Essential Virtual Leadership Skills: How to Lead Remote Teams
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The verdict is in: the majority of workers appreciate the flexibility of remote work. A Global Workplace Analytics study claims two-thirds of people want to work from home, and over a third of surveyed workers would take a 10% pay cut to continue working remotely.
But a decent portion of managers resists this shift. That same study found that a third of managers believe they need to oversee their teams in person to manage them effectively. This isn’t the case. Effective remote work is possible, and virtual leaders must adjust to support their teams. That’s why 64% of executives implemented virtual leadership skills training in response to the coronavirus, according to PwC.
This article breaks down the most common challenges to virtual leadership, nine essential skills to lead virtual teams, and two of the most effective virtual leadership styles. This article is for you, whether you’re a long-time leader adapting to the new virtual world or a brand-new virtual team leader looking for some management know-how.
What makes virtual leadership different from traditional leadership?
Virtual teams interact in an online work environment rather than physically, so digital communication and tools are critical.
As a virtual leader, your job is to support your team through a screen. Sometimes, that screen can feel like a significant barrier between you and your teams. But the best virtual teams embrace the flexibility and autonomy provided by this separation. And virtual leaders make that happen through trust, clear communication, and supportive systems and processes.
Virtual leaders also have a unique opportunity to build and nurture diverse teams because they can hire anyone worldwide. But learning to work working across different time zones and with different cultural backgrounds can also be an adjustment.
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8 essential leadership skills
Many of the leadership skills you employed before the pandemic still apply. But using them to manage remote teams might look slightly different.
Consider the following essential skills for leading teams virtually.
1. Asynchronous communication skills
Remote work offers fewer opportunities for real-time communication. Poor virtual leaders view this as a barrier. Great virtual leaders embrace asynchronous (async) communication to cut unnecessary meetings and give their virtual teams more time to do actual work.
Async communication refers to any communication that doesn’t happen in real-time. This could be an email, a Slack message, or even a pre-recorded video. To be a skilled asynchronous communicator, you must focus on clarity and thoroughness. The recipient of your message cannot always ask follow-up questions: if you’re around the world, they may not read your message until the following day.
When creating an asynchronous message, anticipate all the context the recipient might need (and follow-up questions they might ask). Include all that information in your initial message to avoid confusion and delayed clarification.
2. Synchronous communication skills
Remote work also involves some synchronous (or real-time), like phone calls and video conferencing. To be a great virtual leader, you must be able to communicate effectively in these real-time environments–especially because they’re fewer and farther between for remote teams.
One key ingredient to skilled synchronous communication is preparation. Clear plans of action help you keep virtual meetings focused and engaging. They also help you identify what materials and information to prepare before the meeting.
Also, give your remote team a heads up about the contents of each meeting, too. Share a detailed agenda to help your teams think ahead and arrive at the meeting ready for discussion, collaboration, or exchanging feedback. We recommend assigning ownership over each agenda idea to encourage participation across the entire team. These agendas also reduce wasted time, which contributes to Zoom fatigue.
3. Time management skills
Leaders of all kinds need excellent time management to stay on top of multiple projects and provide adequate support to each team member. Time management soft skills are arguably more important in remote settings: it’s easy to get distracted by pets, family members, and other responsibilities at home.
Don’t get us wrong: a considerable perk of remote work is integrating those real-life responsibilities into your workday. But without excellent time management skills, you can quickly lose hours each day to small tasks around the house.
Try using a time management app like Sunsama or Reclaim to get a handle on your schedule. And if you still can’t find enough time each day, chances are the number of responsibilities and team members on your plate is unreasonable. Communicate to your boss when you feel undersupported and emphasize that you would rather excel with a smaller team than lose grip on a larger team.
4. Intercultural skills
One perk of the virtual setup is hiring distributed teams from around the globe. International hiring provides access to the world’s top talent, unique experience, additional timezone and language coverage.
Of course, cultural differences (such as communication styles, holidays, and work schedules) bring up logistical concerns. But excellent remote leaders use intercultural teams to their advantage. They celebrate their team’s unique backgrounds and create opportunities for team members to learn about a part of the world they may never visit.
5. Setting clear expectations
Setting clear expectations is extremely important, from remote onboarding to day-to-day management. Remote employees–especially new hires–may feel confused about how to spend their time and which tasks they should prioritize. Remote employees might waste hours (or even days) between check-ins before clarifying what they should do next without clearly communicated, realistic expectations.
