+1 617.391.0425 Mind Tools Home

You are here:

Request a Demo Contact Us

Developing Effective Virtual Leaders

Les Strachan 

May 30, 2014

Globe_RichVintage_188According to the Association for Talent Development, the virtual workforce increased by 800 percent between 2008 and 2013.

This means that there are a huge number of new virtual leaders, many of whom need support, coaching and training to be become effective.

In this post, we’ll look at some of the skills and attributes that virtual leaders need, and we’ll explore some ways that you can support leaders in your organization as they develop and maintain these skills.

Understand Communication Challenges

Effective leaders communicate information clearly and accurately, and in a timely way. However, this is more difficult in virtual teams, especially when leaders need to talk to people across various time zones and cultures.

For example, leaders – and their team members – may not understand cross-cultural differences, or they may miss out on body language cues if they use instant messaging or voice calls to communicate. Similarly, they may “hide behind email” instead speaking to people directly. All of these can lead to misunderstandings, and even conflict, if not handled carefully.

You can help leaders deal with these challenges by providing training in areas such as cultural intelligence, and in techniques such as “virtual listening” – this is when people use “verbal nods,” such as “yes,” “got you” and “I understand,” to show that they’re paying attention in a voice-to-voice conversation.

Also, encourage leaders to take advantage of video where possible. This is helpful for virtual leadership, because it provides much-needed face-to-face interaction. And, although it’s not as effective as communicating in person, it does give people the opportunity to read others’ body language. This is especially important for communications that are personal in nature, or that could easily be misinterpreted.

Help Leaders Build Trust

Lack of trust is often a major problem in virtual teams, because people miss out on informal opportunities to get to know one another when they’re not working together in the same office.

You can help your leaders build trust with their team members by encouraging them to get to know their people, both professionally and personally. Train them to set the standard when it comes to sharing personal information.

Transparency is important too – people will trust their leaders more if they can see why decisions are being made the way they are. This means that leaders need to find ways to share this type of information with virtual team members. They can use blogs or other social media tools to keep people updated, for example, or they can include a regular update on the agenda in Team Briefings to make sure that everyone is aware of what’s going on.

Be Aware of Conflict

In virtual teams, factors such as a lack of face-to-face communication and a mix of different cultures and working styles mean that there’s a higher chance of conflict. However, this can actually make teams stronger, if leaders spot it and then deal with it quickly.

Make sure that leaders understand the causes of conflict, so that they can reduce the likelihood of it happening, and so that they can tailor their conflict resolution strategies to the situation.

Create “Virtual Open Doors”

It’s important that team members feel that they can call on their leader when they have a problem. However, this is more difficult in virtual teams than it is in a co-located work environment, because it’s not always clear whether people are available to chat.

It’s often not enough for leaders to be contactable by email: help them to understand how they can use other types of technology to establish a virtual “open door.” For instance, they could use the status function on their instant messaging software to show that they’re available.

Of course, there will be times when leaders won’t be available, especially when teams are located in different time zones. Virtual leaders need to define when out-of-hours contact is acceptable. They will also need to let people know who they can go to when they are not around.

Share Best Practice

Clearly, virtual leadership is still a relatively new concept. Technology and ways of working develop rapidly, so accepted practices can date quickly.

Speak to the virtual leaders in your organization regularly about the tools and strategies that work best for them, and encourage them to use Action Learning Sets, so that they can share best practices, and come up with solutions to their challenges with their peers.

What strategies do you use to develop the virtual leaders in your organization? What other skills and attributes are necessary for effective virtual leadership? Share your experiences below.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields required.

View our Privacy Policy.

3 comments on “Developing Effective Virtual Leaders”:

  1. Charlie wrote:

    I would say in my experience, as an organisation, you need be clear about your expectations about what is expected from people when working outside the office. You need to instill in managers the importance of good communication, of keeping regular contact with people, and that they should address any concerns, say about timekeeping, as soon as they arise.

    I have learned that when managing a virtual team, it’s important to set expectations about the times that people work. For example, when I first started in my role, my team were all in different locations and working different hours depending on their commitments outside of the office. Although the work got done, I was left up in the air about what people were doing and when.

    While I think it’s important to accommodate flexibility, it’s also vital from a manager’s perspective to know when people are available. We now use timesheets and Skype so you can easily see who is online, and the hours that have been worked. Although I remain flexible around work times by and large, we have now agreed core hours when people will be logged on, which makes keeping in touch a lot easier.

  2. Joanne wrote:

    I do most of my work virtually, and I think common sense good manners, or sensitivity, is far more noticeable in this environment.

    Some thoughts:
    As a manager, don’t assume that everyone on the team, especially newbies, is comfortable with/know the etiquette of email and webinars. Make this information easily available, so that people can get up-to-speed easily without having to show their ignorance.

    For example, for emails, when to Reply, when to Reply All, and when to (and when definitely not to) Bcc. For webinars, if there are more than a few people, mute yourself unless you think you might have something to say, introduce yourself when speaking, and don’t do the verbal nod thing.

    If you are setting up a webinar, consider time differences (and get people’s agreement if you have to go out of civilised hours), don’t only post a dial-in number to the host region, post numbers for all the regions expected to dial-in (or post a link to these), and if you have a big meeting with people in the room and dialling in, don’t only talk to people in the room. In fact I would suggest nominating one person in the room to dial-in, so that they can quickly warn you if the sound quality is poor/your presentation is not showing/there are questions in the chat. It if very easy to make the virtual attendees feel like you are oblivious of them.

    My two-pence worth.

  3. Dorota Piotrowska wrote:

    Both virtual teaming and virtual leadership, more often than not happen across cultures. (Culturally) diverse teams can have a huge comparative advantage only if leaders know how to tap into their potential. Navigating across cultural differences is the flip side of virtual collaboration. Global leaders should therefore attain virtual AND cross-cultural collaboration skills to be successful in this more and more prevalent business reality.