We all know remote work and hybrid workforces won’t end anytime soon. So what skills do leaders need to develop to effectively manage virtual teams?
Only 10 per cent of people who can work remotely want to go back to a traditional work environment in a full-time capacity after the pandemic, according to a PwC survey of more than 2000 Australian workers. Instead, 74 per cent would prefer a mixture of in-person and remote work, while 16 per cent would be happy not to return to the office at all.
It’s not hard to see why. The benefits of working remotely – no commute, a better work-life balance, the chance to occasionally work from your ‘soft office’ (aka the bed or couch) – have been well reported.
But for leaders, remote work can be a different story. Many were thrust into virtual management roles for the first time in 2020, often without any training or understanding of the different skills needed to lead people through a screen.
Some managers approached the shift to remote work with skepticism, associating it with a host of problems from tech issues to the challenge of staying connected to colleagues without face-to-face interaction.
Then there’s the trust problem. Research shows that managers who can’t physically see their team members don’t always believe they’re working. As a result, a manager might put more pressure on employees to always be available. At its worst, this can lead to micromanagement, which in turn can lead to a drop in employee motivation.
So how can managers best lead their virtual teams and make their own work lives easier? According to Professors Payal Sharma, Lauren D’Innocenzo and Bradley Kirkman, it’s all about adopting an empowering leadership style.
Through interviews with hundreds of remote leaders, the trio set out to understand why some leaders resist empowering their virtual teams – and how to overcome it.
What is empowering leadership?
Delegating authority and decision making, coaching team members rather than directing them, and seeking input to help solve problems are all examples of empowering leadership. Basically, it’s about giving employees more autonomy and ownership over their work.
Having a manager with an empowering style can make people happier in their jobs, feel a greater sense of commitment and creativity, improve performance and make them less likely to quit.
“[Empowering leadership] is really about leaders seeking to motivate employees to their highest potential,” says Sharma, an Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Nevada Las Vegas Lee Business School.
“For example, a project manager could seek input from team members on how to carry out work. They would then use that input to allow team members the space to get work done in that manner. [That is] demonstrating empowering leadership.”
Leaders are more likely to empower those they can physically see, and less likely to empower those who are remote, says Sharma. This could be because of proximity bias – that is, our tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity. It happens despite the fact that it is remote workers who need autonomy the most.
“At the very time leaders should be empowering their employees because they are working at a distance and are not always able to consult the boss when making decisions, the stressors that come with working virtually are making leaders resist empowering leadership,” she says.
“This happens because they are less motivated to engage employees and have concerns about heightened risks and loss of control that they perceive are associated with sharing power with their direct reports.”
Leaders need a sense of purpose
To delve deeper into why someone might resist adopting an empowering leadership style, it helps to look at their motivations as a leader. People who don’t like leading in the first place won’t find any value in empowering others and won’t want to invest energy in doing so. The same is true of those who don’t feel a sense of duty to lead.
One solution is to help remote leaders find joy in leading by creating stronger connections with employees. A good way to do this remotely is by encouraging employees to turn their cameras on during video calls.
“In companies where cameras are usually off, we’ve noticed a palpable lack of energy during meetings – people literally and figuratively phoning it in,” Sharma, D’Innocenzo and Kirkman wrote in their paper, published last year in MITSloan Management Review.
The trio also suggest encouraging leaders to schedule short meetings with small groups once or twice a month to talk about what’s going on in their lives.
“Asking questions like, ‘What’s your energy level for this project today?’ or ‘What challenges are getting in the way for you this week?’ can help team members open up,” says D’Innocenzo, an Associate Professor of Organisational Behavior at Drexel University.
Leaders need to delegate properly
Stress from working remotely can also stop leaders from giving their teams more freedom. If communication feels too difficult – for example, if someone has an unreliable internet connection – leaders might feel reluctant to delegate work or share responsibilities.
To save time, they might choose to do things themselves rather than teaching an employee and having to fix their (potential) mistakes.
Feeling a loss of control can also put leaders on edge and cause them to tighten the reins in other areas, such as tracking how employees spend their time.
A way to overcome this is to equip remote leaders with the right tools and training to ensure things run smoothly – as well as providing a backup plan if things go wrong. In the case of dodgy wifi, this could mean providing a dongle for an employee to use when their home internet connection is particularly poor.
“There is so much complexity and dynamism in today’s business environments that leaders simply have to rely on the expertise and knowledge of their remote team members.” – Lauren D’Innocenzo, Associate Professor of Organisational Behavior at Drexel University
Getting comfortable with ambiguity is also important.
“Micromanagers and dictators [shouldn’t] be remote or hybrid team leaders,” says D’Innocenzo.
“There is so much complexity and dynamism in today’s business environments that leaders simply have to rely on the expertise and knowledge of their remote team members. And that takes being comfortable with ambiguity and trusting the team members you have hired to do their jobs well.”
Delegating meaningful tasks not only means one less thing on a manager’s plate, but it can also help motivate employees and foster a sense of purpose; they feel they’re contributing to the bigger picture.
D’Innocenzo also suggests setting aside meeting-free days to give employees time to get work done. By allowing people to do their work uninterrupted, they gain a sense of independence, and leaders have no choice but to take their hands off the wheel for a while.
Empowering leadership requires a fresh perspective
If empowering leadership doesn’t come naturally to everyone, how can you develop it in your organisation?
For HR practitioners, the main point is to help leaders understand what an empowering leadership style really is, and to remember that power isn’t a zero-sum game.
For example, a leader might think that investing in an employee’s development will only cost them time and set them back. Or that giving someone more control and ownership over their work will mean they (the leader) own less of it themselves. In other words, the employee’s gains become the manager’s losses.
But as Sharma, D’Innocenzo and Kirkman explain, power is not a finite resource, and empowering leadership is about sharing power – not giving it up entirely. In fact, by using an empowering style, remote leaders often become more powerful themselves. This is because they are no longer doing tasks that their employees are capable of doing, freeing up more time to focus on other things.
“Once leaders recognise this, they become more motivated to delegate and coach employees. [They’re also] less fearful about losing control in the process and eager to develop people with an eye toward what will be gained to benefit all,” the trio wrote.
They recommend identifying the leaders in your organisation who’ve had success with empowering leadership and assigning them as mentors to those who are just starting to use it.
Investing in leadership training and development in this area can also pay off, says Kirkman, the Shelton Distinguished Professor of Leadership at the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University.
While organisations might have put training on hold due to market uncertainty over the last two years, now is the time to invest in it again, as leaders need to develop skills to navigate the new normal.
“Remote and hybrid forms of working are here to stay,” he says.
“Many employees like it … [and] as part of the Great Resignation, some are even quitting their jobs rather than going back into an office. Companies have two choices. One, you can try to fight the trend, but you will lose this battle as employees today are more in control of their opportunities, due to rampant staffing shortages in many industries. Or two, you can embrace this brave new world and invest in training and developing leaders to lead effectively from a distance.”
Learn how to effectively lead your team – whether in-person or remote – through AHRI’s short course, Leadership and Management Essentials. Book in for the next course on 19 April.