Challenges for the Virtual Leader During COVID-19

As the authors of the Harvard Business Review’s Leader’s Handbook wrote “the best way for any aspiring leader to succeed and to navigate turbulent times is to tune out the noise and refocus on these fundamentals”.

They define leadership as “achieving significant positive impact—by building an organization of people working together toward a common goal.”

Whilst the next few weeks and months remain uncertain for business across the globe, it is important for leaders to not lose sight of their vision, as management strategies are redefined to meet the challenges of the new virtual world of work. Staff may struggle with the virtual approach as they see their business drying up and future opportunities disappearing, so it is vital for leaders to control the narrative as well as giving direction, offering support and, above all, providing hope. Painting a vision of the post-crisis scenario can help with this, with the team focussed and pulling together in the same direction, what could be achieved?

It is vital to provide clarity around a firm’s strategy and, in particular, any changes, especially when teams are being managed remotely. To expedite adoption, leaders may need to build a coalition of support for new plans through consultation with key internal stakeholders whilst ultimately taking responsibility for decision-making and execution.  As many firms undergo the process of reforecasting and altering financial goals, staff should be informed and have a clear understanding of any revised expectations.

Hiring may not be possible at this time and many companies may be cutting headcount or furloughing staff, but a pragmatic leader should do so judiciously, and with one eye on the next phase.  Companies may wish to explore the feasibility of repurposing ‘staff at risk’ to other business lines where activity remains strong, or where an early recovery is anticipated. 

There may also be the temptation to abandon innovation or pilot projects, and in many cases, it might be prudent to do so.  However, there are many examples of companies thriving during the crisis through innovation, such as beermakers and distillers across the globe shifting production to hand sanitisers; engineering firms or car manufacturing making components for ventilators; and costumiers making face masks or medical attire. Crises often make good leaders confront the realities of their business as they assess what is working well, what they may do in the future and what needs fixing. It may also open their eyes to opportunities which may already be within their grasp.

For leaders working within a traditional office-based working environment, the current crisis will present significant but not insurmountable challenges as to how they communicate virtually and maintain the company culture. To communicate purely via conference call will not replace the benefits of propinquity within the office, and, in many organisations, especially where trust and collaboration are key components of success, the erosion of the team ethos could negatively impact how the business fares.

There may be the temptation to conduct all meetings via video conferencing, but this may seem a little intrusive, particularly given that employees are working from home. Employees may also feel that a leader is ‘checking up on them’. Clearly a balance is needed.

Leaders may wish to look at changing their operating rhythm to help manage at this time. Increasing the regularity of meetings or ad hoc touchpoints, either as a team or with individuals, can go some way to help, but there may be wisdom in attempting to improve the depth and quality of the interactions, particularly when it comes to one-on-one virtual communications. Having managed overseas staff remotely for many years (making many mistakes along the way), it cannot be stressed enough that communicating at a human level, first and foremost, is essential. The most successful leaders will seek to truly understand their staff, their circumstances, hopes and aspirations and ultimately what motivates them. Spending time discussing life outside of work is time well spent.  The old adage that ‘people don’t care what you know, they want to know that you care’ rings truer than ever.

Virtual meeting technology companies are already one of the clear winners from this terrible crisis and are playing a key role for companies in maintaining team culture. The surge in demand may frequently impact the streaming quality of these tools, but not enough to dampen the enthusiasm amongst staff for virtual drinks with colleagues, quizzes and even scavenger hunts! They may not replace the intimacy of water-cooler conversations, coffee breaks or drinks after work, but they will certainly enhance the sense of community and collective spirit.

Many commentators in the business world are already speculating as to how this crisis will change working practices in the aftermath. Anecdotally, we hear that some of the more traditional law firms, in particular, are looking very seriously at flexible working arrangements, which would represent a seismic shift in culture and behaviour but the advantages are becoming increasingly obvious. Aside from cost savings from real estate, in many service sectors, productivity levels are either stable or increasing. Additionally, there is a view that, in the longer term, we will discover that both mental and physical health will have improved during this period due to a myriad of factors – more time to exercise, less travel, less exposure to pollution and more quality time at home. 

Whilst a completely office-free existence is unlikely for many industry sectors, leaders will soon be required to review working arrangements, not least because the ‘genie is out of the bottle’ and employees may expect to have the option. This will prove to be yet another challenge on the road ahead for the virtual leader in the time of COVID-19.

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