What has COVID-19 done to leadership?

Your leadership skills will be tested in a virtual world. Find out what you need to change, to be a good virtual leader.

What has COVID-19 done to leadership?

Guest blog

When your people work in isolation, leadership needs to change. What do you need to do differently?

Whether your people are based at home, or just working remotely, your leadership approach needs to change. Rahul Dogra examines the changes leaders need to make, to lead home based, remote and dispersed teams successfully.  

Virtual leadership: it's different

Covid-19 will have a deep and possibly long-lasting impact on the way we operate. Employees across many sectors, will continue working from home for the rest of the year. Teams which once saw each other every day across desks, now only meet online.  There has been a focus on enabling working from home, but what about the implications on virtual leadership?

Most management books focus on face to face.  Virtual leadership is not the same. There is an increased emphasis on communication and managing the risk of being separated.  A proactive management approach is required to mitigate the potential risk of virtual working.

A virtual leader needs to re-visit some very practical considerations:

Co-ordination is a key leadership role

  • Has "success" been established within the team? Use key objectives for this.
  • Is all the team on board with this?
  • What are your measures of success? Cover qualitative and quantitative.
  • How often do you need to revisit the subject of success?
  • Does every team member understand who does what? This is especially important when they don't see each other so much.
  • Do they all know how the outputs fit together?
  • Is the team aware of the customer-client reaction to the resulting service?
  • Consider each person’s output as a jigsaw piece. A single piece alone does not allow you to identify the big picture.
Your role as leader, is to communicate the big picture through regular team briefings and continuous, predictable feedback.

Communication is even more important than usual

In a virtual setting, we need more communication in comparison to a face to face setting, and it needs to be very high quality.  Do not underestimate the time it takes to communicate. What might have been a minute or two in the office may be much longer online. Remember to factor in both team and individual level communication.

Communication is two-way. You need to listen, as well as talk

Which tools do you use to communicate and how effective are they? Have you asked team members how well the tools work for them? A central portal approach often works best, where team members come to the portal to access all documents and gain access to team information.

Having access to sophisticated tools is fine, but take a step back and consider if everyone has the right level of digital proficiency to use them.  What training is needed to get team members up to speed?  A lack of digital awareness will impact their ability contribute to the team and may impact on how they feel about the team.

As a leader, engage in VMBWA -virtual management by walking about.   Take the time to reach out.   Stay in touch and become comfortable in small talk.  Small talk assists in maintaining rapport.  Rapport leads to both building and then maintaining relationships and will allow you to uncover issues, concerns or lack of understanding.

Create and maintain team trust

A team without trust is not a team.   Trust naturally forms over time when we operate together.   In many instances, teams operated together pre Covid-19 and so, the trust that was established and the leaders focus is on maintaining trust.  You cannot assume that trust will continue ‘as normal’ when the entire operating environment has changed. You should also consider that:

As we continue operating virtually, new team members will join the team and may be separated from the existing team.  They may well be highly skilled and a valuable individual, but your focus as a leader, needs to be on making them a valuable team member.  

How do you virtually onboard individuals, so they are integrated into the team as soon as possible? How do you build and maintain their trust in you and the team?   Lencioni’s work on teams, shows that the base layer for a well-functioning team, is the formation of trust.   The virtual leader must build and maintain trust within the team. Take three minutes to watch his video here.

Team rules

All high performing teams have essential ground rules.  In a virtual situation, rules need to be explicit or you may find people adopt the rules from a previous project.  Your aim is to ensure that everyone understands the operating norms.  What are the rules?  Consider for example:

  • Team communications and handling documentation.
  • How we communicate and how often.
  • Onboarding of new team members.
  • How meetings are conducted so everyone gets maximum value from them.

Embrace the change

If you, as a leader, weren’t always sure of the nuances of being a leader, then COVID-19 has levelled the playing field. Virtual leadership is different. Everyone is learning to work differently. Some leaders have quickly embraced the virtual model and settled into their routines.   We shall see what long standing impact this has on the way we work, but all leaders need to think about some future challenges.  Careful consideration will be required on simple activities including:

  • On-going performance management – it needs to be done and it’s different in this environment.
  • Working in a hybrid state, with some in the office, some virtual; and perhaps rarely the whole team together.
  • Motivating a virtual distributed team. Motivation and commitment change, when you don’t see your colleagues.
  • Problem solving and innovating as a virtual team.

Virtual is here to stay

Leaders who embrace and thrive in a virtual setting will be able to stand above the competition in the future. You need to master some new skills but you can do this.

Rahul Dogra   

is an expert in business, management and leadership. He has worked with clients in for profit and not for profit sectors across North & South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and the middle East. With an MBA, a Masters in Quality Management and engineering degree, Rahul prides himself on delivering practical tools and learning, in strategic and operational management and leadership.

Rahul is a published author and can say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in many languages. .

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