Rise of the Virtual Boss: 5 Tips for Effective Remote Leadership

Rise of the Virtual Boss: 5 Tips for Effective Remote Leadership

During the past couple of years, we have had to become comfortable working from home—while also trying to balance family life, and possibly looking after someone who has been sick or has become more vulnerable. This is quite a change for many who were used to their daily commute into the office, where they had a clear distinction between home and work life as a virtual boss.

It’s now completely commonplace for a Zoom meeting taking place at the kitchen table to be interrupted by a doorbell or a barking dog…or, in my case, both! But even as we move forward with a “new normal, the implications of a long-term remote workforce remain undefined two years after the start of the global pandemic. As I continue to engage my employees as a virtual boss, I’ve been speaking with more and more business owners and leaders about the pros and cons of leading a remote workforce.

Pros & Cons of Working Remotely

In the “pros” column: remote workers reclaim the time they had previously lost to their commutes; they have fewer co-worker interruptions; and they can often attend more meetings virtually than they might have been able to attend in person. In the “cons” column: more meetings aren’t always a good thing! As we’ve all learned over the past year, a calendar crammed with Microsoft Teams appointments leaves little time for completing actual work.

And of course, there’s much to be said for the inherent value of face-to-face communications. Whether you’re catching up with your (virtual) boss or discussing a deal with an important prospect, in-person meetings foster a depth of relationship that often isn’t possible when both parties are staring at a screen. And when there’s no real bond, as is often the case with remote work, these relationships become mere commodities that are available to the highest bidder.

Returning to a New Normal: The Hybrid Model

While the recent pandemic has forced the issue for many, I have actually been working remotely with my team in the UK since 2010, when my family moved to Colorado. During that time, I’ve found that a hybrid model—partly in the office, partly at home—truly does deliver the best of both worlds! Here are my top four tips for leading your remote team as a virtual boss.

1. Personality Matters

Once the initial shock of being sent home wore off and everyone got their home offices situated, many people who were new to remote work experienced a kind of honeymoon period. Dog interns, hired! Commutes and fuel expenditures, sidelined! Showers and pants, optional! But eventually, a new truth emerged: not everyone loves remote work.

While the introverts among us rejoiced in their quiet, non-confrontational days, many extroverts were wilting on the vine. In fact, studies show that for those who prefer to work in person, remote work can cause 17% lower productivity and a 24% increase in turnover! One of my colleagues on the leadership keynote speaker circuit likes to remind his audiences that apart from salary and benefits, many people also get significant social needs met at the office. It’s important to know your team, and check in regularly with those who need the contact—even if it’s just for a quick social visit. These employees may benefit from optional “virtual happy hours” from time to time, too.

2. Loosen the Reins—but Don’t Let Go

In my experience, if you have the right people working for you, they will actually work harder and be more productive from home. Case in point: a recent Gallup study found that those who work virtually feel they have more autonomy over their daily duties, and are therefore 15% more likely to feel they’re doing their best work every day.

With this in mind, over the years, I learned to adjust my remote leadership style for each individual on my team. And what I found surprised me: the employees who needed micromanagement weren’t a great cultural fit overall, and were gradually weeded out. By contrast, the workers who were self-starters were able to thrive in this flexible new world with a virtual boss.

What a wake-up call! When I gave my remote employees the flexibility to mold their schedules around family life and personal priorities (within reason, of course), I found myself with a happier, more productive team. It may take some back-and-forth to strike the ideal balance in your own remote leadership, but once you find it—believe me, you’ll never go back!

3. Fewer, Smaller, Shorter, Stronger

That said, you will likely have to make some adjustments to your company status quo in order to make these new remote working relationships work on a longer-term basis. The biggest shift for my team was how we approached meetings for our virtual workforce. The first thing we adjusted was meeting frequency; any gathering that wasn’t absolutely essential—gone. Next, we broke large groups into smaller pods; we found that almost immediately, these leaner, more nimble cohorts were able to accomplish more, with greater clarity, in less time.

And finally, in order to establish a clear, egalitarian system to keep the business on track, we set up a brand-new meeting structure: a one-hour weekly team meeting on Monday, to create an action plan for the coming week, followed by a series of 15-minute one-on-ones with individual team members. These micro-meetings are held on each staffer’s platform of choice—ranging from WhatsApp to Zoom to good, old-fashioned telephone. A successful virtual boss needs to remain flexible and open to options that work well for each individual.

4. Set the Scene—On Your Dime

In 2020, many of us learned the hard way that our homes didn’t have enough bandwidth to work online while our kids were attending virtual school (or over-indulging in internet TV). Those who choose to continue remote work going forward have likely already made the necessary technology upgrades, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask; you also might want to offer a technology stipend, as we did with our virtual team members. And finally, if your company is working with bulky digital files or sensitive materials—particularly bank transactions—you may want to consider a VPN, or Virtual Private Network.

In addition to any tech upgrades your employees might need it’s important to consider the home office environment overall. Having a comfortable, well-lit workspace with an ergonomically sound chair for remote work can be critical to long-term productivity and your overall well-being as a virtual boss. I am fortunate to have a dedicated home office space in which I can work without interruptions. If my office door is closed, my family knows I am either on a call or working on a project so I do not want to be disturbed.

But while this is the ideal situation, it’s unfortunately not the reality for much of the virtual workforce—and part of compassionate remote leadership is noticing who might need help closing the home office gap. In your next virtual meeting, take a look at the backgrounds in those telling little digital squares. Do you see a cozy office, with sun-filled windows in the background…or is your team member on their laptop, surrounded by kitchen clutter?

Even if every team member can’t enjoy the luxury of having a separate room with a door, it’s easy to carve out a “dedicated office niche” in the living room or guest room—I’ve even seen closets transformed into incredible mini-offices! One of my colleagues on the leadership keynote speaker circuit met with each team member to discuss their specific needs, then let them choose their own setup on the company’s dime. He insists it was worth every penny.

5. Remote Doesn’t Have to Mean Distant

Yes, the lines have become blurred, but as a virtual boss I still won’t call a team member before 8:00 a.m. or after 5:00 p.m., or expect a reply to an email that will arrive in the middle of the UK night! I’ve found that the best method is leading by example—making the effort to communicate with my team, while still setting and respecting clear boundaries between personal and professional lives.

When working in an office environment, it’s easy to take much of what I’ve mentioned above for granted. But as business owners and leaders, we need to make sure that, as virtual bosses, the needs of our remote employees are adequately met, so that they are productive, safe and happy with their working environment. This benefits everyone—every team member, every leader, and ultimately the company’s bottom line, too.

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