By Jay F. Bernhardt, DSL, MBA
Purposeful communication is critical for virtual leadership. Leadership, in a traditional business sense, has predominantly been conducted face-to-face by many organizations. In 2020, industries, including life sciences, were forced to adjust their ways of working almost overnight to protect employees from possible exposure to the virus. Agility during this time proved to be critical. While technological enhancements allowed these transitions to occur, it took a lot of work.
Fast-forward three years and we’ve acclimated to working in a virtual work environment. But, what is one aspect that has shifted considerably?
Leadership. Leaders with little to no training in leading people virtually were forced to lead their teams in a new manner essentially overnight.
The primary constructs of leadership remain the same, and we all know that leadership is not a one-size-fits-all approach. However, leading in a virtual work environment is significantly different.
This article explores leaders’ multifaceted struggles while navigating the virtual work environment and provides insights into overcoming these challenges.
Leadership training is a vital component for organizations to succeed. Think about your leadership training program – it is likely equipped with competency models, soft skills programs and various role-specific elements.
That said, have you integrated any workshops on virtual leadership?
As leadership evolves into a more virtual or remote setting, organizations must equip their leaders to connect with their people in this new working structure. Research affirms that leaders who struggle to lead in a virtual environment may impact employee engagement, job satisfaction and performance. This impact could prove to be costly for organizations.
Fear not, there is a solution to this issue, and it is one you are highly familiar with – training.
Simply put, it can be boiled down to trust, connecting, communicating, collaboration, technology and work-life balance. These are buzzwords we use daily, but in a virtual leadership world, they are not that straightforward and require a different approach.
One of the primary struggles for leaders is building trust. If you think this is hard in a face-to-face setting, let’s multiply that by at least 10 when leading virtually.
Building trust virtually with people you lead is significantly more challenging than in a face-to-face setting due to the absence of nonverbal cues, physical proximity and personal interactions, which are vital for establishing rapport and creating a sense of connection and reliability. The lack of personal interactions can hinder the development of relationships and impede team cohesion.
Communication becomes more complex in a virtual work environment, leading to misinterpretations and reduced clarity. Leaders must overcome the challenges of conveying information effectively, as nonverbal cues are often missed in virtual interactions.
To mitigate this struggle, leaders should encourage regular and transparent communication, utilize videoconferencing whenever possible, and ensure everyone can access the necessary communication tools and platforms.
Does this sound like a challenge for those who are not necessarily tech-savvy? The answer is “yes.” This is why providing necessary training for leaders who lead virtually, including technology platform training, is vital.
For example, suppose leaders are trained to utilize technology effectively in a virtual environment. In that case, it allows leaders to have an environment where they can foster active engagement, set clear expectations and provide constructive feedback when a physical gap exists, which can help bridge the communication gap.
Aside from the leader-to-subordinate connection, the leader-to-team relationship is also vital in a virtual environment. Leaders should proactively create opportunities for virtual team bonding, such as organizing virtual social events or informal virtual coffee breaks.
Encouraging open communication, active listening and displaying empathy toward team members are also essential for building trust and connection in a virtual setting. Physical distance can create a sense of isolation and hinder the development of personal relationships.
Most of these ideas of team building may be genuinely creative. Still, being purposeful in approaching team events can make a tremendous difference in the leader’s connection with the team.
By embracing purposeful actions and adapting leadership approaches, leaders can build trust and foster strong relationships virtually. By actively building trust and rapport, adopting effective communication strategies through purposeful actions, fostering collaboration and overcoming technological barriers, leaders can navigate the challenges presented by virtual leadership.
Leading in a virtual work environment presents numerous struggles that require leaders to adapt and find innovative solutions. When leaders are purposeful with their communication with an intent to connect, they can successfully navigate the complexities of virtual leadership.
That said, they must be equipped to use the platforms available and ensure they can implement them within their leadership arsenal. Embracing the opportunities that the digital landscape presents and continually refining leadership strategies can help leaders create cohesive, motivated and high-performing virtual teams.
Through mindful leadership and a proactive approach, leaders can effectively lead in a virtual work environment and drive success in the ever-evolving professional world.
Jay F. Bernhardt, DSL, MBA, is the senior manager of leadership & development training at Viatris. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views in the article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of his company.