to assess projects’ progress and which colleagues are on the move. With it comes a need in technologies, that enable measurability.

Managers are rurning into virtual leaders

  • Managing (remote) communication between team members
  • Organizing and facilitating videoconferences
  • Providing clarity on technology issues (such as what software to use for meetings)
  • Controlling work instructions also via mail or project management tools
  • Establishing clear rules and agreed up-on goals
  • Being the contact person for questions and problems

How does virtual leadership succeed?

If the structural and organizational prerequisites are lacking, the virtual collaboration will not work. But also without the right technology, remote leadership is doomed to failure. What is important?

Human touchpoints in virtual collaboration

The most important factor for good virtual collaboration is structuring the points of contact between colleagues and between managers and team members.
The range of options extends from classic, ad hoc, demand-driven meetings to more regular exchanges, such as weekly meetings, to a web-based “open office model”:
Here, everyone joins a shared virtual room. Everyone’s camera stays on, to ensure ongoing contact within the team.
Whether this form of collaboration is desired remains a matter of taste. Some will be happy with fast digital coordination channels, others will feel like they’re in “Big Brother” and reject the ongoing view over their shoulder into their own home office.

The right technology for remote leadership

No matter which model is chosen: Technology is a critical success factor for successful collaboration. But which software is best suited to support remote leadership?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.
Many companies already have guidelines for the use of software. In any case, it should be examined whether, , it makes sense to introduce solutions for project management and storage, in addition to video conferencing and chat technology.

Opportunities vs. problems of virtual leadership

Virtual collaboration brings benefits to everyone involved in a Remote leadership context .. However, quite a few challenges must be addressed.

Opportunities

Challenges

Flexible working modelsSome managers may find the decline in management and control options problematic
Increased agility due to location independenceUncertainty among employees about their roles, tasks, and priorities
Establishment of heterogeneous (project) teams even across locations, national borders, and continentsA feeling of isolation working from home
Increased level of freedom and personal responsibility for employeesTeam spirit suffers due to physical distance
Enhancement of a “culture of trust”Conflicts due to missing or reduced facial expressions and gestures
Virtual knowledge sharingLack of technical know-how becomes a stumbling block for exchange and communication
Satisfaction, productivity, and willingness to perform increaseIdentification with colleagues and tasks could decrease
Cost savings as a result of reduced travel costs as well as for office space and materials 

Remote onboarding for executives

A special challenge for managers in the course of remote leadership is the onboarding process when hiring new employees. This process often requires close support during the initial period. A well-thought-out approach is essential – and pitfalls must be avoided.
Managers – under the leadership of the Human Resources department – should use a process structured over several phases. This ensures that new colleagues can also be successfully trained while working from home. For them in particular, it is only through intensive contact with the team and their manager, that they will be able to integrate themselves optimally and deliver the performance they are looking for.

Create a space for informal exchange

Today, new ideas are rarely born in a garage somewhere – and instead more often at lunch.
Or during casual chats in the coffee kitchen.
This is also the place where new contacts are made – both between managers and their team and among colleagues. Currently, in many cases, this is not possible. Where the simple chat falls away, it should be shifted to the virtual space instead. Ideally, not only meetings should take place online, but also informal exchanges.

Tip: Enable networking across divisions, locations, and countries with Mystery Coffee!