Our country—and the world at large—is operating in unprecedented times. With more people working from home than ever, organizations need to learn how to conduct business and train their workforces to be effective in a virtual landscape. While some of us have had experience doing this already, many are learning how to work and interact with one another virtually for the first time.
So, what does it even mean to work virtually? We’re not just coming into an environment that’s already plugged in and ready to run—it requires much more from us as individuals. We need discipline as well as the ability to hold ourselves accountable, learn new skills, ask for support, and engage with others in an unfamiliar landscape.
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen a lot of tips and tricks on how to be more efficient while working from home. We’re sure you’ve seen these pop up on your social feeds, too. What we are noticing to be less available, however, are best practices for leadership in a virtual world. In our experience, leading in a virtual landscape requires a different set of tools. It is our hope that this article will provide you with some tips and tricks to get you started.
Toolbox for Virtual Leadership
Effective virtual leadership is built on the same foundation that great leadership has always been built on—a clear sense of purpose. That said, leading a virtual team not only requires an immense level of trust, but also kindness, compassion, and patience. These are often less-developed skills—but don’t worry, they’re learnable. By effectively deploying time-tested techniques, you’ll quickly find that you’ll create an environment of trust. There are four key areas we focus on when practicing virtual leadership: respect, punctuality, hard work, and creativity.
Respect Sets the Tone in a Virtual Landscape
First and foremost, as a leader, you need to respect home-life challenges. Even veteran work-from-home employees are operating under a different set of circumstances now. For some, they’re not the only ones having to now work from home; they are sharing space with their family, their roommates, or significant others. And in some cases, they’ve now taken on the role of teacher or caregiver. Let’s not forget our favorite pets, who have their own sets of needs and provide ample distractions.
Make it a point to understand each employee’s obligations, and work with them to develop a flexible work schedule. Be sure to understand what additional support you can provide, and always be kind. Developing a flexible work environment can be challenging, especially across large teams with geographic diversity. We found that introducing and maintaining a team availability calendar (TAC) is an indispensable tool. The TAC contains the name, contact number, alternative email, and time zone of each employee, in addition to their availability status for each day. This is a great tool to help keep everyone on the same page.
It also is important to ensure that each employee feels heard and respected by their colleagues. A leader plays a significant role in setting the tone by stepping in if and when employees are not being accommodating or understanding of each other. It is important to address conflicts quickly and take conversations offline as required.
Set the Example for Punctuality
Completing work on time and thoroughly is very important, especially as we adjust to new schedules and priorities. If you anticipate any kind of delay, it’s vital to communicate this to all stakeholders, including leaders and fellow team members.
Punctuality also plays an important role in developing a culture of trust. A lot of us are having to jump into virtual meetings to keep communication flowing more than we had to when we were all in the office. Show up to the meeting on time. Being prompt and present is essential in driving continuity. It’s your job to establish expectations early on. Here is a list of what we found most helpful during virtual meetings:
- Begin meetings on time and aim to end a few minutes early to allow employees time to dial into the next meeting or have a small break in between. This can be accomplished by booking 50-minute meetings.
- Each meeting should have a set agenda with an identified facilitator or lead. The facilitator cannot effectively take comprehensive notes and action items, so having a designated note taker is helpful. Call notes should be shared with the group, and note-taking responsibilities should rotate among employees, especially for recurring meetings.
- While setting the expectation that missing or being late to meetings is discouraged, it will inevitably happen. When this occurs, advanced notice should be provided to the meeting facilitator or lead as early as possible. As the leader, it is important to touch base with employees who missed meetings to make sure any decisions or action items have been appropriately communicated.
Acknowledge Hard Work When You See It
Great leaders not only notice, but also reward consistent hard work when they see it happening. It is critical to continue that recognition while leading virtually. A quick call or email will be appreciated and will go a long way in motivating employees. We find that great collaborators work even smarter virtually by taking ownership of their work and keeping everyone updated on their progress. We must, however, provide all employees an opportunity to thrive in a virtual working environment without the counterproductive practice of micromanaging.
Some of our teams use trackers and host agile-like daily standup or scrum meetings, while others choose to work virtually together in the form of scheduled working sprints. Here’s how a sprint works:
- Set up a virtual meeting for 80 minutes.
- At the top of the meeting, each attendee activates their video conferencing capabilities, and for the first few minutes everyone shares what they will work on during the sprint (approximately 10 minutes).
- Then everyone mutes themselves and begins their work.
- After an hour, the leader calls time. Each attendee shares their progress, and the team celebrates their collective accomplishments (approximately 10 minutes).
Regardless of the method or the length of the meeting, the goal is to keep your team motivated, to deliver consistent and high-quality results, and to celebrate the wins, even if they seem small. After all, small and consistent actions lead to big outcomes.
Get Creative to Keep Things Going
Things quickly get boring and routine when your primary modes of communication are virtual meetings, emails, and short messages. As a leader, it is important to create the conditions for creativity to flourish and to step in when the team seems to be in a rut. There are a lot of simple and fun ideas that we are using with our teams. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Motivation Monday: Each Monday morning, leaders send out an Instagram-like motivational quote image with no explanation or commentary.
- Remote Working Tip of the Week: Each Friday morning, leaders send out a brief but informative list of tips and tricks on a topic relevant to improving the remote or work-from-home experience. Ideas range from how to blur your background in Microsoft Teams, to improving sound quality on conference calls and making a comfortable home workstation.
- Host a Fun Roll Call: Start a virtual meeting with a fun roll call that includes not only stating your name, but also answering a fun question like, “What is your favorite ice cream?”; “Do you like cake or pie, and which is your favorite?”; or “If you could have a private concert, who would you want to jam for you?”
- Host a Daily Quiz: The website On this Day takes the guesswork out of it and makes it easy to incorporate a fun trivia point into your daily meetings.
- Leverage Technology: Set up a team site or group chat to help maintain employee engagement and increase the socialization that the team is missing from not being co-located. Several times a week we will promote the team with conversation starters such as, “share the funniest work-from-home meme you’ve seen,” “show us your home workspace,” and “Mug Monday—show us your go-to coffee mug.”
To be honest, a lot can go unnoticed in the virtual working world. Our job as leaders of virtual teams is to take enough control that our teams trust us, but not too much that it diminishes our credibility or hinders the overall output of the team. Creating a culture of trust happens when we have a disciplined approach to time and deliverables management, communicate with clarity and consistency, manage conflict quickly, maintain integrity while being flexible, and keep a positive attitude. Above all else, give praise and recognition often—this a difficult time for our teams both professionally and personally.
Register for one of the ASUG Think Tank online sessions taking place and stay tuned for a follow-up series of the ASUG Executive Exchange online sessions. You can also explore options from ASUG for training your SAP teams.
Kimberly Sharp will host a Women Connect webcast discussing, “Life Lessons Learned on the Journey to Finding Purpose at Work,” on July 23, 2020.Register today to save your seat at the table.