Home » Lessons for Leading a Virtual Organization

Lessons for Leading a Virtual Organization

April 21, 2020

In the April 15 session of The McMaster Collaboratorium, Dr. Michael Hartmann and guest panelist Jessica Nordlander, COO of Thoughtexchange, explored the experience of running a fully virtual business with 100s of employees around the world and the implications for leadership, governance and change management.

Virtual leadership may be called e-leadership, remote leadership or long distance leadership. Most leaders don’t feel like they are leading at all. For those interested in human to computer communication, these are interesting times.

Most leadership challenges – trust, communication, time and diversity – are accentuated in a remote setting.

Trust must be built not only with the team, but also with the technology systems being used to communicate, and to measure productivity. Some systems have been added just to accommodate the pandemic working environment, so even the decision to purchase digital tools to manage a team is important to creating trust.

Virtual teams have the same needs and challenges as in person teams – they need to build trust and must have leadership, control and diversity.

A lack of mutual knowledge can create breaks in communication and virtual conversations sometimes lack contextual information that can lead to misunderstandings.

Leaders need to support interpersonal interactions, recreating things that would happen with an in-person team such as informal “lunch” and time to talk face to face about things like feelings and fears and recreating things that would typically happen around the water cooler in a workplace.
Supporting personal interactions, important to maintaining the energy and cohesion of a team, may need to be created and leaders need to avoid creating pockets of worries or isolation.

It is important to avoid having people close to the e-leader forming a bubble and getting benefits that the others don’t. The right processes and tools will help reduce the loudest voices and tap into the silent majority.

Use options like breakout rooms so people who are more nervous to speak in front of the group are able to share their ideas. There are likely many people on your team who have skills that are now important and should be valued.

Part of leading in a virtual workplace means asking questions and that can be complicated. It is necessary to communicate intent to avoid a communication breakdown. Communicate principles rather than rules as this encourages thinking and empowers people to make decisions. Trade off control for empowerment of your team.

There are already frameworks and technologies designed to help in this new work environment and it is important to design information workflows and a culture to facilitate, interpret and understand.

Key Takeaways:

There is such a thing as trust in systems, and it matters.

Leaders can’t afford to not do things properly when you can’t rely on face to face cues.

Utilize the frameworks, practices and technologies available and specifically designed to help.

Click here to watch the webinar.