Penny Pullan CEng MBCS takes a look at virtual leadership. How can you get the best out of virtual work and virtual teams? (Hint: it’s not just about technology!).

The world of work is changing rapidly. At my first gap year job in the eighties, my main tools were my pen and my desk telephone. My colleagues were based in the same building.

Nowadays, I hardly ever use a pen. Instead my mobile devices and laptop are key to my work. With superfast broadband and the appropriate tools, I can connect from my office in a small town in the UK to colleagues and clients all over the world. It’s an IT revolution indeed.

It doesn’t just affect individuals like me of course. Companies take advantage of outsourcing work to partners, perhaps offshore, and bring together project teams made up of the best people, regardless of location. Without technology, none of this would be possible. But technology alone isn’t enough. It’s only the foundation of virtual work.

We need new capabilities to work together effectively when we can’t be together, on top of our existing technology skills. I call this virtual leadership. It’s quite rare, but very necessary for success in this new world. It’s an answer to the societal challenge of the proliferation of collaboration technology.

Is the tech enough?

There’s a problem though. Many believe that the technology is enough by itself, such as a charity I’m connected with that bought everyone a laptop with a webcam. Job done, they thought. Except it wasn’t.

To create great virtual teams across continents you need more than fast broadband, connected devices and collaboration tools. This is just the enabler. Working through technology to create effective, high performing, remote teams is what really matters. This virtual leadership is a key capability for now and the future, for us IT professionals and for others.

So what does virtual leadership look like? In my book I share the stories of some inspirational virtual leaders. Here are a couple of them:

Evi is a young woman living in Greece, where the economy is suffering and career opportunities are few and far between. Having grown up with the internet, Evi uses the opportunities that technology brings to create a career that is not available to her locally. Evi’s role is to find freelancers around the world to work on small projects such as new websites, and manage these to completion, for her client based on the west coast of the USA. Evi’s ability to lead people over distance has helped her to break free from the dearth of career openings for her generation in Greece.

Steve is based in Finland, running a company providing tools for software developers. He often works with clients across continents, typically the USA and China, on complex consultancy projects in a collaborative way. Does it matter that he’s based in the north of Europe? It doesn’t appear to!

For Evi and Steve, virtual leadership is not something that just happens when technology allows remote connection. Instead, it has been a conscious choice to become great at virtual work and to develop the mindset, attitudes, skills and knowledge to do so. It’s about developing the sort of facilitative leadership that can connect, collaborate with and motivate others in ways that command-and-control can’t.

It’s about respecting others who are different from yourself, building trust, being fair to those who are far away, caring for people and showing empathy, while showing confidence in yourself and your team and commitment to your tasks. Organisation is really important too, as is the ability to stay calm under stress. Another crucial skill is listening out for the beginnings of conflict and dealing with this appropriately.

When virtual working, your identity is less cut and dried than in face-to-face work. Let me give you an example. If I were to come to your organisation to run a workshop, you’d see a woman in her forties with red-brown hair, pale skin covered in freckles and blue eyes. You could tell my gender, ethnicity, generation and appearance before I had even opened my mouth!

When working virtually, identity isn’t quite so apparent, so it is possible to bring out more intangible aspects that will help to build common ground with your remote colleagues. When working with people in the Middle East remotely, for example, I often bring my love of life-long learning to the fore, as this chimes with those I work with.

Once you have chosen to develop yourself as an effective virtual leader, the next step is to work with others to build connections, rapport and trust. Building common ground is a great place to start.

It’s important too to know your remote colleagues: their personalities, their preferences and their skills. Building trust can take longer than it would face-to-face as people are less likely to spend time together informally – there’s no shared coffee machine. Trust is built in layers, so it’s important to understand how people’s personality and thinking contribute to trust.

The organisation you work in can also affect trust, sometimes negatively. One example that crops up time and time again is annual leave. The difference between US based employees’ entitlement of two weeks holiday a year and French based employees’ entitlement of six weeks doesn’t help with trust between the two.

It’s important for people to feel that they are treated fairly, so virtual leaders should use whatever flexibility they have to create a level playing field for their teams as far as possible. The right time to choose the appropriate technology for the team is once you know the preferences and skills of the individuals involved.

Virtual meetings

Virtual work involves virtual meetings, where people join together live using technology. So a virtual leader needs to be able to plan and run effective meetings, and make sure that actions happen as a result.

Many people have found my ‘start-up chart’ helps them to be really clear on what is happening, as shown in figure 1.

Start Up Chart

Of course, our technology, especially collaboration tools, helps us to be able to work together outside of virtual meetings, at times that suit each person. I call this asynchronous virtual work, and it is too often neglected, with people asked to join virtual meetings outside of office hours and, at worst, in the middle of the night.

Some virtual teams are more complex than others. Four factors are particularly tricky:

  • Wide time zones
  • Cross-cultural challenges, be they national, professional or even organisational cultures
  • Language difficulties, even between people all speaking English
  • Generational differences.

Looking ahead at societal challenges and capability, let’s explore generational differences a little. Today’s teenagers, tomorrow’s IT professionals, have grown up with the internet. My fourteen-year-old daughter used to play with her friends on Club Penguin and other virtual platforms. Now she keeps in touch via apps and instant text messages. ‘Phones are so last century, Mum!’ she says.

For these digital natives, for whom virtual work will be natural, my hope is that they are encouraged to develop real virtual leadership, so that they can work effectively with those of us that prefer perfect spelling and grammatical construction, even in text messages!

I hope too that those of us who prefer the richness of a good chat on the phone to sending messages on a device will be able to develop the capability to use our own virtual leadership to connect and build common groups with and across generational differences.

Dr Penny Pullan’s book ‘Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams’ is published by Kogan Page. Penny tweets at @pennypullan. She’d love to hear your thoughts about virtual leadership and welcomes you to get in touch.