virtual leader computer work in office

In recent years, many organizations have made the shift to a virtual workplace or a hybrid approach where employees work remotely at least part of the time.

However, few give much thought to the demands of a virtual workplace aside from ensuring they have the right technology. They fail to recognize the need to ensure their managers have proper skills to lead and collaborate from a distance.

While all strong leaders tend to share certain key characteristics, those who manage virtual teams must be particularly strong in a few key areas. We identified the most important of these competencies in a study of 427 members and leaders from 48 virtual teams. Here’s a look at what they are and how to ensure your team leaders have them.

1. Communication and Interpersonal Skills

Leaders who can communicate clearly and effectively will be better equipped to build strong relationships with virtual team members, which sets the foundation for almost everything else.

Strong communication skills are important in face-to-face relationships but they are essential in a virtual setting. These skills are the foundation for managing conflict, influencing others and coaching and motivating them. Unfortunately, this is the area where leaders appear to need the most work: 45 percent of virtual team members we surveyed said these were the skills their teams lacked the most. Within a virtual environment, strong communication skills means being able to:

  • Use appropriate technology to stay connected with team members
  • Conduct effective virtual meetings
  • Use active listening to enhance understanding from a distance
  • Connect and build relationships and trust

2. Collaboration

It can be difficult enough to work with others when you’re all under the same roof. Adding distance and different time zones to the equation can further complicate things. The best virtual leaders know how to overcome these challenges and foster strong collaboration within their teams. They must recognize barriers, such as differences among cultures and time zones, and work enthusiastically to overcome them.

3. Influencing Remotely

Virtual leaders have fewer opportunities to build the types of relationships that allow them to effectively influence others. To overcome this, they first must have a good understanding of the four most effective influencing styles and when and how to use them. Leaders also should know which style they use most often and how to adapt their approach depending on the situation.

4. Managing Conflict

Distance and a lack of visual cues creates a greater potential for misunderstanding among leaders and their virtual teams. It may be easier to ignore conflict when leaders can’t see it right in front of them, but unresolved issues hinder the team’s productivity and damage morale. Over time, ongoing conflict can cause the team to disintegrate. Effective leaders understand why conflict occurs and tackle it head-on using an approach that is most appropriate for a given situation. They need to be aware of the most common conflict resolution styles and adjust their approach accordingly.

5. Managing Accountability Remotely

Virtual leaders must hold employees accountable and keep projects moving forward even when they do not see their teams every day. In a virtual environment, it can be easier for tasks to fall through the cracks or get pushed to the bottom of the priority list. Virtual leaders must set expectations for individual team members, establish realistic deadlines and follow up with team members at key milestones. The acronym ATC—action, timetable and checkpoints—is a helpful framework for managing accountability.

6. Making Good Decisions

All leaders need to be effective decision makers, but those leading in a virtual environment may need to work harder to follow up with appropriate stakeholders and collect the facts essential to make an informed decision.

They should follow a strategic framework and be sure they have taken everything into consideration before deciding on a course of action.

7. Managing Change

The ability to implement new initiatives is critical to advancing your organization’s objectives and maintaining a competitive advantage. Managing change is difficult for any leader, but it can be even more challenging within a virtual environment. Virtual leaders must be able to “sell” new ideas to their team, help them overcome doubts about change and keep their team motivated to maintain those changes.

Virtual teams are the building blocks of any organization with multiple locations across the country or globe. These seven leadership competencies are key to ensuring these teams are productive and successful. Like any skill, they can be developed over time and with proper training. To learn more about training programs for virtual leaders, check out this course catalog.