By Jay Ledesma

Making it through as virtual leaders

AS a result of the quarantines and lockdowns caused by the ongoing health crisis, the leaders of today found themselves navigating through the realm of virtual leadership. While some leaders of some multi-national companies have been doing virtual leadership before, the concept and practice of virtual leadership, where teams are managed via a remote work environment, became a popular and the most used form of leadership during the pandemic.   

As it is, managing and leading a team in person is challenging already. It becomes even more challenging now because leaders have to do this online. They have to resort to a different leadership approach compared to when they’re leading people in the office, as conversations and interactions now aren’t done in person but rather through digital technology. 

It’s even projected that long after the pandemic is over, for most companies, organizations, and teams, remote leadership and management will be here to stay. As leaders and their team members have both experienced the convenience of virtual leadership, post-pandemic leaders will have to do a mix of remote and face-to-face leadership and management. As one insurance Unit Manager said in an interview, “leaders are leaders regardless of the platform”. 

The focus of virtual leaders, just like in the traditional roles, is still on motivating their team members and helping them achieve their personal goals. However, doing this virtually requires them to have a different set of skills. Here are some of the ways and practices of many leaders who have made virtual leadership work for them.    

* Have a regular and scheduled meeting time. Just how you were doing this pre-pandemic, continue doing your regular meetings and check-ins with the team, this time in a virtual setting. In fact, the virtual platform allowed us to be more visible and accessible to our people. It gave us the convenience of attending more team meetings and individual check-ins in lesser time as we remove travel hours.  But we still have to be mindful that though team members may appear to be more accessible under the virtual setting, we still have to observe the proper schedule which is agreed upon by the team. Leaders need to set boundaries in respect and in consideration of everyone's time. As much as possible, do not schedule meetings during lunch or dinner time, unless they request it.  

Daily and more frequent meetings should be brief and concise. If you have a big team, it is advised to divide it into 2 or more sub-teams so each member can be given time to be heard. Do one-on-one catch-up calls to discuss individual goals, tasks, and progress, as well as setbacks and obstacles. Similarly, group meetings are needed to update everyone on the group’s progress and achievements, as well as to foster camaraderie and team spirit even in a remote and dispersed setup.  

* Set clear goals and document agreements. Under a remote work setup, team members have greater flexibility on when and how they do their job. Unlike when everyone is working in the office and where leaders can actually see how members are doing their tasks, remote supervision does not offer the same opportunity. Leaders have realized that often the best way to measure performance under virtual set-up is through a goal or task completion. Whether it’s a team or an individual goal, it must be measurable and regular tracking must be done so members are kept on track and potential problems immediately identified and resolved.    

Managing remote teams can really get complicated and complexed. A lot of things and steps discussed and agreed upon may fall between the cracks and be forgotten. The way to avoid this is to document or write down agreements, next steps, and expectations for everyone’s reference and guidance. Some leaders shoot an email or post on group chats the summary of agreements and next steps. This makes it easier and more convenient for leaders to follow through.       

* Be conscious of what’s being said. Effective communication skills are required of any leader. This is more pronounced in virtual leadership. I have heard many stories of team conflicts arising from misunderstanding and miscommunication during zoom meetings. When you are not able to properly see the facial expressions, body language and properly hear the tone of the voice, there is really a big possibility of misunderstanding. The unreliable internet connection is also not helping. Can you just imagine that you’re in the middle of a crucial conversation with a  team member then suddenly your signal got fuzzy and your internet connection was cut? 

When communicating with the team, it must be clear and concise. Be specific and detailed as much as possible so there won’t be any room for confusion and misinterpretation. As non-verbal communications do not usually work in virtual meetings, verbal delivery is the name of the game. Leaders must be conscious that they are not talking too fast, that every word is understood and that the tone of their voice reflects the intent of their message. Some leaders are asking select members to repeat what was just said to ensure that message is received correctly. Or as mentioned in the earlier point, leaders find it very useful to send members a summary of discussions for their guidance and reference.

Utilize the appropriate communication platform. We can only be thankful that these lockdowns and quarantines happened at a time when all the digital platforms are available for us to use. Virtual leading now includes a wide range of digital tools that can support our communications requirements. But leaders must know when to use the appropriate digital tool. These are the commonly used tools and their purpose. 

Instant messaging like Viber, Telegram, WhatsApp, or FB messenger are the go platforms for quick comms needs like asking simple questions, requesting or providing updates, or setting up or confirming appointments. It is also sued for positing photos or sending personal messages. These tools are more informal in nature. 

Email is the more frequently used platform for formal communications.  It is used when communicating something that needs to be referenced on later such as rules and policies, work agreements or directions, etc.  Email is also ideal when you’re sending it to several people. 

Video conferencing and webinars thru zoom, google meet, or FaceTime, etc. are very popular media when you need face-to-face meet up with your team members. 

Those who shied away from technology pre-pandemic have now found themselves in front of their digital gadgets as means to communicate with their people. 

* Lead with empathy and strengthen trust. With the confusion and uncertainties in the environment we now have and all the fast and drastic changes happening around us, our people need someone who can provide clarity, can understand what they’re going through, and has the genuine interest to help them go through all these challenges. Prior to the pandemic, a simple touch, embrace or tap on one’s shoulder is often enough to show and express our empathy and sympathy to our people. Through these gestures, our people know and feel that we are there for them. But in the current reality, we have, where a physical connection is highly discouraged, leaders have to take extra effort so they can still continue to lead with a heart. Virtual leaders have to relate with team members at an emotional level and be completely transparent and honest so that trust can be strengthened. 

Individual conversations should be done to check on how they’re doing or how they are adjusting, as people do not adjust at the same pace. But ask how you can help. Ask about their families, their new hobbies or interests or the latest Netflix movie they’ve watched. Talk about anything that will make them feel that you care for them not only as team members but as people. In one article that I read, successful virtual leaders know that during this challenging time, they have to be more generous with their praises but at the same time, they know that they still have to call out poor performance. Leaders can still do this by correcting them with utmost concern and with the intent of helping members improve and be better. 

The challenge to lead in a high-tech environment but still with high touch is felt, more than ever, by today’s leaders. Putting in place and observing the above have somehow helped most virtual leaders lead their team members effectively and efficiently during this trying time. But virtual leadership continues to evolve as new developments are presented to us. But for now, as leaders were able to use the technology as their best ally in this new normal, they have stayed relevant, are thriving and even making a huge impact on their team members and clients.  


About the Columnist

Image of Jay Ledesma

Ms. Jay Ledesma writes about local tourism and business bits that delve on investments and insurance.