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Leading from a Distance: Facing And Overcoming Virtual/Long Distance Leadership Challenges In 2021.

Leadership is changing...

The world of leadership and management has changed as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many services and organizations into Zoom rooms and Microsoft teams meetings. Teleworking has not only become a forced necessity for so many organizations, it‘s become a vital element to sustainment. Technological advancements have made this transition logistically viable, however, leadership and management of employees has inevitably been challenged.

Where do we go from here...

So many organizations have found teleworking to not only be a good and necessary option for employees, but have also found financial benefits to having employees work remotely. But the question still remains; how do we successfully and effectively lead teams from a computer screen or cell phone?

There are large amounts of empirical data from the early 2000’s showing that leading remote teams is much more challenging than leading teams on-site, and while video conferencing tech has made it easier, persona Interactions with staff have proven To be much more effective. Technological advancements since the early 2000s have made it fairly easy for employees to work from home or really anywhere they choose (Hambley, (2007). Teleconferences and Skype meetings were widely used to create a sense of unity in separate environments.

In 1999, the Wallstreet Journal reported that more than half of companies with over 5,000 employees used virtual teams with leaders leading these teams from different areas across the country (de Lisser, 1999). Martins, Gilson, and Maynard (2004) predicted that the virtual work environment trend would increase as it became technologically easier and more financially beneficial to the company. What was not accounted for was a global pandemic which would force businesses, government organizations, and otherwise “business in-person” organizations to embrace a new virtual leadership reality.

As the "Work from home" trend begins to settle itself into normal business practices, leaders must ask three specific questions.

1) How do we motivate performance while leading virtually?

2) How can accountability be maintained in a way that promotes trust and equity?

3) How does a leader best communicate to virtual teams?

1) How do we motivate performance while leading virtually?

A study conducted by Samad (2012) examining the mutually beneficial relationship between innovation, transformational leadership, and the performance of an organization found that leaders who empower their people to innovate, collaborate, and create new ideas generate successful organizational change.

Transformational leadership is a theory in which leaders motivate, inspire, and encourage subordinates and peers to be innovative and hands on as organizations change (Northouse, 2016). The transformational leader empowers employees and binds them together through innovation and a common goal. But still... How do we accomplish this in a virtual environment?

Promoting a feeling of belonging with your virtual staff is a key piece to this puzzle. A transformational leader will find innovative and clever ways to make sure that employees know that what they do matters. Creating space for your staff to be creative is a great way to show them that they are an important member of the team, regardless of their location.

2) How can accountability be maintained in a way that promotes trust and equity?

Equity and trust are two elements of leadership that cannot be overlooked or disregarded. However, as a good leaders, you must maintain accountability of your people. So, how do you hold people accountable while maintaining a sense of trust and equity in a virtual and distant environment? Culture!! Organizations would do well to take a step back and understand how the new leadership environment is changing the work culture. Does the vision and mission of your organization still have holistic buy-in? If you still believe so, ask your staff. If you don't believe so, ask your staff.

Organizational and cultural changes are best done when the entire organization buys-in on how to move forward. This will not only increase productivity of your organization by providing a clear mission and goal structure, but it will increase equity in trust in the leaders entrusted with mission accomplishment and organizational success.

3) How does a leader best communicate to virtual teams?

Humans, by nature, crave routine. If 2020 has taught us anything, it's that routine is part of the glue that holds our sanity together. Without a clearly identified, consistent, and agreed upon communication plan, leaders will lose any type of continuity with their team. Technological advancements have made it way too easy to stay in touch. I'm not picking on zoom here, but Zoom fatigue is a real thing! In order to maintain your sanity, and the sanity of your people, there must be a consistent and reasonable amount of touch points with your team.

Some great ways to achieve this are a morning and evening email, three video check-ins per day, cell phone number lists and an accurate tracking mechanism for personnel taking time off. Communication methods you use as a leader of your organization will depend on YOUR organization. You just have to find a way to ensure that you are communicating enough, but not too much.. Make sense?? I hope so!

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