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Why Is Virtual Leadership Important?

By Alex Larralde
Updated May 2, 2022
7 minute read

This rise of virtual work in response to the pandemic has changed many people’s expectations of their employers. Employees now expect more autonomy and flexibility in their work. They want to be managed based on the outcomes they produce rather than the amount of time they spend in meetings. Effective virtual leadership must adapt to this changing leadership landscape to guide successful hybrid and remote teams.

Here’s why effective leadership of virtual teams is essential and how to foster virtual leadership development in your organization.

Remote Leadership Facets That Drive Success

Virtual leaders are powerful connectors between employees and the business. They need to be effective communicators to keep employees aligned, even when they aren’t face-to-face. Communication, feedback, and recognition (CFR) help employees working from home understand their value and how they can continue to blossom within the workforce. 

Employees want continuous conversations with managers to discuss what they want to accomplish for the business, what the business needs, and what they want to do next with their careers. Employees need to know that their manager invests in their development. Virtual leaders using a CFR model provide essential touchpoints that allow employees to see the company’s commitment to achieving their potential.

Explore Different Leadership Styles

Over the years, a select few leadership styles have dominated the workplace. As organizations become less autocratic and more representative, leadership styles have evolved to support changing workplace norms. Here are some of the leadership styles you may have in your workforce. 

Transactional

Transactional leadership enforces rules and roles. It’s a top-down leadership model that rewards employees for succeeding (doing what they were told to do) and punishes them for failing (not doing what they were told to do). 

Transactional leaders don’t try to veer from the status quo; they simply reinforce existing rules and expectations. There’s no room for creativity or autonomy for team members performing the work.

Transactional leaders also have a narrow definition of employee success. This model only rewards employees for following their given orders. Personal initiative or innovative ideas are not rewarded within a transactional leadership model.

Authoritarian

Authoritarian leadership concentrates power within the leader alone. It’s an autocratic leadership model where only the manager sets goals or assigns tasks. Employees have no autonomy or meaningful participation in any of these processes.

Authoritarian leaders may not communicate effectively with employees or choose not to explain the reasoning behind assigning specific tasks. Leaders expect employees to simply carry out the assignments they receive—without questioning them or offering any suggestions. This method almost certainly stifles employee creativity.

Authoritarian leaders often believe that employees need close supervision to achieve their tasks. This belief can lead to employees feeling trapped and disengaging from work.

Delegative

Delegative leadership gives power to the people. Leaders in this model provide the resources employees need to make decisions and complete the work, but they don’t dictate any of it. Delegative leaders rely heavily on team members to keep the work flowing with little supervision.

In this leadership model, employees can share their expertise and contribute in a more profound, meaningful way. However, too much autonomy can derail productivity. If employees are left to make their own decisions, work processes may fall off track. 

Delegative leaders choose to be less involved in the daily operations of their team, but not having overarching guidance can put work business results at risk. Leaders are essential for closing the loop between people, strategy, and results.

Transformational

Transformational leaders encourage team members to take ownership of their work. They’re less focused on strategy and more invested in helping the team members work better together to produce the best results possible. Transformational leaders are typically most beneficial in leading employees through change.

Transformational leaders encourage the workforce to do more than the status quo. Unlike transactional leaders, transformational leaders see beyond the rules and the roles to empower employees to bring their initiative and creativity to their work. 

Encouraging employees to take ownership of their work leads to better results. But de-emphasizing your strategy can create gaps between the work performed and the business’s goals. Not seeing the purpose of their work can put employees at a disadvantage.

Participative

Participative leaders involve employees in important decisions. They invite team members to participate in strategic conversations—sharing their input and experiences with leaders. 

This leadership style can increase employee engagement and support better workforce decisions since employees on the frontlines are best-equipped to provide crucial insights. It can also help employees feel more involved with the business and give them a greater sense of purpose in their work.

However, leaders are still responsible for making the best decisions for the business. Participative leaders must stay transparent with their employees and let them know what factors come into play when decision-making.

Which Leadership Style is Best for Virtual Teams?

The best virtual leadership style borrows elements from both transformational and participative leadership styles. While neither type alone offers exactly what employees need from virtual leadership, taking the best aspects of both helps virtual leaders manage remote teams more effectively.

Virtual teams need flexibility and autonomy to find success in remote work. They need to be able to sustain tasks and projects with little oversight. Transformational leadership’s emphasis on employee ownership and initiative supports this outcome.

Virtual teams also need to feel connected to each other and the business. Remote work can feel isolating, and employees can’t gauge their performance effectively without regular contact with leaders and peers. Participative leadership involves the workforce in strategic conversations, allowing them to share their expertise and input to drive the business forward.

5 Best Practices for Effective Virtual Leadership

Virtual leaders face a different set of challenges from leaders in traditional roles. That means they need to operate from a different playbook to meet those challenges. Here are some best practices for virtual leaders.

Reinforce Transparency Throughout the Team

Transparency is necessary for building trust among team members. When employees are at risk of feeling isolated, transparent communication can ground them in the business and the team’s work.

Virtual leaders are responsible for setting and maintaining transparency in the team. Leaders can do this by communicating openly with team members and encouraging candid communication from them in return.

