12 New Habits for Leading in a Virtual Environment

April 8, 2020 Randy Conley

Leading virtually requires a leader to use the same good management skills they would use in a face-to-face environment. But some managers get away with providing mediocre leadership in face-to-face situations because they lean on their personal relationships with employees, says John Hester, co-creator of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ new Leading Virtually program.

Because virtual leaders don’t have opportunities for those incidental hallway conversations that can occur in face-to-face work environments, they tend to have fewer interactions with direct reports. “This means each interaction takes on more significance,” says Hester. “People who manage from a distance often don’t have the safety net that personal relationships or opportunities for informal communication can provide. Thus, normal mistakes managers make have a significantly greater impact in the virtual work environment.

“Consider a poorly run meeting. When held face-to-face, it is frustrating and annoying. But a poorly run conference call is even worse, because attendees feel less of an obligation to pay attention. People begin multitasking and the group immediately loses synergy.

“Leading virtually requires a whole new mindset.  How do I maintain connection?  How do I foster trust?  How do I provide feedback? Even something as basic as How do I know they’re working? requires a new strategy.”

To help new virtual leaders get off to a fast start, Hester suggests they focus on three key practice areas: being attentive and mindful, fostering community, and accelerating performance and development.

Practice One: Be Attentive and Mindful

Leaders need to be attentive and mindful in their conversations with team members.  That’s important face-to-face, but it’s absolutely essential in a virtual work environment. Attentiveness means knowing the goals, motivations, needs, and experiences of team members and recognizing when changes occur. Because working effectively in a virtual environment requires a high level of independence, leaders must consistently communicate their desire to connect personally with team members.

  1. Be present. “We spend so much time multitasking in the remote environment. But what's the impact when we’re not totally present with somebody on the phone or in a Zoom meeting? Leaders need to practice being more present in meetings and calls and help others be more present as well.”
  2. Pay attention to individual differences. “This begins with knowing what motivates each person and what approach to use in a virtual work setting. It also means getting to know people's individual work preferences. How do they like to communicate? When do they have the most energy?”
  3. Ask for feedback. “One thing our research uncovered is that virtual leaders generally don't ask their team members for feedback. In a face-to-face one-on-one meeting, nonverbal feedback allows each person to adjust. But in a virtual setting, the leader has to be more deliberate and ask for it.”
  4. Lead with intention. “This is about the leader taking a minute to think before they act. What energy do I want to bring to this meeting, this interaction, this phone call? What sentiment do I want the person to feel afterward? How much structure and support do I want to provide for them? And once I have identified my intentions, How do I do my best to make my intentions come to fruition?”

Practice Two: Foster Community 

Most leaders are unaware of how much they connect to an organization and a team by being onsite. Face-to-face, leaders pick up cultural cues and norms by observing behavior, dress, language, and communication patterns. Effective virtual leaders work diligently to connect team members to the larger organization by actively facilitating collaboration, creating the team culture, and helping virtual workers unite to build community spirit.

  1. Build trust. “This is where community starts. It’s crucial for a leader to be reliable and responsive in a remote environment. But each leader must to take the time to define it. This means setting up clear norms or ways of working so that people know what to expect if they send the leader an instant message versus an email. In a virtual environment, it’s easy to be out of sight, out of mind.” 
  2. Provide technology support. “Leaders need to make sure people have the tools and technology they need. That's a big issue right now. I was talking with one client about an upcoming pilot training session of this program and I asked, ‘What kind of equipment are people going to have for this training?’ A lot of people just had their laptops but didn’t have a separate monitor. That’s not optimal for training or for working from home. Organizations should show people they care by providing them with the equipment and support they need.”
  3. Invest in connection. “One of the challenges with remote work is that people can start feeling like a piece of machinery being used to get the work done. Emails and meetings are purely transactional. Leaders need to dedicate time to talk—just catch up, check in, and stay connected.  Whether it’s at the beginning of a one-on-one or a team meeting, they should use the first five minutes to connect with people, asking about how they are doing and what they’re up to.”
  4. Celebrate success. “This is another aspect of work life that often gets forgotten in the virtual world. We finish one project and just go on to the next one. Or somebody has a significant event in their life and we don't acknowledge it. Celebrating is all about recognizing individual and team contribution. Look for ways to do that in the virtual world. One of my favorites with large global teams is knowing what their holidays are. We ask team members to take their laptop and go around their house showing us anything they've done for the holiday. It’s a great way to create other cultures and communities.”

Practice Three: Accelerate Performance and Development

It’s easy to lose track of the development needs of people who work virtually. Virtual leaders have to stay focused on team members’ needs for direction and support in the short term as well as career and personal goals in the long term. This increases satisfaction, builds loyalty, and creates a more valuable employee.

  1. Focus on output. “First, new virtual managers shouldn’t worry about what people are doing every minute. Instead, they need to be clear on what they want people to achieve and focus there. If goals are met, the leader shouldn’t be concerned about how and when people are doing their work. Many people work in less than ideal environments at home with a lot of competing priorities that can result in odd working hours.”
  2. Encourage self-reliance. “Building self-reliance means setting clear goals and then checking in on a regular basis to see what’s needed in terms of direction and support. We recommend using coaching questions. We’ve even included a virtual coaching guide in the program.”
  3. Facilitate networking. “There are two reasons why we specifically call out networking as a desired habit: One, it creates connection for people, and two, it means leaders don’t have to do all the coaching themselves—and they aren’t going to be expected to be the expert all the time. The goal is to help team members create relationships with others they can go to for help.”
  4. Assist with career development. “If a leader is not having career development discussions with their remote employee, somebody else will.  The leader should be talking to their direct reports about their career, what areas they want to develop, and what kind of help they need.”

In many ways, good virtual leadership is the same as good face-to-face leadership, says Hester. “It's about doing all of the important things leaders need to do, but in a different medium and environment. The research shows that anything leaders do in a face-to-face environment, they need to do more of, and better, in a virtual environment.

“Blanchard’s new Leading Virtually program is designed to help leaders develop virtual leadership skills quickly and successfully. Leaders today increasingly operate in an environment in which they aren’t face to face with the individuals they lead—and they need to know how to lead people without having in-person contact. With so many leaders managing team members who work in different locations, there is an ever-increasing need for people who seldom get together to figure out how to work better together.”


Would you like to learn more about leading in a virtual environment?  Join us for a free webinar!

Leading Virtually: 3 Practices New Virtual Leaders Need to Master

Thursday, April 16, 2020, 7:00 a.m. Pacific Time

In this webinar, virtual leadership expert John Hester shares three best practices for leading in a virtual environment.  Drawing on the key principles from The Ken Blanchard Companies’ new Leading Virtually program, participants will learn how to:

  1. Be attentive and mindful by knowing the goals, motivations, needs, and experiences of team members, and recognizing when changes occur.
  2. Foster community by connecting team members to the larger organization, actively facilitating collaboration, creating the team culture, and helping virtual workers unite to build community spirit.
  3. Accelerate performance and development by focusing on team members’ careers and personal goals and finding ways for them to develop.

Don’t miss this opportunity to learn specific tools, practices, and habits required for effective virtual leadership.

Register today!

About the Author

Randy Conley

Randy Conley is the Vice President & Trust Practice Leader for Blanchard®. He is coauthor of Blanchard’s Building Trust training program and works with organizations around the globe, helping them build trust in the workplace. In 2022, Randy and Ken Blanchard coauthored Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, and most recently, Simple Truths of Leadership Playbook: A 52-Week Game Plan for Becoming a Trusted Servant Leader.

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