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Teamwork, Leadership Development 10 March 2020

Four steps to successful virtual leadership

Remote working has risen over the past few years, and now stands at unprecedented levels. Innovative communication technologies coupled with the need for organisations to act globally by creating footprints locally, means that the old presenteeism model is just no longer fit for purpose in many companies and industries.

However, the current spike in remote working due to concerns over Coronavirus may mean that you and those you lead are suddenly required to become remote workers. More than that – you need to become a remote leader when you may not be used to it yourself, you haven’t had time to properly prepare your people for the change, you’ve got big deliverables coming up, and the dog thinks that because you’re home, it must be time for a walk.

Leading through sudden change is one of the most difficult things you can do as a leader, especially when you’re as blindsided by the change as your team. By following some of our suggested steps, you can tailor your approach to leading through challenging times, making sure that people have the information they need, when they need it, in the way that resonates with them the most.

1. Understand yourself as a person, then as a leader

To be able to roll with the punches, you need to be able to recognise what you may struggle with as change happens, and when your responses aren’t necessarily healthy or rational. That’s why self-awareness is so critical for all of us in today’s workplace. If you’ve taken the time to truly understand what you like, and what you are like, your resilience will kick in when things start to feel difficult or chaotic.

Sit back for a minute and consider – what happens internally when you hear of a sudden change? Maybe your heart rate increases, perhaps you’re excited, or fearful, or your cynical side begins to question why yet another change is necessary. Once you identify your response you can consider strategies to deal with it: maybe you need all of the details available in order to feel comfortable; perhaps a quick power walk would give your mind the freedom to mull things over; or it could be that venting over a coffee with a friend helps you process things.

Whatever your preference for coping with change, self-knowledge is power. The self-aware leader is adept at processing new situations, finding ways to feel a sense of ownership over it, and making themselves available to their team as they begin to grapple with it, too.

2. Authenticity is all

Sometimes change can be a one-and-done kind of thing. A new CEO, a change of strategic priority, a client changes the brief two hours before the deadline. That type of discrete change certainly requires a leader who can tap into what the team is feeling and give them what they need to move forward as one. How about ongoing uncertainty, though? What does that do to the obligations of a leader? How do you continue to hold the team together when you’re struggling with what tomorrow will bring as much as anyone else?

The truth is you can only maintain the trust others have in you if you lead with humanity and authenticity. No one should ever wear a leadership mask anyway, and in times of ongoing uncertainty a facade becomes almost impossible to maintain.

The simple truth is that nobody wants to feel that they’re at the end of a spin campaign. Being open and honest with your employees, as much as you are able, says that you trust them, you recognise them as humans with fears and questions, and that they can rely on you to share the information that you have, instead of withholding it from a misguided sense of leader-as-protector.

Don’t be afraid to lean into ambiguity when it’s real. As a leader, sometimes the very best answer you can give is, ‘I don’t know’ followed by, ‘But when I do know, you will too’.

3. Remember who you’re dealing with

Understanding yourself is key to your own abilities as a leader, closely followed by fully understanding those you lead. Your team will inevitably be a mixed bag of ages, experiences, motivations, ambitions, and – critically – workplace preferences. Which is just as it should be! After all, there’s tremendous power and potential in a team that cross-pollinates skills, opinions, and strengths.

The trick when faced with communicating change to a team is to stay focused on the fact that you’re not dealing with one homogenous group; you’re speaking to people who will each have their own way of engaging with the change, as well as their own questions, fears, and home-working situation to deal with.

If one of your team has, say, small children at home, they may need time and support to create a home-working space that gives them the seclusion they need. The most extroverted member of your team might need you to check in with them regularly, so they don’t get too lonely. Someone with a passion for details will have a lot of questions, so make sure you have all the answers available to share with them.

4. Trust, trust, trust

The ongoing coronavirus situation is keeping us all in a state of flux. We’re trying to maintain normality without knowing what will change next month, next week, or by the end of the day. In this situation it might feel that, as the leader, you need to wrap your arms around everything, making sure not a minute is lost, and nobody has cause to question your team’s commitment or work rate.

Creating a climate of micromanagement and fear won’t serve you well though. Why not try to think of this as an opportunity for a bit of liberation instead? If you’ve hired the right people, then you’ll know that they can be trusted to look after their own workload. The person who thrives on exercise to feel healthy might enjoy a long lunchtime run, working later into the evening to make up for it. The parents in your team might mix up their hours to fit around the school run. The night-owl may prefer to start late to finish late. You should be able to implicitly trust the right people to do what they need to do, wherever and whenever best suits them and the team.

An evolving world of work requires a leader whose self-awareness allows them to be agile, responding quickly to what customers and employees need even in an atmosphere of profound uncertainty. If you want to learn more about how Insights helps people excel in a rapidly-changing workplace, download our eBook now.

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