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Building virtual leadership skills that last

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Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re still figuring out what virtual leadership looks like.

Maybe your business is familiar with this sort of experiment: Face-to-face meetings were replaced with video conferencing in an attempt to replicate the office environment, but Zoom or Skype fatigue eventually set in. 

You’ve started re-evaluating which meetings are truly essential. Maybe you’ve created new communications guidelines or tweaked check-in schedules for your team, which is operating in a remote capacity indefinitely. None of this is a bad thing. In fact, accepting fluidity is essential to evolving your virtual operations. After all, supporting a remote workplace will be a staple of nearly all successful, talent optimized organizations moving forward. 

Virtual leadership needs to be flexible and open-minded. That means: 

  • Sharpening communication skills in different mediums
  • Recognizing the different needs of virtual team members 
  • Refining leadership style to be more empathetic 

Perhaps you’ve already figured this out. If you’re still working through it, that’s okay. Let’s dive into what each priority entails.

Related: Essential Leadership Skills That Make Great Leaders

Sharpening communication skills in different mediums

Let’s start with video conferencing. If your organization isn’t using video to communicate with team members on a regular basis, perhaps you have smaller or less-dispersed teams. Otherwise, it’s become the default stand-in for face-to-face meetings in most orgs. Check-ins, team meetings, and brainstorming sessions all seem like natural fits for face time.

But an effective leader will recognize it’s not as simple as simply switching the forum. Certain team members are going to take less readily to the dynamics of video-based meetings, as a result of their behavioral drives and preferences. 

Where a more introverted employee might feel comfortable contributing to an in-person discussion, video can prove difficult to navigate. Now, they need to find the perfect pause in conversation—and the mute button—without the same benefit of body language cues. 

The lesson many virtual team leaders are learning? Video isn’t always best. To guard against video fatigue and cater to different preferences, consider switching it up with:

  • Pre-recorded media (i.e., Soapbox)
  • Slack or email communication to ensure documentation
  • Shared documents or virtual collaboration tools like Figma 
  • Phone calls for 1 on 1s

Taking it a step further, if you’re conducting a phone call with a colleague, take a walk (and encourage them to do the same if they’re so inclined). You might be amazed by the clarity and creativity gained from going outside and getting your body moving, even while talking “work.” 

Capable leaders are already good at the “people stuff.” But the best virtual leaders are also good at experimenting; they’re unafraid of a little technical trial and error. Don’t be afraid to try new tools, both for your own professional development and for the benefit of your colleagues. 

Recognizing the needs of virtual team members

Running a remote team is complicated. And the greater the headcount, the more nuanced the challenges for virtual leadership. Not only must you wrestle with your own stressors and limitations, which may be accentuated during a crisis, but you’ve also got to consider everyone else’s needs. 

The dynamics of a strained, fully remote workplace put a premium on emotional intelligence. Your relationships with your employees matter now more than ever. But it’s tough to feel connected to people when you only see them through screens or text. 

Maybe you’ve met some of your virtual team members before, having worked with them in the office. Or maybe you have some newer people in different time zones, and the rapport-building process has been complicated, if not stunted, by the distance. 

To manage a successful virtual team, regardless of its size, tenure or function, you must regularly ask questions like:

  • Who’s sacrificing what?
  • What else do they have going on?
  • What logistics does this entail?
  • How should I communicate this to this person?
  • Do I need to provide more context here?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to any of these questions. That’s what makes understanding not only behavioral drives, but team work styles, so important. As a leader, remember that your influence is heightened, and that every communication you send out may be magnified. Likewise, your team members may tend to overthink the wording of your Slack messages, or an impromptu meeting you put on the calendar. 

It’s no easy feat, by any means, but be sure to consider tone and reception in every move you make with remote employees. 

remote work-life balance

Refining leadership style to be more empathetic

The best leaders prioritize empathy as a core component of their leadership style. But virtual work requires an even greater level of understanding and flexibility. This is especially true in crisis. To say our current times are unprecedented almost doesn’t do it justice. 

Your employees are contending not only with social distancing, remote work, and isolation, but extreme, unsettling uncertainty. Public health, an unstable economy, and civic unrest are all weighing heavily on people’s minds. To act like this isn’t the case would be tone deaf and disingenuous. You risk alienating yourself and other team members if you attempt to go about business as usual.

Suffice it to say, your old leadership style may no longer be appropriate. Where compassion and empathy might have been in your toolbelt before, deployed on an as-needed basis, they should now guide your approach in most if not all situations. 

In these transitional times, extraverts are getting a lot of attention for the human interaction they’re missing out on. But in reality, it’s leaders who normally exhibit high dominance who may be under the most pressure to adjust. You can’t dictate project management in the same ways, and you certainly can’t foster employee engagement through a my-way-or-the-highway leadership approach. 

But empathy doesn’t have to be preconceived or overwrought. Sometimes it just means taking time to ask people how they’re doing, before launching into business. You may not feel comfortable initiating a conversation on race relations, but as a virtual team leader you can make efforts at openness by asking:

  • How’s everyone doing?
  • Are we feeling distracted from work?
  • What do you need support with? 

Encourage people to be vulnerable and expressive. Take time to listen without feeling you need to have all the answers. And remember to sprinkle in some humor. Simply offering a forum for conversation can go a long way, as it helps team members feel seen and heard. It’ll also relieve you of the need to always have an agenda or rigid structure for the conversation.

Setting the tone for a healthy virtual environment

It won’t always be like this. The world will return to something close to normal eventually, and with it, the workplace will revert to something more familiar as well. 

But the virtual workplace is here to stay. The question is really just this: In what form will it take shape? By emphasizing empathy and promoting good virtual leadership skills now, you and your team will build trust, goodwill, and confidence for the future.

And that will make any return to remote work—whether it’s brief or for another long haul—that much smoother. 


Jenny is the VP of Marketing at PI.

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