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What Does Virtual Leadership During COVID-19 Look Like?

It’s hard enough to lead an organization through a period of extreme societal and organizational disruption. It's even harder to do so virtually. This blog post shares reflections and practical suggestions for leaders navigating their role virtually right now.

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It’s hard enough to lead an organization through a period of difficulty and uncertainty. It’s even harder to lead through the extreme societal and organizational disruption we are experiencing in the wake of a pandemic and to do so virtually with team members juggling work with watching children, caring for sick loved ones, navigating difficult home situations, and managing a roller coaster of emotions.

In response, many leaders are asking, what does virtual leadership look like?

While virtual leadership like this is new for all of us, there are leadership principles that are particularly relevant right now. Just as before, leaders can offer:

  • Inspiration and realism: Give hope to your team while being realistic about the future and its uncertainty and challenges. Getting this balance right is key to helping your team have faith in leadership, their own work, and the path forward.
  • Action: Help your team get unstuck by focusing on immediate steps they can take to make a difference and adapt, especially if they seem paralyzed by the changes. Show them you are in it together.
  • Love: Support your team, assume best intentions, and create space for team members to be multidimensional, imperfect humans who can try new things and learn in the process.

This time also calls upon us to be creative with how we lead. Here’s what strong virtual leadership can look like this moment.

  • Assume the best and give grace. Let’s face it: work and home have just collided like never before, and you may not know what challenges people are facing or what they need. This is a moment to assume the best of intentions, be flexible where you can, and listen to your team. Ask questions to understand what’s going on. Pay attention to the circumstances people may be facing in their homes and personal lives – particularly team members with disabilities, with dependents, with sick loved ones, and who are part of communities that are on the front lines of this pandemic or that are receiving the least support right now. (The Management Center put together this survey to help you understand staff needs.)
  • Be present from afar. As always, your presence matters. As you lead from afar, you can get creative with how to be present virtually. For example, consider temporarily creating daily 15-minute check-ins with teams to stay connected and provide support. During meetings, turn on your video so people can engage with your facial expressions and body language. As you communicate with your team, consider that many people have a greater need right now to feel connected and informed; but also, if their inboxes look like mine, they’re receiving a huge influx of emails. Be generous but intentional in your full-team communications. Consider using email to communicate organizational things and using a chat platform (like Slack or Zoom) to manage smaller, daily, project-level communications.
  • Walk the virtual halls. Connecting one-on-one with individuals can help maintain or strengthen relationships. You can’t physically walk the halls of the office to connect informally with people, but there are virtual ways to do this. You can set up virtual coffees or meet-ups with people you don’t typically see in meetings, particularly people with less access to power in your organization. It’s also important to support your team’s virtual social gatherings to help foster a sense of community. Encourage and support virtual social events like lunches, snack breaks, or mindfulness gatherings. As we distance ourselves physically, we need more social connection.
  • Live your culture virtually. Now more than ever culture matters and will be tested. Culture challenges are often exacerbated amid all the pressures staff are facing, which can lead to less effective work in a time when it’s greatly needed. At the same time, this moment may offer an opportunity for breakthroughs because it may force your team to break down silos and change ineffective ways of working as you try new things. Model the values and behaviors that make your organization effective, and continue to hold teams accountable for doing so too. Most importantly – this is a time to prioritize the conversations that help you uphold your culture. It can be easier to avoid difficult conversations when you are virtual. Instead, insist that your team engage, listen, and have the conversations that matter most. You might hold time with your team to talk about what it looks like to live your values right now. How might you manage power dynamics over your virtual meeting platform? How might you collaborate in real time with each other when people are dealing with slow internet? How can you ensure everyone feels they can fully participate in team meetings when the technology isn’t intuitive to some team members?

We’ve learned some of these lessons over the years, and some have emerged in the last two weeks. This moment and the months that follow will teach us a great deal about how to lead. What are you learning about virtual leadership? What’s working, and what isn’t? We hope to keep learning, making mistakes, and finding humor alongside you.

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