New Leadership Challenges for the Virtual World of Work

June 4, 2021

This originally appeared on MIT Sloan Management Review

During the COVID-19 crisis, senior leaders must rethink key decision-making processes in order to enhance trust, transparency, and teamwork.

The COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly and dramatically upended the working world, creating unanticipated business and leadership challenges. Some organizations are pivoting hard to new delivery channels, new products, and new operating models without having enough time to manage the impact of these changes thoughtfully. As a result, many executives currently find themselves shooting from the hip, bereft of their usual channels to engage deeply with stakeholders and gain agreement on the path forward.

The rapid shift to remote work has brought on other challenges for organizations. Effective performance measurement, management, and accountability are always a challenge. In this suddenly almost exclusively virtual world, where it’s much easier for employees to become almost invisible, how can we recognize and reward great performance and also deal with performance challenges? More than ever, leaders must be attuned to the needs of their businesses and their people, even though the stresses in their own lives may have increased during the pandemic.

While videoconferencing and remote work arrangements have been gaining steady progress in recent years, many sensitive conversations or relationships in businesses are still typically handled in person. Trust and transparency — essential for supporting effective communication, information sharing, and follow-through on commitments — are best established and maintained face to face. The inability to bring external and internal stakeholders together in person for the foreseeable future adds more difficulty to decision-making and increases the potential for conflict. For organizations, the critical challenge in the current environment centers on how senior leaders can engage virtually in key decision-making processes with stakeholders and internal team members in ways that enhance trust, transparency, and teamwork. The crisis also offers a critical opening to rethink how decision-making is distributed and managed locally and globally.

High-Performance Strategies for Leading Virtually

The insights that we share below come from our own experiences and from those of other colleagues, representing a century of experience working, researching, and consulting with leading companies globally on issues of leadership, teamwork, and work design, including virtual work. Based on that experience and what we’re seeing in our companies and hearing from clients today, we’ve put together the following tips and advice on how to improve the quality and impact of leadership while working virtually in these turbulent times.

Manage Yourself

Echoing the preflight safety guidance to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others, the first key steps that are foundational to successfully working remotely involve taking care of yourself. We have had extensive experience with virtual work in our own professional lives and can attest to its importance based on that experience.

Maintain a regular schedule — get up at a consistent time, and build in time for important activities like exercise. While there may be things we don’t miss about going into a physical office every day, whether a long commute or less time for family, it’s hard not to miss the structure it added to our days. Many of us have built different rituals, both personal and professional, that are bounded by physical proximity to our work. When working at the office, early morning, lunchtime, and evening are natural times for scheduling our family time and nonwork activities. When working remotely, you have the flexibility to work when needed but have to take extra care to attend to the other needs in your life. Formally scheduling nonwork time on your calendar can help you replace the breaks that used to occur organically as you moved between home and office.

Take well-being breaks throughout the day. Sitting in front of your computer all day long without breaks is not healthy. Even when you have back-to-back meetings in the office, you’re typically moving about frequently throughout the day to get from place to place. While working at home, it’s especially important to find time to take breaks and exercise, even if you remain indoors.

Manage the Work

Setting the stage for successful virtual meetings and running them properly is the second set of keys to successful virtual work. Making decisions remotely and effectively requires more time and effort than when you’re convening in person.

Emphasize preparation and agendas to help remote meetings be more effective. While the science of meetings tells us that being unprepared is bad in any setting, in normal times we could often get away with less-than-perfect practices when meeting face to face. Meeting virtually is harder — both in terms of the logistics and the mental cognition required — so leaders need to put more time into making sure everyone is prepared before the meeting and that the agenda is crafted carefully.

Limit the size and duration of remote meetings, and ensure that they have a clear purpose. Meeting in large groups presents challenges in any setting: The smaller the group, the easier it is for everyone to be heard and for decisions to be made. When working virtually, it’s even harder for large groups to be effective, and people’s attention spans are shorter. Keep the group to the minimum size needed for key decisions, and keep ancillary items off the agenda. Use time wisely, given that many people working from home, especially those with families, likely have competing responsibilities. One strategy is to have more frequent but shorter meetings that are very focused. And as leaders gain greater clarity on the new operating routines, they should manage the frequency of recurring meetings — decreasing their number if too few decisions are being made routinely.

Create virtual alternatives to big team meetings. Rather than sponsoring a national sales meeting or developers conference, organizations can pursue “un-conferences” or other alternative formats that combine formal information sharing with peer learning and relationship building. The general format could resemble a traditional conference, with big group sessions for everyone along with concurrent smaller group sessions focused on topics of interest to specific functions and geographies. The networking and serendipitous conversations that occur outside the formal conference program may be the hardest thing to replicate, but the current situation also offers an opportunity for creative solutions using new collaboration platforms and technology to bring people together. While these virtual solutions all require extra time and energy, the reward for companies will be increased flexibility, inclusivity, and accessibility for meetings and events in the near and long terms.

Manage Development

The third set of keys to successful virtual work is effective communication and feedback when working remotely: Organic opportunities and low-stakes communication, such as briefly sharing an observation before or after a meeting, are now more difficult.

Be intentional with feedback. Don’t let the absence of organic in-person opportunities to provide feedback slow down team development during this time. In a normal environment, it’s easy to take a few minutes at the end of a meeting, or when a team member drops by your office, to offer advice or constructive comments. Doing so by phone or videoconference isn’t as easy — which is why leaders must be purposeful about creating the space and time to provide the feedback regardless. Having check-in conversations of 10 to 15 minutes on a regular basis with team members, fit in among other scheduled meetings, can help recreate the organic moments that used to happen in person. Instant messaging or texts can also help for quick check-ins, as a complement to the video- or phone-based conversations.

Fill the social gap from missed informal interactions. In an office setting, there are many spontaneous interactions that are difficult to recreate remotely — informal conversation that happens before, during, and after meetings; chance encounters in the hallway and cafeteria; people dropping by your office just to say hi. These activities increase the “surface area” of your interpersonal relationships at work and drive a faster rate of action. Now, suddenly working 100% virtually, those are not happening, so you have to purposefully architect them. (See “Four Ways to Facilitate Informal Interactions” for actions to take.)