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Eight tips for leading your virtual team

With COVID-19 changing the way we live and work dramatically, as a leader you need to sustain your most valuable resource as an organization – your people, says IMD Professor Jennifer Jordan
November 2020

More than ever before in our professional lives, we are forced to work remotely – which for many of us also means leading in a virtual space. From missing non-verbal cues to miscommunication to lost momentum, complications abound.

As part of the Business Insider Global Trends Festival, Jennifer Jordan, IMD Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior, explored best practices for conquering the challenges of leading a virtual team in today’s unpredictable professional environment. Here are her eight top tips on how leaders can achieve an equal – if not higher – level of engagement and effectiveness when working in a virtual environment.

1. Don’t just focus on the task

Leaders who are new to the virtual environment should remember that the task at hand isn’t actually the most important task at hand – team comraderie is. 40% of how teams perform (effectiveness) is explained by how much open information (OI) vs unique information (UI) that they share. Professor Jordan says: “Being willing to prioritize the team is a skill leaders must learn.”

2. Get personal

OI sharing – including casual conversation, personal thoughts and feelings – is essential for bonding. Put conversation that doesn’t have to do with work front and center by starting off each meeting with a question like, “What did you have for dinner?” or “What series are you watching at the moment?”. This will give you insights into your team members and their unique personalities.

3. Take time with each team member

One executive Professor Jordan works with takes time before each weekly team meeting to have a short, rotating discussion with a different team member. “Catching up on a one-to-one basis like this will allow leaders to bond with each employee away from the rest of the staff,” says Professor Jordan. Similarly, team coffees and drinks can have the same effect – while we don’t have the proverbial water cooler conversations at the moment, this is a worthwhile replacement.

4. Don’t be afraid to channel your feelings

So your firm isn’t the touchy-feely type? Professor Jordan days you should “Double down on emotion; don’t dismiss it!”. You can ignore feelings and claim it’s not a part of your corporate culture, but your team’s results will reflect that influence. “You get what you put into it,” says Professor Jordan.

5. Pay close attention to nonverbal cues

Nowadays we spend many hours online in Zoom meetings, staring at our team in tiny boxes on a screen. At the same time, humans have evolved to read each other’s nonverbal cues, and especially micro-emotions. “This means we understand more than what is said with just words,” says Professor Jordan. “That data doesn’t come across in the virtual world as it does in real life.” Much like an actor does onstage, tune up your emotions and responses so they are clearly understood.

6. Be an active listener

Being truly present and an active listener is the sign of a good leader. This means not allowing yourself to “digitally fidget” by reading emails or browsing online during meetings. “Embody the present to be a good role model as a leader,” says Professor Jordan.

7. Use a tool to gauge your team’s satisfaction

Professor Jordan suggests leaders use IMD coach Dr Silke Mischke’s technique of starting each meeting with an annotated slide. By asking employees to rate their energy levels and feelings in a 2 x 2 grid anonymously, leaders can understand whether the team is happy, sad, energetic or lethargic, overall. “This is a nice way to share feelings in a private way,” says Professor Jordan. “It can get the conversation started without putting anyone on the spot.”

8. Embrace your authenticity

Studies show people can be more authentic in the virtual world because they are often working from a “safe space” or comfort zone like their home. Hiding behind a computer also has an effect, and employees feel they can open up in a way they can’t in the office. “People are generally more candid and that comes from the feeling of safety and security,” says Professor Jordan.

By using these eight techniques, leaders can overcome many of the challenges that working virtually presents. Over time, they can foster meaningful team interaction that ultimately boosts efficiency and effectiveness.