Create Communication Guidelines

Consistent communication is essential to leading remote teams. Virtual leaders need to set clear expectations and guidelines for when and how to communicate with team members. Without clear guidelines, an employee may send an urgent message via email instead of text or some other instant messaging app, not knowing that their colleague may not check their email soon enough.

Creating communication guidelines can be a collaborative activity for the whole team to share their communication preferences. Take this opportunity to vote on ground rules for when and how to send communications of varying urgencies.

Invest in Continuous Communication and Feedback

Continuous communication and feedback help leaders keep employees in the loop. Regular check-ins help managers track workloads, remove daily obstacles, and provide feedback on performance.

Constant feedback can do more to improve performance than online training programs. Feedback is customized to the employees’ specific tasks and needs, allowing managers to help them plan their future in the company. Effective remote leaders communicate regularly with team members and provide actionable feedback.

Create Ethical Virtual Leadership Guidelines

We’re still learning how to lead effective teams in virtual environments. As you find what that means to your workforce, develop virtual leadership guidelines to codify actions and behaviors that drive virtual teams forward.

As you redefine leadership for your virtual workforce, maintain the same ethics you’ve committed to in other business areas. Often, this comes down to maintaining transparency and building trust — and encouraging employees to do the same.

The conversation about virtual leadership is also an excellent opportunity to reconsider diversity in leadership. Virtual leadership opens new possibilities for leaders from historically excluded groups, like women of color or individuals with disabilities. Take diversity into account as you set new guidelines for leadership at your company.

Recognize and Reward Good Remote Leadership

Leading large or small teams in a virtual environment isn’t easy. It’s important to acknowledge the contributions of remote leaders and reward those behaviors.

Build virtual leadership assessment into performance appraisals for managers. Use the guidelines you’ve developed for virtual leadership to evaluate individual performance. Since many interactions between managers and employees may happen through private channels and not be available to evaluate, implement 360-degree feedback to gather perspectives from the manager’s direct reports.

5 Virtual Leadership Development Activities

Virtual leadership training requires more than virtual classroom activities. Future leadership skills for remote workplaces can be learned best simply by doing them. Here are some ways to incorporate virtual leadership activities to build skills for leaders into your daily workflows.

Internships and Volunteering

Internships aren’t just for students. Internal internship programs are an excellent opportunity to foster virtual leadership abilities. Give promising future leaders the chance to exercise their skills through an extended internship or project lead on a lengthy project. 

Allow employees to volunteer to lead projects in a remote environment, too. This opportunity can help them build skills in virtual leadership on a small scale before moving them up to management roles. If you have promising potential leaders on your virtual team, ask them if they’re interested in leading small projects or assignments.

Active Listening

Active listening is one of the most critical skills virtual leaders must exercise. For example, they need to be able to pick up on cues from team members that could indicate trouble they’re facing or when someone is feeling disengaged with their work. Employees need to know that leaders are listening to their needs or input.

Active listening is a skill, and just like any other skill, leaders can learn it. Help leadership candidates practice active listening through situational judgment exercises. For example, give them a scenario where an employee tells them about a problem they’re experiencing. Ask leadership candidates to practice parroting back what the employee is saying, but in their own words to gauge their comprehension.

Passion Projects

Allowing leadership candidates to gravitate toward specific projects is an effective way to train virtual leaders. They’re more likely to build habits like attention to detail and active listening if the project is something that they’re genuinely interested in.

Use passion projects as a training ground for leadership candidates to put their virtual leadership skills into action. For example, leading a project offers an excellent opportunity for future leaders to facilitate virtual meetings to collect input from the team and make good decisions. 

Team Building Games

Team building activities are especially important in a virtual environment. They help build some of the qualities you need to virtually lead effective teams, like trust, active listening, and empathy.

Virtual escape rooms are a popular option for team building. Escape rooms require participants to work together to solve challenges to progress. Leadership candidates can practice virtual leadership by facilitating collaborative problem-solving conversations.

Simply getting to know each other is vital for virtual leadership, too. Virtual happy hours with the team give employees opportunities to visit with each other in a non-work context. Tools like Donut through Slack match employees up for virtual coffee dates or informal chats, so employees can get to know each other. 

These meetings give leadership candidates opportunities to get to know their colleagues better and practice soft skills like empathy and emotional intelligence.

Brainstorming Changes

Virtual leaders have to learn to communicate effectively and facilitate productive conversations. Leading brainstorming sessions about work-related topics is an important activity for practicing virtual leadership skills.

Have leadership candidates guide discussion around a specific topic, like a work process that needs improvement. They need to learn to engage every team member in conversations—especially the people who don’t ordinarily speak up on their own. Drawing ideas out from team members and respecting every concept brought to the table are key behaviors of virtual leaders.

Setting the Future of Virtual Leadership

Leadership—as we know it—has moved on from older, more authoritarian leadership styles. As work and the workforce continue to evolve, how we lead employees must grow, too. Virtual leadership must continue providing the foundation and value employees need to thrive in any environment.

Employees today demand more support and flexibility from leaders than ever. Virtual leadership will continue evolving to provide for employee needs while meeting your business goals.

Find out why agile leadership matters for your organization.

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