Many company bosses are faced with the challenge nowadays to be able to adapt their leadership approach to the new rules and new codes of the digital era. With the fast-moving technology-rich environment, our key interpersonal and professional encounters are not likely to be solely face-to-face or virtual. Rather, our relationships exist on a continuum between more or less virtual. In exclusively online encounters, face-to-face interactions are supplemental and secondary to the online experience.
As the world grows smaller through technology-driven globalization, questions emerge about the effectiveness of traditional face-to-face leadership models within the virtual environment. In face-to-face interactions, participants enjoy a complete communication experience, along with an immediacy that gives them a chance to reflect, seek feedback and respond based on the information obtained.
Furthermore, the immediacy of face-to-face encounters fosters a sense of aliveness and community that has to be manipulated and created in situations in which people are separated by time, culture and distance. E-leaders, in contrast to traditional leaders, enact their leadership roles in virtual networks such as e-mail, instant messages, videoconferences, webinars, FaceTime, Google Hangout and Skype. Although such technologies provide quick access to a lot of information and a vast array of communication venues, they can also create feelings of anxiety as a result of information overload with less personal touch.
Because of the apparent interpersonal disconnectedness the virtual environment affords, it is natural for e-leaders to focus more time on tasks than relationships. This, of course, is a grave error because rapport, cohesion and trust are essential to virtual team success. An absence of relational connection can result in increased interpersonal conflict, which inhibits productivity.
Unfortunately, the nature of the virtual environment makes it difficult for leaders to recognize such conflict and address it in a timely fashion. Because of factors such as culture, time and space differences, along with divergent levels of technological expertise, e-leaders also have difficulty succinctly articulating a vision, a mission and objectives to virtual participants, which, in turn, potentially crushes feelings of unity and enthusiasm.
Leadership within a virtual environment
Whether we are fore or against, ‘virtual communication’ is here to stay; thus, it is essential to consider strategies to enhance the online leadership process. It is evident that the area in need of the most within the virtual environment is the interpersonal relationship dimension of the communication process. When people feel valued, they produce, regardless of the communication medium.
It is important that as early as possible in the process, virtual participants should meet face-to-face, even if it is only once. When virtual groups meet face-to-face, they more readily establish essential interpersonal connections and develop the rapport, respect and trust they need to carry them through the assigned project(s). Because the focus within the virtual encounter tends to be task oriented, face-to-face meetings should concentrate on relational development among participants and ironing out any existent or potential misunderstandings or conflict issues.
Although mediated communication introduces challenges that can typically be avoided in face-to-face encounters, it is not without advantages. We can now interact with people across the globe, which introduces cultural exposure beyond what we could ever have imagined. Many people report that the virtual communication experience has actually improved the quantity and quality of their relationships with others, resulting in more regularly scheduled and substantive contact time.
Moreover, the absence of the visual component in many virtual encounters tends to create an equalizing effect and openness among participants that may not exist in face-to-face encounters. Visual cues available face-to-face tend to highlight features we use to discriminate against one another, such as sex, race, attractiveness, body size, age and physical limitations. The virtual environment, on the other hand, diminishes such power plays, encouraging inclusiveness, respect and affinity.
Definition of e-leadership is – “Capabilities needed to exploit opportunities provided by ICT to ensure more efficient and effective performance of different types of organisations, to explore possibilities for new ways of conducting business and organisational processes and to establish new businesses.”
It is normal for virtual team members to feel isolated and uneasy. However, savvy team leaders recognize that building a successful team in a global environment is the key to future opportunities and career growth. Great virtual leaders recognize that being great in this environment requires constant focus and disciplined practices and they adopt tested practices as given below.
1: Build structures and processes to address needs
Successful virtual project leaders build team charters that ensure that everyone clearly understands team goals, resources and processes. Since virtual team members often don’t have time to build interpersonal trust, they must be able to trust the processes and know that everyone will be held accountable for doing their part on the team.
2: Encourage healthy conflict
Virtual teams can be better at some tasks because they can pull from a wide variety of expertise, experience and backgrounds. Great team leaders know that in order for the team to maximize its potential, each team member must be fully engaged and rewarded for openly sharing his or her views. They understand that engaged, diverse team members will inevitably have conflicts and they recognize the value and challenges of the conflicts.
3: Be fully present
Despite the temptation to multi-task during phone and conference calls, effective virtual team leaders are fully present and attentive to the nuances of communication and team dynamics. Virtual team leaders listen harder because they know they are missing all the feedback and communication that happens non-verbally in a face-to-face meeting. They also recognize that increased listening skills help insure effective communication, better conflict management and personal trust.
4: Build trust with every action
Great virtual team leaders know that in order to foster creativity and openness, members have to feel free to share their ideas and concerns. Creativity and innovation will suffer unless the members feel safe and valued in their virtual setting. Great virtual team leaders constantly look for ways to foster team trust in order to capitalize on each member’s contribution.
5: Use technology to build relationships
The real challenge in virtual teamwork is the ability to engage hearts and minds with little to no face-to-face interaction with other team members. Great leaders use the technology to facilitate effective communication and relationships among team members. They use technology to share experiences, photos, ideas and parts of themselves to foster great teamwork. (This is the 30th column of the leadership series by Eng. Gamini Nanda Gunawardana [BSc Eng (Hons), MBA, CEng, FIE (SL), MCS (SL), MIDPM (UK), FIAP (UK), MBCS (UK)], a Management, HR, OD and ICT Consultant, Corporate Trainer, Executive Coach, Consultant - HRD - Goodhope Asia Holdings Ltd. He can be contacted at email@example.com)