While many leaders have taken the shift to remote work in their stride, it’s inevitable that there are going to be new (and incredibly common) challenges that they’ll come up against. From misinterpretation of requests to feedback conversations that end with things left unsaid, we’re entering a whole new realm of leadership that has no shortage of stumbling blocks.
In this article, we’re going to be delving into some of the most common challenges of virtual leadership and what you can do to overcome them. Ready? Let’s get to it.
Communication challenges in virtual leadership
Communication is arguably one of the most important (and most challenging) aspects of virtual leadership to get right. In a traditional office environment, there’s plenty of opportunity for face-to-face conversation to occur, including those off-the-cuff conversations that build rapport and provide opportunities for creative solutions to be uncovered.
Here are a couple of areas of communication that virtual leaders need to keep in mind when managing remote working teams.
#1: Communication with direct reports
Where in the past you’d be walking the office, speaking with your direct reports on a daily basis, the shift to virtual leadership is likely to have created a communication divide. You may have found yourself speaking more regularly via text-based platforms like Slack or Email rather than picking up the phone. You also may have found yourself only speaking with direct reports to delegate tasks or provide feedback and change requests. This can quickly lead to a transactional relationship forming that can lead to a drop in employee engagement.
In our Virtual Leaders program we recommend leaders to keep track of the conversations they have with direct reports each week to ensure that they’re communicating regularly and prioritising the most personal forms of communication, namely video conferencing and phone calls.
#2: Communicating feedback
Providing concise, timely feedback is essential in any organisation, but in a remote working context this can prove to be slightly more challenging. While it is possible to provide feedback through text-based communication (tracked document changes for example) it also leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation.
When providing feedback on a project or task as a virtual leader we’d recommend using the screen sharing capability available with most video conferencing software. This will provide a visual point of reference throughout the conversation that’ll help you to effectively depersonalise tough feedback and ensure clarity of message.
#3: Communication between team members
One of the traditional office challenges that can be exacerbated in a remote working environment is lack of communication between team members and between teams. As a virtual leader, one of the challenges that you’re likely to come up against is a lack of communication between teams that leads to mistakes, misinterpretations or doubling up on tasks.
To combat this, keep the conversation about collaboration and connecting with team members top of mind. You may even need to coach individuals in your team by setting up regular catch-ups with project-based teams to ensure that there’s at least one guaranteed opportunity for them to connect.
#4: Differences in communication styles
We all have our preferences, there’s no doubt about it. You may have seen this in your own teams already with some team members using certain digital communication tools on a daily basis whereas others are nowhere to be seen until you send them an email.
As the leader, it’s up to you to communicate the standards you’re looking for from your team. One way you can do this is to create a communication tool hierarchy with clear expectations on how they are to be used day-to-day. In a previous article, we’ve shared our approach to this (straight from the Virtual Leaders program) that you might find useful.
Cultural challenges in virtual leadership
#1: Lack of face-to-face team gatherings
While you may be connecting with your teams virtually through weekly video conference calls we know these BAU catch-ups often leave a lot to be desired from a cultural perspective. In order to maintain and even improve your workplace culture while working remotely, it’s important to provide opportunities for small group and wider organisational connections.
We’ve recently shared 15 different culture-building activities you can do with your team while working remotely, so take a look at that for inspiration if this is a big challenge for you.
#2: Lack of rapport-building conversations
We’ve touched on this briefly already, but just as it’s important for you as a virtual leader to connect on a personal level with your direct reports so too is it important for individuals in your teams. Some organisations have taken up using tools like Donut in Slack to pair team members for a virtual lunch to connect and chat, this could be something to consider to help encourage regular rapport-building between colleagues.
So there you have it, some of the most common challenges facing virtual leaders in 2021. Where to from here? Well, if working remotely is looking like a long-term shift within your organisation it might be worth taking a look at our Virtual Leaders program. It’s a practical, science-based program that’s designed to equip leaders with the strategies they need to effectively lead and motivate their teams in a virtual working environment.