How to thrive as a virtual leader 

by | Jun 12, 2020 | Public Relations

It’s difficult to remember what ‘normal’ life truly looked like before the COVID-19 lockdown was implemented. We’ve become used to Skype family quizzes instead of Sunday lunches; online shopping instead of window shopping, queuing for our groceries instead of picking at free will and work briefings over Teams instead of over coffee.

For many of these changes, as lockdown begins to ease, a sense of normality will resume—however, for other aspects of this ‘brave new world’ they may be here to stay.

The workplace is, in my mind, one of the key places where big changes will be made, potentially making what we knew of work and working culture redundant. Over 11 weeks, working from home and virtual meetings have begun to feel natural and perhaps much more doable than we first anticipated. And as our world begins to emerge from this dystopia, this agility is set to continue.

But, if this online office is here to stay for the majority of the workforce, how do we as leaders avoid a workforce riddled with ‘Zoom fatigue,’ technology anxiety or feelings of isolation whilst still creating a business with a strong reputation, and one that produces high-quality results?

Leadership and personal branding

Personal branding, or how you as a leader reflects upon your business, changes dramatically between the real-world and the virtual one. Research has found that when people are attending a webinar or a conference call, attention is focused on the likeability of the host rather than the quality of the content being produced—the complete opposite to events such as these when in person.

But this doesn’t mean that we can all sit back and talk rubbish instead, being a successful online leader means finding an equal balance between quality of content AND likeability.

The characteristics of an online likeable leader

  • Adaptability  

Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is first and foremost the biggest and most crucial challenge to overcome. Many leaders will have been pushed into situations that are alien to them and their colleagues such as conducting whole team meetings from the living room or managing sub-sections of teams from the kitchen.

Some members of the team will be extremely uncomfortable with working from home, without the ability to socialise, bounce ideas off their colleagues and generally enjoy the buzz of the office. Others will thrive at home, free from the distraction, being able to focus more of their time and energies on the projects that matter most.

Understanding both yourself and your employees is critical to knowing how to lead. Each person has their own requirements (including yourself) and preferred ways of doing things, and it is the responsibility of the leader to recognise what these are and adjust their leadership style accordingly.

  • Empathy and humour 

It’s important to remember that fun and humour doesn’t come from physical proximity, and it’s crucial to make sure this still exists within your virtual team. Not all Zoom meetings have to be heavy conference calls, they can be check-ins with your team to share a joke, have a brew and download.

Not only will this help continue your company’s culture but, it will help to reduce any feelings of loneliness that may begin to creep in.

Micromanagement will get you nowhere

The key to successfully communicating with teams is to know when to back off and back down. If there is no trust from you as a leader, your team will respond with push-back and indignation. It’s important to recognise that there is such a thing as over communication, whereby leaders feel the need to constantly be in contact with their teams. They don’t.

All they need to do is trust their people to get on with doing the job they do so well, whilst clearly communicating that they are available any time should they be needed; thereby, empowering people and giving them a sense of greater responsibility in their work.

The downside of being in a physical office, is that when people have a question, they will invariably bring it to the leader rather than trying to find the answer in advance for themselves. In a virtual environment, this process is largely eliminated and this in turn helps to develop individuals’ knowledge.

This phenomenon is new and it’s unknown. Whilst many businesses will have implemented a degree of flexible working or remote working prior to COVID-19, very few will have seen something on such a scale as we are witnessing today. However, COVID-19 is not the be all and end all of good leadership nor of tight-knit company culture. In fact, it is the turbo-charge that perhaps many needed to implement change, eradicate age-old methods and begin looking at a newer, more sustainable working model.

Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins is Managing Director and Founder of PR agency, Clearly PR. He founded the company in January 2014, after eight years operating as an independent PR and Editorial Consultant for clients throughout the UK, Europe and USA.