What makes an effective virtual leader during lockdown and beyond?

Penny Pullan outlines six steps to follow for those looking to maximise the effectiveness of their online meetings, and explains why a facilitative approach is best for leading in a virtual context

What does great leadership look like? When countries around the world entered lockdown in early 2020, almost all work went virtual. For some, this was nothing new, but for the majority of leaders, their leadership style was put to the test in a new way.

Many of the things that work when people are together no longer did. It wasn’t possible to glance around to see what other team members were up to, as they were far away in their own homes. In this new working environment, there were many more things to draw people’s focus away, including other family members, the fridge, home chores, fears about the pandemic and health, on top of social media and other distractions. In this new situation, traditional command-and-control leadership didn’t work very well for many. Micromanaging just doesn’t work remotely, although many leaders tried, driving their teams to distraction in the process.

Facilitative leadership

Far better in this virtual situation is something quite different. No leader can glance over to see what their team members are doing, so it makes sense to be clear about what outputs and outcomes are needed, while giving people autonomy about how they carry out their tasks and offering them support where they need it.

Autonomy is a powerful motivator for knowledge workers. It works best when people are experienced and doing what they do well, so it makes sense to encourage people to work on tasks that bring out their strengths and to help them develop mastery in areas which they are interested in. Great leaders are really clear on the overall purpose and context of work, so that people feel that their work matters in challenging times. Engaging people’s hearts and minds, plus building relationships one-to-one with individuals and across the team, are key to keeping people feeling a valued part of the team.

From my experience of nearly two decades of working remotely, the best leadership style for virtual work is one where the leader serves the other people in the team, making it as easy as possible for each person to achieve their best and for the team to succeed as a whole. Here the leader acts as a facilitator, making it easy for individuals to engage in the team and complete their tasks. This facilitative leader creates an environment, and team norms, where the whole team as well as the individuals within it, can thrive and flourish together, while producing great work.

Six steps to leading effective virtual meetings

Let’s apply this by exploring how to run an effective meeting in a facilitative way, using the Magic 6TM steps.

1We Are Here To: at the start, set out the purpose of the meeting clearly. This answers the question: ‘What are we here to do?’ or ‘What’s the point of this meeting?’ Rather than a long answer, this should be high level, focused and short!

2Today We Will: now, move on to four or five objectives of your virtual meeting.  

3Our Plan: agree the time plan for the meeting with everyone. What are the start and end times? When will there be breaks? Can some people attend for part of the meeting rather than attending throughout if they are not needed?

4Who’s Doing What: sharing meeting roles makes it much more likely that people will pay attention throughout the virtual meeting, so invite others to play roles such as facilitator, timekeeper and action scribe. This last role records all of the actions and decisions in a public way so that everyone can see.

5How We Work Together: a critical, but much neglected step is to consider ‘how we work together’. Choices here make a big difference and, by anticipating problems upfront and agreeing how you would react as a group, it can be possible to nip them in the bud. Some people call these ‘ground rules’, although this name has connotations of hierarchy, which a facilitative leader would want to avoid.  ‘How we work together’ for virtual meetings might include:

  • State your name at the start of any contribution you make, so that people know who made the contribution or took the action
  • Mute if you are in a noisy environment or in a large group
  • Only one person speaking at a time
  • Poll the group randomly every 10-15 minutes for a short check in, to ensure that people stay alert and expect to be called on
  • ‘Spellling dusn’t mater’, to include dyslexic and anxious people to contribute
  • Consider how you will tackle confidentiality and how you will take decisions

6What’s Next: at the end of the meeting, review actions, agree next steps and review the meeting. Too often virtual meetings don’t result in action, so ensure that everyone knows exactly what they have agreed to do and circulate this immediately afterwards as well. Agree how actions will be followed up. A quick review of a virtual meeting ensures that you learn from each meeting you run, allowing learning and subsequent improvement for future meetings. If each meeting was just 5% better, imagine the improvement over a month or two.

With physical distancing here to stay for the foreseeable future, offices are unlikely to return to normal quickly. Virtual working will still be part of all of our lives, whether full time at home, with staggered shifts in the office, or as hybrid teams spread across the office and homes. Here leaders will need to ensure a level playing field between team members, wherever they are working. The best way to do this is to consider every team a virtual team if at least one person is remote from the others.

Penny Pullan is the author of Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams. She works with companies to develop their virtual leadership and tricky change capabilities.

Ambition readers can receive a discount on Virtual Leadership by using the code AMBA20 at checkout when ordering through the publisher’s website.

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