Leading well in a virtual workplace

Taking Care of Business

By Dr. Steven M. Ruggerio and Ron J. Clark, MPP, LEADwell, LLC

Things are not what they used to be. Once upon a time, supervisors would regularly see and meet with staff in an office environment. Instructions for daily tasks, trouble-shooting problems and celebrating accomplishments occurred within the workplace office space. Now, with the current shift to virtual work options, many employees are working from home (or anywhere on the planet) as long as they have Internet access. 

With this shift in workplace culture comes the need for a major leadership pivot.

Supervisors, managers and those holding leadership roles are now forced to rethink how to maintain a leadership presence while physically absent.

According to a recent Stanford survey, 60 percent of workers are in the office, 12 percent are working remotely and 28 percent are operating within a hybrid (both in-person and online) work schedule. So, what does this mean for leaders who now connect with employees by Zoom or other virtual meeting platforms? For instance:

  • How do leaders create and maintain a healthy and overall thriving workplace culture while physically absent from a mutual teamwork space?
  • How do leaders ensure tasks are completed with excellence and on time while not able to have eyes on employees?
  • How do leaders ensure human resources (employees) always know that they are valued as human beings?

Here are some tips to answer these questions and help leaders effectively lead others within a virtual workplace setting. You will no longer have to “fake it until you make it.”

Communicate clear expectations.

Leading virtually demands clarity. In the absence of nonverbal signals, our words, phrases and points of emphasis can be the difference between inspiration and frustration. Thriving teams require leaders to discuss video conferencing etiquette, audio/video practices and the values of integrity and accountability for remote operations. Attentiveness, punctuality, input/output deliverables and transparency are critical to building trust and avoiding confusion.

Schedule personal, non-work conversations.

Virtual workdays are structured in strict time blocks. There are no chance meetings at the water cooler. To connect virtually, leaders should set time aside at the front or back of meetings for individual stories. Better yet, they can schedule “non-work” video teleconferences designed solely for personal discussions. In traditional workspaces, employees often decorated their desks with family pics and personal interests. Today’s virtual leaders can increase authenticity and encourage openness by sharing pictures and videos of team members’ home office spaces.

Be virtually present.

Few things destroy trust and culture as quickly as indifference. Dealing with constant demands, leaders must make a conscious effort to focus on virtual employees. With practice, leaders learn to hear “what’s behind what’s being said.” Asking questions, expressing interest and recognizing employee individuality improves an organization’s virtual culture. Since remote workers can’t take advantage of “open door policies,” leaders must respond when employees reach out. Remember, out of sight should never be out of mind.

Believe the best.

Unable to visually monitor remote workers, some companies use computer surveillance software to count employee mouse clicks and website visits. These measures, and others like them, communicate deep distrust. Moreover, studies continually show these actions decrease productivity. Successful virtual leaders believe the best in their people by empowering them with autonomy to achieve organizational goals without “the boss” watching every move.

In closing, we all recognize that times have changed. Hence, how we lead others must change as well. Practicing these tips will strengthen your team and help produce excellent results. These four leadership practices will also provide a greater return when coupled with periodic face-to-face gatherings (when and where possible). In the end, leaders must lead with trust. Being clear, authentic, present and empowering creates leaders worth following. And that’s true, whether operating in a traditional workforce or managing virtually.

Dr. Steven Ruggerio and Ron J. Clark, MPP are partners with LEADwell LLC, a national leadership skill-building agency located on the Virginia Peninsula. They can be reached at info@leadwell.agency or 757-873-1610.