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5 Must-Have Virtual Leadership Skills [with Tips & Examples for Success]

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The importance of virtual leadership

No one could have predicted the drastic shift COVID-19 would bring to the American workforce. Almost overnight, every employee who was able to transition to remote work made the move, and for a lot of us it’s become a permanent arrangement.

Time called the coronavirus outbreak “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment.” Based on the numbers, it looks like this will be a long-term experiment. Let’s put things into perspective:

In early 2020, before “coronavirus” was part of our daily vernacular, there were already 7 million people working remotely in the U.S. By March 27, that number jumped to 16 million. As spring progressed and cases increased, more and more workers made the transition. In April, Gartner found that 74% of organizations already had plans to shift many employees to permanent remote worker status.

With so many people continuing to work from home, the need for strong virtual leadership skills has never been greater.

Whether you’re an entry level manager or a veteran CEO, chances are that since you’re reading this article, your transition from in-person leader to virtual leadership has necessitated a few adjustments. Read on to learn the most important virtual leadership skills and how to use them to successfully lead your virtual team.

Virtual vs. in-person leadership skills

Leadership is leadership, regardless of logistics. Sure, working remotely means no casual chats in the breakroom or on the elevator ride up to office, but it’s entirely possible to translate your in-person leadership skills into virtual tactics to continue that human connection.

As a virtual leader, you should be asking yourself these questions:

  • Am I checking in with my employees enough?
  • Are they using their skills in the best way possible?
  • What is the best way to keep my people engaged?
  • What is the most organized way to get projects done?
  • What tools do I have to make everyone feel more connected?

Most importantly, virtual leaders shouldn’t let out of sight turn into out of mind. You may not be seeing your employees in person every day, but they still need know that you’re there for them.

Hybrid teams

You may have some employees permanently working from home, some who are always in the office, and some who are an amalgamation of the two. Wherever your employees are, your processes for meetings and interactions should be the same across the board.

Here’s why: With some people in the office and some working remotely, make sure everyone is using their individual computer cameras. If everyone in the office is on the same screen, the remote workers might feel like they are missing out on the in-person connection. Also be sure to do a roll call at the beginning of every meeting to check who is there and where they are to help keep your remote workers engaged.

Related content: How to Replicate In-Person Interactions in a Virtual World

The 5 key skills all virtual leaders need and how to develop them

1.   They always use the right communication method

Virtual leaders have an excess of technology at their disposal — but there’s a time and a place for each mode of communication.

The key is to match the medium with your message. These are the appropriate messages for each medium:

  • Instant messaging. Programs like Slack and Google Chat are best for quick communication needs, like checking project statuses, asking questions, or coordinating schedules. If you want to share a friendly “Hello!” or share a funny meme, this is your medium.
  • Email. If you need to communicate something to be referenced later on, like long, detailed messages or directions, email should be your go-to.
  • Video. Connect face to face through video whenever you can. The Social Science Research Network notes that 65% of people are visual learners, making video the perfect medium for engagement. Just be wary of “Zoom fatigue.”
  • Phone. Conflict resolution and sensitive conversations that can’t be done in person should always be done over the phone.

When you’re adjusting to virtual communication, be open to new tools and flexible with your usage. It might take some trial and error to find the right medium for each need, but a little bit of patience goes a long way. Give yourself time to get comfortable with these tools; even the most tech-savvy millennials need time to adjust to new technology.

2.   They are clear and concise communicators

Speaking of technology, snags in communication are all too common when transferring to remote work. Since you can’t pick up on social cues or body language when you’re working from home in your pajamas, you could feel as though you’ve made yourself clear when in reality your employees are in the dark.

Follow these tips to create a virtual culture of crystal-clear communication:

  • Set expectations. When you schedule a meeting, how should people participate? Should it be audio only or do you want everyone to have their camera on? Take a temperature check for what your team is most comfortable with and balance that with the best mode for your message. Whatever you decide, give your team a heads up so they come prepared.
  • Always have a plan. Without an agenda, even in-person meetings can get off track. Successful leaders always have a clear direction for the topic, goals, and action items. Share your plans with your team before the meeting so everyone is on the same page.
  • Gauge understanding. How is your message landing? Are there questions? Take time to get a feel for your team’s reaction. Since you don’t have the luxury of face-to-face contact, you should check in more regularly than you would in person.
  • Listen without trying to solve problems. Sometimes just talking through a problem can feel like a solution to someone who needs to get something off their chest. It’s a great stress reliever, but it’s important to focus on listening without trying to figure out how to solve the problem — unless your employee specifically asks for your help.
  • Be transparent. The elephant in the room is the reason why we’re all working remotely. Acknowledge the challenging circumstances and talk about how things have shifted both personally and professionally. Remember: The absence of a story is a story. If you aren’t open about how things have changed at your company, people are going to come to their own conclusions.

