Ways to make virtual leadership more effective

By James R. Bailey and Isabel Villamor and Sharon Hill 5 minute Read

Virtual work—with its benefits and drawbacks—is not new. But its pace accelerated at a dizzying rate in 2020. Now, people don’t want to return to the office. That doesn’t mean they can’t be committed and productive through astute virtual leadership. Ensuring such leadership should become a key priority for organizations. 

What do we know about virtual leadership? Not nearly enough. But recent research sheds some useful light. 

Working virtually makes employees more task-focused because the informal interactions that foster interpersonal relationships are eliminated. No chitchat before and after meetings, hallway and water-cooler conversations, or after-hours social activities.

To get the work done, virtual leaders may become more directive because they feel a loss of control. It is difficult to monitor employees’ work remotely. To compensate, they over-rely on providing structure and direction to monitor and control. 

Paradoxically, this more directive approach is the opposite of what is needed for effective virtual leadership. Instead, research suggests it is more important for virtual leaders to empower employees and promote self-leadership. Although leaders certainly need to provide structure and direction, they also need to learn how to let go.

This was the takeaway from a recent study that examined 3,909 teams in a wide range of jobs. Results showed that relationship-focused leadership (participative, empowering) is a stronger predictor of virtual team performance than task-focused leadership (directive, controlling), particularly in larger teams where it is more difficult to “see” what team members are doing. Why? Because relationship-focused leadership overcomes some of the challenges, and takes advantage of the benefits, of working virtually. 

Navigating the benefits and challenges of virtual work

Lack of visibility into team members’ work situation. In the office, leaders can clearly view progress and provide immediate feedback through direct communication. This is more challenging through a screen. So, rather than being overly directive, leaders should create conditions where employees feel empowered to complete their work, act in the team’s best interest, and make decisions about their work. 

Threats to team commitment and trust. Building team commitment, trust, and mutual support virtually is challenging. By focusing on relationship-focused activities, leaders promote a collective sense of purpose and a positive environment. 

Feelings of isolation. Virtual work increases feelings of isolation. This makes it more important to be supportive and address team members’ concerns. 

Benefits of autonomy. Virtual work bestows autonomy, and employees appreciate choosing when, where, and how to complete their work. This increases motivation and well-being. Being overly controlling undermines this empowering sense of autonomy.

Based on our experience talking to leaders with virtual employees across different work contexts and research in this area, we suggest five leadership best practices for becoming more relationship-focused.

 Practicing better virtual leadership

  1. Delegate—empower your team. Accept that micromanagement isn’t possible as a virtual leader. Delegate to team members and empower them to manage their own performance. Studies show that team leaders fear becoming dispensable and underestimate team members’ ability to lead when necessary. This hinders virtual team effectiveness. Delegation signals that you trust team members’ competence, which promotes stronger relationships and inspires confidence. 
  2. Check in, but don’t micromanage. Team members need to know that you care about their well-being and are there to support them. So, check in regularly and encourage team members to keep everyone informed of their activities and any challenges. This fosters an environment of trust, commitment, and strong team identity. The goal is to send a message that you want to help but aren’t micromanaging. 
  3. Focus on results, not so much on how things get done. Ethics and collaboration aside, evaluate employees on the outcomes of their work rather than how, when, and from where they produce those outcomes. Remember that employees value the autonomy working virtually provides because it gives them enormous flexibility to balance their personal and professional lives. Trust your team to work in their preferred way—so long as they achieve desired results. Viktor E. Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, once recommended that the Statue of Liberty be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility. Employees should respond to the liberty you provide with the responsibility you expect. 
  4. Give people permission to speak up and call you out (if necessary). Jordi Cruz, the world’s second youngest chef to earn a Michelin star, is now one of the world’s best chefs. As a judge on the Spanish version of MasterChef, he shared that an apprentice, Alberto, observed: “Chef, can I tell you something? You’ve been acting kind of stupid lately.” Cruz was not thrilled, but the comment made him think, “If this guy, who admires me, has dared to say this, it is for something.” Cruz claims that creating space for team members to speak up and, if necessary, call him out has kept him honest and helped him earn those Michelin stars. This behavior is even more critical in virtual environments where people offer feedback less readily. But, it may not happen unless leaders make a special effort to solicit feedback, surround themselves with “Albertos” who keep them honest, and reward this behavior (e.g., Alberto is now the head chef at Angle, Cruz’s 2-star Michelin restaurant).
  5. Get over your desire for control. Of course, none of these best practices is possible unless leaders relinquish their desire for control. If letting go is difficult, take time to self-reflect. Why micromanage and smother employees? Why keep checking if team members are connected? (Yes, we’re talking about that green light in the chat that becomes red during meetings and yellow when the subordinate leaves the computer.) Employees know when leaders are checking in out of genuine concern and when they are using that check-in as a means of control. 

Leading virtually requires a velvet hand, not an iron fist. It is perfectly understandable that leaders who enjoy daily face-to-face contact, with all the monitoring and direction it allows, yearn for the control they have lost. Yet, these concerns are not well-grounded, since research shows that employees can be equally (if not more) productive working remotely than working in the office. There’s been a sea change. And those new seas will never change. Adjusting to new work attitudes and dynamics will not be easy. It will be slow but hopefully measured and done with empathy and respect. But it can be done. 

James R. Bailey is the Hochberg Professor of Leadership and a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and other publications.

Isabel Villamor is a research associate who has published on employee reactions to Covid-19 and international management. 

Sharon Hill is a professor who has published extensively on remote leadership. 

All three are at the School of Business, George Washington University.