Virtual Working Needs New Leadership

With virtual working on the rise, the Advanced Workplace Institute (AWI) undertook a study this year to investigate the factors that impact remote work and leadership. Learn more about the findings below!

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Something remarkable has happened. For thousands of knowledge-based businesses, home working has worked. Anecdotal evidence from the Advanced Workplace Institute (AWI) suggests that most large organizations have adapted well despite early fears about how their teams and systems would deal with the change enforced on them in mid-March.

But it is important to recognize that we are still in the dawn of a new era for the workplace world. New approaches are needed to lead the way ahead should organizations continue to take advantage of home-working alongside or instead of office-based work.

It has long been postulated that the best offices provide occupants with a supportive, rich and always-on environment. They produce a constant flow of social information about the people and organizations that occupy them. Employees and leaders don’t have to work hard to learn from others, share knowledge, understand the business’s culture and expectations, and ultimately buy into the broader vision.

In contrast, virtual working limits people to viewing and interacting with one another for short periods through video or, worse yet, phone calls. This leaves people to make inferences from the little information they have – the tones of emails, facial expressions, and second-hand information passed on from colleagues – which increases the likelihood of misunderstandings and unintended outcomes.

With home-working so high up on the corporate agenda, the AWI undertook a study this year to build a clearer picture of the factors that impact virtual working and the leadership traits and techniques necessary to manage remote and dispersed teams. The factors include:

  1. Social cohesion (effective teams depend on camaraderie)
  2. Trust (the foundation of social cohesion)
  3. Perceived supervisory support (feeling valued and supported can have a huge bearing on an employee’s mood, behavior and performance)
  4. Information sharing (trust and supervisory support will encourage colleagues to share ideas and information freely)
  5. Vision and goal clarity (team members need to understand how their efforts contribute to an organization’s broader goals)
  6. External communication (effective teams will seek information and resources from people or groups outside of their circle).

Less face time and immersion in a single physical environment mean that these factors are more challenging to maintain on an ongoing basis if team and community performance are to be maintained in a virtualized model and require a more conscious effort to enable effective performance.

People who work virtually have fewer opportunities to interact or socialize with their colleagues. They also work asynchronously. So, if managers don’t act, physical distance can soon turn into psychological distance. To replace those lost opportunities, leaders need to develop more intentional connections with the tools that they have at their disposal, such as Zoom and other virtual communications tools. This will allow people to maintain those all-important friendships and set the right example.

To lead virtual teams successfully, managers need to understand how their people are, if they are coping, what support they need, and whether there are any issues between colleagues. This is especially true during crises like a pandemic, when people may have heightened anxiety, health problems and unique obstacles at home. As a result, leaders need to replace transactional command-and-control approaches with steps that allow colleagues to share these responsibilities gradually. They need to know their people as people not as resources.

COVID-19 has accelerated the notion that the workplace stretches beyond the traditional confines of the physical office. However, if virtual working is here to stay, this brings serious challenges for managing the modern workforce. Leaders need to pay close attention to what their virtual and dispersed teams need and foster an environment in which people can regularly share their networks, tips and knowledge.

We all have to up our game to make it work into the long term. But if we master the art, we can create the conditions that works for everyone regardless of where we find ourselves.

For more information and to download the AWI’s Managing the Virtual Workforce Report, click here 

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