My tips for leaders transitioning to virtual organisational structures to remain effective in their leadership without excessive traveling

The horror of going virtual

In recent weeks I have started working for a European company that went from almost exclusively local organisational structures to 100% virtual structures. For the leaders involved this means they have to switch from local, face-to-face to virtual leadership. Many of the leaders were horrified with the reorganisation as they thought that virtual leadership would mean they have to travel to each direct report almost on a weekly basis in order to be effective as a leader and keep the connection with all team members. The main driver for the horror was the time they would lose by travelling around the country to visit their direct reports.

Of course, if one has no experience with virtual working such a switch can trigger fears of losing motivation and performance when leading people remotely and not connecting with them often and effective enough. If you have been reading my blogs over recent years you know that I consider such fears unfounded as I have gained a lot of experience in virtual leadership and have successfully coached many remote leaders to enhance their effectiveness in virtual teams. Together with a colleague I have developed a programme of self guided learning modules and coaching interventions to support the leaders in the transformation from local to virtual.  When transitioning to a virtual organsiation there is a better way than more traveling and wasting precious time – and also increasing carbon emissions. Considering a few core factors in your leadership role will save you lots of time and at the same time keep your carbon footprint small.

Success factors for virtual leadership

The first virtual team I had to lead dates back to 1992. Back then times where very different as online technology was in its infancy and working as a team from remote places was highly unusual. Since then I had many opportunities to learn what it takes to be effective in a virtual context and what hinders a virtual team to perform well. In addition, I have been coaching more and more virtual leaders supporting them to enhance their effectiveness in the virtual working context. Until recently, the main driver for leaders to enhance their competencies in virtual working was to minimise the lost time through travelling to have face-to-face connections with direct reports – plus: travel budgets got more and more restricted. A more recent boost of the awareness for climate change and for the impact of frequent traveling on the climate in the public domain puts extra pressure on the way virtual teams should be led. Bringing business travel back to a minimum or to zero, thus minimising the carbon footprint, requires extra attention of virtual leaders in order to maintain effectiveness and team performance.

In this blog I want to focus on the most important factors I consider necessary for virtual leaders to be effective and successful.

In short these success factors for virtual leadership are the following four:

  1. being able to build fundamental trust with members of the virtual organisation
  2. being at ease or even savvy with technology required to interact virtually
  3. understanding and applying the different set of rules for communication in a virtual context and
  4. having a presence in the virtual world

I have already written about the first of the success factors in a previous blog. Today I am focusing on how you can boost your presence as a leader in the virtual part of your organisation.

Virtual presence enhanced

When considering presence in a virtual leadership role I want to differentiate between the synchronous and asynchronous interaction in a virtual context. I would like to give you some ideas how you can boost your presence in both modes of interaction. Before doing so I am going to present you a more fundamental thought on mindset shifts that help you developing your virtual presence:

From all the conversations with leaders who are really perceived as having a high presence in their virtual organisation I have extracted the following fundamental mindset change which I believe creates this effect: the common element these leaders have is that they reflected on their behaviour and appearance in a local setting, creating high presence, and defined the equivalent of virtual substitutes. Neuroscience has shown that priming your subconscious with such new mindsets can make a big difference.

Hence, I recommend that you take some time to go exactly through such a reflective exercise and define your virtual equivalents to your localised behaviour giving you leadership presence.

Asynchronous presence

Now let’s have a look at what could help you to boost your presence in the asynchronous interaction as a virtual leader:

Asynchronous means that you are not connected with the person at the same time, hence you need to rely on virtual technology and exchange platforms to interact and communicate. Whether this is your company’s social media platform, like Yammer™ etc, or your team’s workspace, like TeamSpace™ etc., one important element of these platforms is your usage frequency and visibility of your contributions.
Another element is to have a personal profile with the most up-to-date information. One might consider this too time consuming. I would recommend reframing and rethinking some of your habitual activities. Think about how often you are “at the coffee machine” and how much time you are spending for this activity. Your local colleagues are, most likely, up-to-date about you and key things happening in your life. You may need to share your time differently between the local interaction and the virtual interaction. In addition, you could also consider that some of the emails you send around in the team might be as effective or even more effective when published through your organisation’s messenger system.

Here are two more ideas for further reframes in the asynchronous virtual interaction.

  • Blog contributions are live discussions in slow motion.
  • Chat exchanges are one conversation stretched over a longer time.

Both reframes may seem weird at first glance, so let them sink in and mature in the back of your mind.

Synchronous presence

Let’s move to the synchronous interaction in your virtual world. Very often I hear from leaders that they consider videoconferencing the ultimate way of interacting and being present. This is true if you consider visual presence as the one and only form of expressing your presence. However, studies show that using only videoconferencing in virtual interactions may even have a negative impact on the effectiveness of the meeting or objectives to be achieved. I will cover more of this in a future blog.
However, there are many instances where screen sharing of documents and telephone conferencing is much more effective than a videoconference. And that means paying much more attention to your voice is a key element to enhance your presence in a virtual interaction. Here is a link to a fantastic TED talk about voice presence: Julian Treasure  – How to speak so that people want to listen

You could even consider hiring a voice coach to build the impact of your audio presence. In addition, I would highly recommend exercising your hearing and listening skills. Both are as important for your virtual presence as your voice itself.

These days a lot of virtual meetings take place either in the format of a telephone conference, or a screen share combination using platforms like SkypePro, TEAMS, Zoom or Adobe Connect etc. For these instances I want to give you a few ideas to reframe your mind:

When joining a telephone conference most people think about dialling in and speaking over the phone.
Consider this reframe: You are actually going into a meeting

When using a screen share technology or a virtual platform like Zoom or Adobe connect people just see themselves sitting in front of the computer.
Consider this reframe: you enter the room and you take a seat at the table (for those who like Star Trek maybe you could think of the ‘Holo-Deck’ you’re going into)

Conclusions

As crazy as these reframing ideas may sound, many leaders who do a lot of virtual interaction very successfully confirmed having similar pictures in mind or reframes defined for their virtual part of leadership. From my personal experience and working a lot of my time virtually as well, I have gained great value through such reframes. For example, years ago in telephone conferences or on virtual platforms fatigue set in for me after maximum one hour and my concentration level dropped significantly. These days 2 to 3 hours virtual interaction have the same effect on me as face-to-face meetings.

In summary, if you are in a virtual leadership role or about to move into one you can minimise your travel time through selecting appropriate ways in which you create a virtual presence and connection with your direct reports spread around the country or the globe. Try it out and see what works best for you; adapt to your style and culture to still be authentic but also effective as a virtual leader. And -as a byproduct- mankind is getting ever so slightly further away from the abyss through a smaller carbon footprint.

If you’re interested in a more detailed conversation get in touch with me direct and we can explore the subject of virtual presence in much more depth.