3.   They prioritize building and fostering relationships

How can you build relationships and encourage bonding when you aren’t even in the same building?

Even virtually, leaders are expected to reassure and rally their teams. Whatever your company does normally to encourage socializing, adjust it for a virtual setting to give people the same opportunities to build connections.

Here’s an example: When Ariel has a new employee, we hold a welcome breakfast on their first day. We gather in the same room to enjoy a delicious spread and then we play an icebreaker game. But when we shifted to remote work, this needed some modification. Our new-hire breakfasts are now conducted via video call, and we invite everyone to bring their favorite breakfast treat. Luckily, the icebreaker game — two truths and a lie — is easy to conduct virtually.

Ultimately, you’ll want to organize a recurring time for your team to hop on a video call with no purpose other than to socialize. That means no agendas and no work talk. Try a 30-minute happy hour with a different theme every Thursday night, or a special lunch hour on people’s birthdays.

Related content: 3 Ways for Virtual Teams to Create Human Connections

4.   They make their team feel supported

When everyone is working from home, employees can have a hard time feeling supported. Since your employees can’t walk by your desk to see if you’re available for a quick chat, you have to show that you’re there for them in other ways.

Here are a few tried-and-true options to help everyone feel supported:

  • Hold virtual office hours. This can be a set time every week or so where your attention is 100% on your employees.
  • Be open about your availability. Let your team know of certain times or days that you find yourself a bit more available, so they don’t feel like they are interrupting you.
  • Schedule one-on-one check-in meetings. These should be about 30-45 minutes, with half of the time focused on current projects and the other half dedicated to their professional development. Ask them about their goals, what they want to learn, and what they need from you in order to succeed.
  • Encourage feedback. In team meetings, call on your employees by name to hear their opinions and ideas on the topic.
  • Acknowledge individuals. Team settings present a great opportunity to acknowledge people who are excelling. Maybe an employee went above and beyond to help a client or worked weekends to meet a tight deadline. Recognizing them in front of their peers can be a huge confidence boost.

Related content: How to Keep Virtual Teams Engaged

5.   They take care of themselves

All of the virtual leadership skills we’ve mentioned won’t make you of use to anyone if you don’t take care of your own mental and physical health.

Leaders can get so caught up in everyone else’s wellbeing that they forget to check in with themselves. This poses the risk of burnout, and your employees will take notice. For your own sanity, practice these simple tasks throughout the day:

  • Take breaks. Go for walks, stretch your limbs, or spend some time away from screens.
  • Fix your posture. It sounds simple, but how you’re sitting has a great effect on your overall wellbeing. Have you experienced back pain from sitting at your desk for 13 hours a day? Try sitting up straight.
  • Hydrate. Isn’t water always a go-to solution for life’s problems? When busy, we can neglect our intake. Set reminders to refill your water bottle throughout the day to help boost your focus and prevent fatigue.
  • Rely on an accountability partner. If you struggle with taking time for yourself, have someone you’re close to check in on you. You can do the same for them!

Getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and exercising can also help make sure you’re at your absolute best.

Our favorite examples of successful virtual leaders

The beauty of virtual leadership is that technology enables us to be creative. Ariel works with a diverse set of clients that have embraced their virtual leadership skills in creative ways to keep their teams connected. These are a few of our favorite examples:

  • Have your employees take photos of their work stations. This is a fun way to get a different glimpse into their personalities. What knickknacks are on their desks? What’s their view like? Seeing how everyone works creates visual memories of their setups that you can recall when you’re emailing or chatting on the phone. Plus, you can take inventory to make sure everyone has all the equipment they need.
  • Send fun, casual videos to your team. The CEO for one of our partners likes to share quick iPhone videos on the company’s intranet. You don’t need any fancy tech gear to do this, and it’s a great way to share company updates or just check in.

Congratulations! By reading this article, you’ve already shown your commitment to developing effective virtual leadership skills. Go forth and lead well, and contact us if you need more advice.


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