How to thrive as a virtual leader

27 May 2020 | 7 min read | News
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

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COVID-19 has changed our world, indefinitely. It has altered relationships, both for the good and the not-so-good; it has tested our individual boundaries; it has placed a well-needed spotlight on our front-line workers, and it has dramatically changed the workplace, potentially forever.  

If we thought everything was online before COVID, I’m not sure what we would call this new age of true virtual reality. Everything is online now, from our shopping to our medication, our families to our offices, and whilst some of these may be temporarily online, some are here to stay.  

The working world has become a lot more agile, the offices a little smaller and the employees, potentially, a lot more productive. But, if this online world is here to stay for a large majority of the world’s workforce, as leaders, how do we avoid ‘Zoom fatigue’? A newly coined term from the past eight weeks to explain the reason as to why we all feel so incredibly drained after a day of virtual conference calls; whether it’s anxiety around technology, using more energy to read into facial cues and voice pitch or excessive screen time, employees are feeling the strain.  

So, how do you become an effective virtual leader? How do you maintain the energy of your workforce in the same way you do in the office? How to you continue to strengthen your brand without proximity to clients and prospects? How do you uplift and enlighten when times get testing and, how do you motivate and engage large groups of people from miles away?  

It won’t always be easy, but it will always possible.  

Leadership and personal branding  

Your business, first and foremost, reflects you as a leader. Your personal brand is what will make or break the start-up and journey of your company and a lot of the time, this branding is built or broken on content and thought leadership that you put out into the ether.  

What we know of this personal branding business in the real-world changes quite significantly in the virtual one. Research has found that when people are attending a webinar or a conference call, attention is focused more-so on the likeability of the host rather than the quality of the content being produced – the complete opposite to events such as these when in person. But this doesn’t mean that we can all get away with spouting shit instead, the challenge is to find a way to be both likeable AND remembered for what you said.  

The characteristics of an online likeable leader 

Adaptability  

Many business leaders will have been thrust into a situation whereby they are having to conduct meetings and manage teams through their computer screens. It is highly likely this is the first time they’ve had to do this and so it’s important to understand people on an individual basis. 

Some members of the team will be extremely uncomfortable with working from home and away from their colleagues with whom they work closely with, bounce ideas off, and generally enjoy the buzz of the office and the cultural aspect that comes with being in a physical workspace. Others will thrive in such an environment, free from the distractions of everyday chatter (and office politics) and will relish being able to focus more of their time and energies on the projects that matter most. 

Understanding these things is critical to knowing how to manage people. Each person has their own requirements and preferred ways of doing things, and it is the responsibility of the leader to recognise what these are and adjust their leadership style accordingly. 

Empathy, humour and rigorous time management 

The virtual environment creates a unique opportunity for business leaders to truly schedule a workday they can achieve maximum efficiency in. Above all else, I do believe it is a matter of understanding oneself. Just because you are a leader, it doesn’t mean you are suited to all environments. I know several my peers who don’t like the relative isolation of working virtually, yet others I know excel in such conditions.  

For myself, I like to work in sprints. That is 90 minutes interrupted whereby I focus on one specific task or a few smaller ones that can each be completed within that timeframe. This is not always possible in the physical environment, but it most definitely is in the virtual one and I use that to my advantage.  

When in the office environment, I take a slightly different approach which involves working for 45 minutes in one sitting and then allocating the final 15 minutes of that hour to speak to others in the senior leadership team or address any questions that people elsewhere in the team may have. 

It’s important to remember that fun and humour doesn’t come from physical proximity, and it’s crucial to make sure this still exists within your virtual team. Not all Zoom meetings have to be heavy conference calls, they can be check-ins with your team to share a joke, have a brew and download.  

Micromanagement will get you nowhere 

The key to successfully communicating with teams is to know when to back off and back down. For example, in our business we run daily morning meetings online and I will attend no more than two each week. This isn’t because I do not value them or simply want to reduce the number of meetings that I am already attending each week; rather, it is about recognising that there is such a thing as over communication, whereby leaders feel the need to constantly be in contact with their teams. They don’t. 

All they need to do is trust their people to get on with doing the job they do so well, whilst clearly communicating that they are available any time should they be needed; thereby, empowering people and giving them a sense of greater responsibility in their work.  

The downside of being in a physical office, is that when people have a question, they will invariably bring it to the leader rather than trying to find the answer in advance for themselves. In a virtual environment, this process is largely eliminated and this in turn helps to develop individuals’ knowledge. 

If this becomes the new normal, what are the key challenges for leaders? 

Arguably the greatest challenge leaders will face if the virtual workplace becomes more commonplace is the ability to retain its company culture. Organisations invest heavily in developing and strengthening their company cultures – especially in the tech space. And they do this for a number of reasons, ranging from ensuring they have a strong employer brand that will enable them to attract the talent they need whilst retaining that which they already have, as well as positioning themselves in such a light that makes them an attractive proposition for any would-be partners, investors and other key stakeholders. 

This is where we will likely see a rise in the number of tech firms working hard to boost their credentials within each space they operate. As an example, sustainable technology has seen significant growth and investment over the last 12 months and whilst there has been a slight slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic, the levels we saw at the turn of the year are likely to return soon. 

Against this backdrop, I can see a sharp rise in the number of players turning up the dial and sharing their insights, knowledge, expertise, and ideas in various media publications and thought leadership channels. 

Whether this online workplace is here to stay is still a very big ‘if’, and different companies will need to adapt after the pandemic in a way that optimises their business, not drain it. However, there are many pros to the online workforce and, I wouldn’t be surprised if we were to see a much more agile nation of workers in a years’ time.  

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