Virtual leadership: Ultimate guide (skills and practices)

by Liam Martin
virtual leadership

Are you managing a virtual team, but are confused about how to do it right?

With the COVID-19 pandemic, working in a virtual setting has become the new norm with a sudden rise in remote workers, working from home. 

As a result, some managers have suddenly found themselves in uncharted waters, dealing with teams that are no longer on-site. And while you might think leading virtual teams is the same as leading in-house ones, it’s really not the case. 

Successful virtual leadership requires a little more ingenuity. 

But don’t worry.

In this article, we’ll look at the skills and practices you can apply to improve your virtual leadership.

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What skills should a virtual leader possess?

When leading a remote team, there are many virtual leadership skills you need to possess to get your team to deliver effectively.

Learning leadership skills is useful in order to develop the qualities of good leadership that are essential for career and organizational success.

For example, how do you connect with your virtual team

It’s not just about picking up the phone or emailing your virtual workforce. To be an effective virtual leader, you need to connect with your team at a human level, beyond what technology provides. 

Let’s take a look at some essential skills you need to lead your team to their productive best from home:

1. Know how to utilize technology

You can’t communicate with your virtual team without technology. 

Effective virtual teams use various technologies to execute their remote work. Knowing how to utilize virtual work technology is critical to your success. 

Whether it’s a meeting, chat or project management app, you should master the technology available to you. Unfortunately, some on-site managers who transition to virtual leadership may find themselves uncomfortable dealing with all the technology at first. 

But they shouldn’t worry too much. 

Most remote work apps are developed for easy usage, like meeting software such as Webex or Zoom. This makes getting used to them a piece-of-cake.

2. Have excellent communication skills

Effective communication with your team is another major hurdle in virtual leadership.  

Remember, you lose that face to face interaction you have with on-site team members when dealing with remote teams. Sure, you can use a video conferencing app to see your virtual team members – but it still won’t be the same as having them in the same room. 

For example, you won’t have the cues from body language. If your technology is glitchy, you’ll lose facial expression and tone of voice too. 

Additionally, if you’re dealing with a globally diverse team, not everyone will comprehend informal uses of words. Some may not understand references or get jokes that are local to your area. 

So, there’s a lot to think about how, and what to convey when you talk to your virtual team. 

Here’s what you can do to communicate with your team effectively:

A. Manage the cadence of your speech

Use proper cadence when you speak. Don’t talk too fast, or your team members might miss some of your words. Don’t talk too slow, or you might end up boring them. 

Verbal delivery is something you can practice when you’re offline. Record yourself and listen to the way you talk and pronounce words. Get a mirror and note your facial expressions when you speak. 

Seeing and hearing how others may perceive you, can improve your virtual communication style.

B. Be clear and concise

Always be clear and concise with your instructions, so that your virtual team members understand what is expected of them. 

If you know what you want your team members to do, draft out your instructions to avoid wasting time figuring out what to say. And if you have to decide on the spot, take the time to think about it, and apply practical actions. Try not to speak the first thing that comes to mind. 

C. Listen to your team’s feedback

Effective communication is also about listening to your team’s feedback. Listen with the intention to understand, and not to respond. This will help you better connect with each speaker.

Additionally, you can lead by example and utilize your own speaking methods to indirectly coach your team on how to communicate. 

3. Develop your team’s trust in you

In a virtual workplace, developing trust in your team, and having them return that trust is incredibly crucial. 

As you can’t see each other at work, you must trust that everyone is doing what they should. 

Your team needs to have faith in your leadership decisions, or you’ll get a disjointed group of individuals – not a team. 

To be willing to follow your lead, your team members must trust and respect you. 

So, what can you do to encourage trust? 

A. Encourage open dialogue

Having an open and honest relationship with your team is important. Encourage open dialogue between you and avoid micromanaging them. 

To know what is truly going on with their work situation, you need their candid feedback, without them fearing judgment or reprimand. 

If your team is unwilling to communicate their issues, you won’t know how to help them. And you might lose out on some great ideas because your team doesn’t trust that you will listen.

B. Make yourself accessible

A virtual team leader must be willing to make themselves accessible and available to team members.

What does this mean? 

Accessible leadership is becoming easily approachable, like having an open-door policy in a physical office.

Unfortunately, most managers can be seen as someone distant who only distributes assignments. 

This won’t work for a virtual team. 

Leading teams that are physically apart requires you to close that gap. Let your team know that you’re there to listen to, and support them – whenever they need.

4. Motivate and empower your team

Working in isolation can be difficult.

 In traditional teams, you could feed off your co-workers’ energy to motivate you to keep at your task. But this energy is missing in a virtual world. 

So how do you deal with this?

A. Motivation

How does a virtual leader motivate a dispersed team?

Good remote leaders encourage virtual collaboration. Promote teamwork by collaborating yourself, instead of just issuing orders. 

Use virtual team building activities to build the relationship between you and your team members. 

B. Empowerment

There’ll be times when your team members need to make quick decisions without first getting your approval. 

As a virtual leader, trust that they can make the right judgment and allow them to exercise the authority to complete their tasks. Empowering your team is about letting this happen and supporting decisions that are made by your team. 

5. Develop emotional intelligence

What is emotional intelligence, and how does it affect your virtual leadership?

Having and developing emotional intelligence (also known as Emotional Quotient or EQ) will help you manage the stress and emotions faced in a virtual leadership role.

Emotional intelligence has four major elements: 

  • Self-management – Ability to control impulsive behavior and feelings.
  • Self-awareness – Recognizing your emotions and their effect on your thoughts and behavior. 
  • Social awareness – Empathy and the ability to comprehend the emotions and concerns of others.
  • Relationship management – Communicating clearly, developing and maintaining good personal relationships with others.

