Co-chair, Change Management Institute UK
One unexpected outcome of the Covid crisis is the realisation that leading virtual teams is hard. We used Skype and Zoom before lockdown, but when it became our only way of engaging with our teams, we realised its limitations.
- More clock-watching – we have to schedule time together, often for 30 or 60 minutes, missing the flexibility in the time and attention we give each other when we arrive and leave from physical meetings.
- Concentration – relationships via video take more focus, looking out for the body language that tells us the real story, rather than just the words that people think we want to hear. Not knowing if people are giving us their full attention or if they are sending emails and scanning documents.
- Connections – being unsure how much of our personal lives to share, when we are on screen reduces the humanity between us, as we feel we must present our “best” selves for fear of being judged negatively.
These are the easy issues, but there are deeper seated impacts of not working alongside each other. Generating team motivation, understanding what is getting missed, hearing enough detail to be able to detect problems early and fix them rely on the “peripheral” vision that face to face engagement gives us.
Longer term issues impact staff development as it is hard to train someone from a distance, skills are developed by watching others and being watched by them, stepping in with a helpful comment or sharing a technique or short cut.
Leading with purpose
The secret to solving these issues is to become less accidental in our leadership activities. We must be deliberate in our choice of role modelling activities and of the stories that we tell to illustrate what good looks like. We must make the effort to praise the behaviours we want to see, not give blanket congratulations for hard work. This means noticing individual effort and giving early, constructive feedback.
We will have to change our own behaviours, to give ourselves the time to be more present, more focused and more deliberate. We will have to make choices about how we distribute our time, to give us the space to observe, design our interventions and not rush engagement with our teams. Individual growth requires one to one time to absorb the lessons we need to share, to test out their understanding of the points we are making and to try out their responses as they develop their ability.
Virtual leadership is here to stay, so we need to lead ourselves through this change, because there is another change on the horizon, which is going to be even more challenging. When the move back to our offices begins, we are going to be left with a mixture of those working from home and those physically co-located. Ensuring we are even-handed with our time and attention between those in front of us and those on the video link will not be easy. So lets start now, sharpening this latest evocation of millenial leadership.