“What if I never wanted to be a virtual leader? I didn’t sign up for this.”
“Virtual leadership is much more difficult than I thought.”
Leaders across the country, the world even, are thinking similar thoughts. After all, so many of us expected to be on location, working next to our employees. We were supposed to be holding in-person meetings and conducting walkarounds where we could easily check in on staff. Then a global pandemic hit and drove many of us to work from home. Even for those who have always lead remotely, an all-virtual scenario can be surprisingly challenging during times of turmoil or change.
While many leaders have adapted and some may even love their new virtual leadership role, others are yearning for the days when they can go back to the office. However, wanting things to “get back to normal,” doesn’t mean that you can shirk critical leadership roles until they do. And one of those critical roles is staying connected to your employees in a very real, very deliberate manner.
You won’t be able to make up for lost time after the pandemic is over, so it’s important that you work hard to maintain those relationships in the here and now. Staying connected is critical for collaboration, problem-solving, decision-making and trust-building. It’s also vital for ensuring that you constantly have your finger on the pulse of your team. After all, if you aren’t connecting with them frequently, how will you know when problems arise and when they need support to meet the requirements of their jobs?
So, whether your situation will remain virtual for only a little while longer or it’s more permanent, here are some ways you can maintain meaningful connections with your employees and colleagues.
Understand the difference between forced connection and genuine connection
There’s a tendency among leaders to force small talk, with a few obligatory questions asked at the beginning of a meeting. Chitchat is fine and interactions with your employees and coworkers should not be 100% about work. The difference is in what everyone gets from the chitchat. You must actually listen to what people are saying, respond in a meaningful way and recall those discussions later. It’s important that you use those opportunities to learn about what is happening in other’s people lives, not just ask questions out of formality and zone out during the answers.
When you prove you are listening, for example, by mentioning an employee’s hobby or family member he or she discussed during a previous conversation, and you do that frequently enough, you prove you are listening. Employees feel heard and that translates to feeling supported which, ultimately, fosters trust.
Give everyone a common purpose
When employees are scattered and out of the office, and especially during challenging times for the company or industry, it can be hard to find meaning in your work. Remind your team what it is you are doing and how your work contributes to the mission and vision of the organization. Set new team goals that tie to the organization’s goals and hold everyone accountable for reaching them. Now, is the time to reinforce to your team that the work you do matters.
Create ample opportunities to collaborate
You can’t jump into a conference room to work through a problem, but you can jump on a video chat. So, even if you are feeling a little bit of video chat fatigue, don’t abandon those meetings. Schedule regular ideation sessions to brainstorm, problem solve and make decisions. While check ins and status updates can often be done via collaboration software or email, meetings are ideal for discussion.
Additionally, set up projects and assignments in a way that require teammates to work together without your involvement, and ask them to use video chat as well. While you don’t want people spending all their time in meetings, you also don’t want people feeling isolated. If you aren’t sure how to strike the right balance, ask your employees. A quick “Are too many meetings preventing you from getting your work done?” is usually all it takes.
Foster a culture of knowledge sharing
On remote teams, information is often siloed and that can hurt productivity and efficiency and even result in mistakes. Encourage your employees to reach out to the rest of the team when they learn something new, even if it seems trivial, and make it easy for them to do so. For example, you could set up a channel in Slack or block off time during each meeting for employees to share updates. That type of communication can prevent people from feeling out of the loop and keep everyone on the same page.
You are leading through unprecedented times. You and your employees are living through unprecedented times. It’s always ideal to show employees that you can be vulnerable, experience setbacks and make mistakes because it makes you relatable, and that is critical to building trust with employees. While you shouldn’t complain or become negative and pessimistic, don’t feel like you can’t let on that you are having a bad day.
Showing your vulnerable side and being empathetic to your employees when they too are feeling vulnerable can foster a deep connection between the two of you, and that bodes well for your relationship now and down the road.
If you’d like to talk through some of the challenges you are facing in your leadership role right now, we would love to help. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.