Engaging your emotional intelligence helps you build strong relationships with your remote team. Strong connections will improve employee engagement levels, collaboration and team culture.

Join a virtual leadership program or webinar to help you improve your EQ. Additionally, as a participant in a virtual classroom, you can practice being in a virtual setting and experience how virtual communication should be conducted.

6. Lead with empathy

Your leadership style can have a direct impact on team performance. 

How does leading with empathy influence this? 

We’ve already touched on the importance of communication. But communication doesn’t just cover the verbal and written forms. 

To be an excellent virtual leader, you need to get in touch with your team members at an emotional level. 

Check in with your team individually and use face to face interactions to see how they’re doing. Ask about their families, their hobbies, or something interesting they saw on social media. Empathize with them to show a shared understanding – letting them know that you see them as a person – not just an employee.

When you lead with empathy, you create an element of humanity in an otherwise detached virtual environment. This helps eliminate the sense of isolation that virtual workers can experience, allowing them to feel like they’re part of a live community.

7. Be self-motivated

An effective leader should plan their actions, and behave in ways that are organized and purposeful. If you, as a team leader, need a lot of direction (perhaps from other senior leaders) in a remote role, it may become hard for you to manage and motivate your team. 

You need to be self-motivated to keep on improving your necessary leadership skills to be effective. Leadership development, after all, is not something that is completed in a day!

7 simple practices for effective virtual leadership  

Developing technological know-how and soft skills are just one part of effective virtual leadership. The other part is knowing the right work practices to employ in a virtual setting.

Here are seven practices for effective virtual leadership:

1. Use appropriate channels for communication

Communication Channels

One of the obstacles faced by virtual teams is getting the message across to one another. You can’t just pop-by your colleague’s desk and chat, right? 

However, if everyone uses different methods of communicating – some by email, others by text messages or calls – you’ll end up with an incoherent pile of information. This can result in important details getting lost.

As a virtual leader, what can you do to streamline the communication process?

For starters, set rules on the correct communication channels. 

Most virtual teams avoid emails because it’s too cumbersome. Many employ the use of chat apps like Slack that have their own chat channels for specific topics. This keeps all work-related communication in one place. 

However, you’ll still need to use other communication methods like video conferencing for calls and team meetings, and project management apps to track task assignments or send files. The important thing is getting your virtual project team on the same page over what methods to use to share information. 

2. Have meetings only when necessary

Traditional teams often have daily meetings for updates and status reporting. This is impractical for virtual teams.

Remember, remote workers could be located in different time zones. They may not always be available, and having frequent meetings disrupts their work processes.

A good virtual manager understands when a meeting is absolutely necessary, and when just a quick email announcement is sufficient. 

3. Stay in contact with your remote team

You may not have frequent meetings with your entire virtual team, but you can still talk to them through chat apps.

Be proactive about staying in contact with your entire team. Check in with their project status, the problems they’re facing, or the help they need. For detailed updates, you can do weekly, or bi-weekly video meetings with specific team members. 

4. Have realistic expectations on availability

One of the reasons employees appreciate virtual working is because of the flexible hours.

Virtual leaders should be aware of this fact, and not set unrealistic expectations on availability. 

For example, if a remote employee doesn’t respond to a message immediately, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re slacking off. After all, they could have muted notifications to concentrate on work or be on a break.

When you communicate realistic expectations on availability, everyone stays happier in their roles. It also conveys your trust in your virtual team, which can count a lot in them trusting you. 

5. Set and monitor goals

Measurable goals are essential, as individual and virtual team success is usually judged via a project or task outcome.

It’s your responsibility as a leader to clarify your goals and guidelines, so that your team is clear on their direction. Monitor their progress and have practical strategies in place so that goals can be reasonably met. 

6. Give your team the resources they need to be productive

You want your team to be as productive as possible, right?

But if they don’t have the right resources or environment to be at their productive best, that’s never going to happen.

So how do you help your employees help themselves when it comes to remote work?

By using a handy employee productivity tool like Time Doctor!

What is Time Doctor?

Time Doctor Homepage

Time Doctor is a powerful employee productivity software used by large companies like Ericsson, as well as SMBs like Thrive Market. It’s especially handy for remote team situations as it helps your employees see how well they’re doing and assists them in boosting their own productivity easily. 

Time Doctor can help your team:

  • Analyze their own productivity via comprehensive, detailed reports.
  • Stay actively working during work hours.
  • Track productivity across various platforms, like Asana and Jira.
  • Monitor time spent with a powerful Android mobile app.
  • Get paid for the hours they put in via the payroll feature.

7. Recognize achievements and invest in your team

Everyone appreciates being recognized for their efforts.

And that’s no different for virtual teams. 

Make sure to give credit and thanks for every remote team member’s achievements. 

This goes a long way in making your team feel appreciated and valued.  

If you see the potential for growth in your team, invest in their talents and abilities. Use virtual learning platforms or enroll them in a virtual program to further develop their skills. Doing this shows that you value their output and want them to grow.

Final thoughts

Virtual leadership can be a complicated subject to maneuver. And simply using in-house leadership methods for a virtual team, might not give you the best results.

And while coronavirus will eventually go away, virtual teams are definitely here to stay. So it makes sense for companies to invest in training their leadership to be more efficient and empathetic.
Go over the tips and practices we listed here to develop a leadership style that facilitates improved remote team performance. This way, you can easily develop and maintain a happy, productive and successful virtual team.

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