That’s why a virtual leader needs to set clear expectations proactively. Especially for new hires, help with prioritization and set deadlines for time-sensitive tasks. Your employees need a healthy pile of tasks at any time, with clear instructions on which tasks are must-dos, what are should-dos, and what are can-dos if they have spare time. As team members get more senior, they can manage their schedules more and more. Even still, set clear goals and OKRs, and check in frequently to make sure they have everything they need to stay on task.
6. Relationship building
Employees don’t want to be a number. They want to get to know you and want you to express interest in them. Asking ‘how was your weekend?’ before ‘how is the project coming along?’ is an easy start for virtual leaders to spark casual conversation and build one-on-one relationships.
One of the best ways to build a relationship is to share honest, evidence-backed feedback about your employees. Feedback doesn’t tear your employees down. It praises their efforts and helps them improve their performance and level up. Helpful feedback is one of the best ways to demonstrate your investment in your employees’ development, not just the work they produce.
Aim to give frequent, specific feedback based on facts (rather than assumed intent). There are merits to real-time feedback (over a phone call or video meeting) and asynchronous feedback (such as comments on a project). Blend both according to the type of work your team does and their preferences, which you should ask about.
Remote work has many benefits, but it can be challenging, especially during the pandemic. Empathy in the workplace has never been more critical, and it’s a hallmark of strong team leadership.
Remember that your employees may try and put on a brave face during meetings or hide their struggles to appear professional. But everyone has their personal and family issues behind the screen. Great leaders help team members build work around their life, not the other way around.
Check in with your employees as people, not just employees. Don’t be stingy with time off, either. Employees need time to rest, recharge, and deal with personal matters. If you fail to provide those, your team members will burn out and find work elsewhere.
8. Community building
Building a tight-knit team is a unique challenge in remote environments because they’re so much less interaction between team members. Employees in fully remote teams might work together for years without ever seeing one another in person.
However, virtual teams don’t need to feel and act like strangers. Virtual team-building activities help teams get to know one another and feel more comfortable collaborating and exchanging feedback. Careful, though: remote team members don’t want to spend all day doing awkward ice breakers. Chat with your team and understand how eager they are to get to know one another and the types of activities they do and don’t enjoy.
What leadership style is best for virtual teams?
Remote employees have much more independence than their in-office counterparts. So, micromanaging isn't a viable option. Instead, great virtual leaders empower their team members to get work done however works best for them through constant motivation, coaching, and support.
Approach your remote team with one of the following two leadership styles:
Be a motivator
The motivator leadership style focuses on positivity and vision. You are responsible for painting a picture of the fantasy your team members are working for. Great motivators lead from behind: they identify the end goal and encourage team members to develop their own approaches and solutions to get there.
Be a servant
Servant leaders approach their role as a support function. Their direct reports do the legwork and the leader is there to support, unblock, and champion them in every way possible. Servant leaders are quick to relinquish control and have a high degree of trust in their team members. They aren’t a boss so much as a resource.
3 main challenges of virtual leadership
1. Fewer face-to-face meetings
Some leaders will miss constant face-to-face interactions with their employees once remote. This is completely fair: you can learn a lot about the people around you from their body language and facial expressions.
But the best virtual leaders make the most of every opportunity to communicate (both synchronously and asynchronously) to get to know and support their team members.
Many leaders sacrifice their own health and well-being while trying to support others. Burnout is an especially big issue during the pandemic when people are under extreme stress and have limited options for travel and getting together.
Make a checklist of things you may neglect during your virtual workday, which should include:
- Taking beaks
- Drinking water
- Getting fresh air
- Making time to rest
Let’s be clear: breaks and water often aren’t enough. Many people struggle with serious overwork and mental illness, especially during the pandemic. Make sure you use vacation days and take advantage of mental health resources offered by your company.
3. Coordinating tasks across time zones
Getting your virtual team on the same page can be challenging without the proper tools and virtual communication. A state of remote work survey by Buffer revealed that almost 60% of remote workers said their company operates across 2-5 time zones: make sure you have a great project management tool to assign tasks and deadlines to keep everyone on track.
Trust and effective communication are the secret sauce of virtual leadership
Virtual leaders can’t constantly check in–ahem, micromanage–with workers as many in-office managers do. This is a good thing. Workers need space to solve problems and get work done. But you need to establish trust, realistic expectations, and a supportive environment to make great virtual work possible.
Build and pay your virtual team with Deel
Building an international team can be time-consuming, especially when compliance is involved. There are different local labor laws, taxes, and mandatory employee benefits for each country to keep up with. On top of all these "technical stuff", you need to be a mindful virtual leader, too, and take care of your team.
Feels overwhelming? Luckily, Deel is here to take a part of this burden off your plate.
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Want to learn how it all works? Book a demo today to find out.