The Five C’s of Virtual Leadership

Shane Green • March 25, 2020

Right now, many managers and their employees are adjusting to a virtual employee experience, working at their homes, isolated from the current virus. While the virus has quickly shifted many of us into what hopefully is a temporary arrangement, the idea of workers being more dispersed and remote, connected via technology, is here to stay. In recent years, we worked with organizations to develop a culture for remote workforces, which resulted in our five C’s of virtual leadership. While these ideas should be familiar, it is important to shift your perspective on how to be successful in adopting these for a remote team.

First, let’s begin with our definition of leadership: a manager’s or person’s ability (because not all leaders are managers, and, unfortunately, not many managers are leaders) to inspire the hearts and minds of those they are responsible for to be their best and want to do what the leader wants them to do. As a manager of a remote workforce, keep in mind that your leadership responsibilities are built on how to make them feel good about what they do and whom they do it for. So, here are my five C’s for virtual leadership:

Collaborate: A team needs to work together by the same set of rules, focused on the same goal or purpose. With this in mind, the manager must reinforce the mission (or purpose) of the organization, goals of the team, and values that define how people should act and interact. When a team is aligned with the purpose and goals and guided by a core set of values, they will work better together, so remember to reinforce these regularly with your remote workforce. And, as you consider how to achieve these goals, you need a plan that details the necessary steps to get there. Each step should identify the resources needed, those responsible, and deadlines. As the leader, it is up to you to keep the team focused on deliverables and deadlines, so share action plans and calendars to keep the remote team on schedule.

We also recommend virtual team-building activities. We recently developed a game that was facilitated to a group of twelve remote employees. The game focused on the importance of communicating clearly and listening actively. The manager provided each person with some information to help solve a problem. The team connected via Zoom and were given 25 minutes to solve the problem by only verbally communicating the information they had received. Every one of the twelve participants had some important information to solve the problem, but they also had some useless information that only made the task more challenging. The game was utilized with over 50 different teams of twelve people. The manager then debriefed the activity and discussed the importance of effective communication. We also had a recent Zoom meeting where each person selected their ideal backdrop of where they would like to be in the world and had to explain it to the team. Although your teams are remote, you can still engage in team-building activities.

Communicate: We believe communication is even more important when working with virtual teams. We suggest establishing a cadence of communication, utilizing technology so that everyone is aware of when communication will occur. There are four critical communication opportunities for your remote team: daily, weekly, monthly, and as needed.

Each day, we encourage you to connect with your team via technology. While time zones often mean that not everyone can be on the call together, it is necessary to establish a few times each day when an employee can log in to hear the operational priorities and updates for the day.

Each week, we suggest a 30-minute one-on-one performance check-in call. The purpose of this (video) call is to talk to the employee about their needs.

Each month, we suggest a 90-minute engagement call. The purpose of this call is to keep the team up to date with goals, feedback, results, and plans for the team and organization. It is an opportunity to gather ideas from the team about their needs and how to improve the business. As we indicated under Collaboration, this may also include opportunities to do some team-building, and, as we will suggest in the next sections, it serves as an opportunity to get to know members of the team, give some recognition, or celebrate an achievement.

Of course, managers know they need to have an open-door policy, which is easier said than done. We encourage managers to establish times throughout the day when employees can call to ask questions, discuss challenges, or just have someone to talk to. We recommend setting aside one or two one-hour segments each day with a maximum of 15 minutes per call. These scheduled time blocks will encourage those wanting to speak to be prepared and ready. If someone needs more time, then you can schedule this outside of the open-door timeframe. However, there is an exception to this rule if an employee is faced with a crisis or challenge and needs immediate help. Being available at that moment is key.

Coach: We believe performance coaching is critical for any employee to elevate their performance and maximize their talents. Performance coaching includes a combination of conversations and activities to reinforce and improve behaviors and skills. Giving feedback on performance—what is being delivered and how it is being delivered—is still necessary. In the remote teams we worked with, we found that while they had recordings, data, and feedback on how a remote employee was utilizing their time, interacting with customers, and completing projects, they were not timely or specific in their feedback, thereby reducing the effectiveness of their conversations. We want to remind managers that the key tenets of feedback—timeliness, balance, being specific, and asking questions—are important, no matter where your workforce resides.

Recognition is an essential part of coaching to reinforce the right behaviors and results. A recognition platform is an excellent tool to help facilitate this but shouldn’t be used exclusively. We use the Say, Write, Do model to ensure we consider all the different ways to recognize a person. “Say” can include calling to say thank you. “Write” means utilizing email or a recognition platform. Our favorite method is mailing a note to a team member’s home. “Do” incorporates ideas like working alongside a team member, doing a task they may not like doing, or taking them to coffee or lunch. We love the idea of sending an employee’s favorite snack to their home or have coffee over video chat from your favorite coffee shop or chair at home.

We already mentioned weekly informal performance conversations as a part of our communication schedule, but you should also ask your team what training (offered via technology), information, tools, or support they need to perform at their best. Don’t forget that tough conversations also must happen as required. Don’t put off conversations about poor performance. Otherwise, it impacts the entire team through a lack of effort, results, or participation.

Care: We all know the old saying, “Employees don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” So, how can you show your virtual team you care? Again, creating time for communication is critical to ensure you are available as needed. Also, get to know your employees by using your communication time to learn important information. Some of our favorite facts to know about an employee are the three things they are most grateful for in this world; their one personal and professional goals for this year; their favorite pastime or passion to engage in when away from work; and their favorite vacation they have been on and why. All these questions help create that feeling of being known. We also encourage quick get-to-know-you activities in your monthly engagement meetings. Remember, care is also demonstrated through respect. Respect is shown by seeing and acknowledging people for who they are and their potential, passions, and talents. Remember to look for every opportunity to see your people at their best or know how to bring out their best.

Celebrate: Yes, you can have team celebrations with your remote teams without the cost of putting everyone on a plane, in a hotel, or at a single place. Now, the caveat to this is that more than twelve people at a time in a single chat, call, or video conference can be ineffective, so we recommend celebrating in small groups. One opportunity is through virtual coffee breaks by sending a coffee or providing a coffee gift card to each person so that they can enjoy their favorite beverage. We also encourage end-of-month celebrations. Ours is coming up, and we plan to send lunch to each person and then connect with everyone on a conference call to catch up. Because celebrations are often quickly forgotten, we found that seeing how each person took in that moment can be fun and worthwhile.

We hope our five C’s of virtual leadership help a little during this time of isolation, and as we reset our thinking about how to lead our teams—even when the threat of a virus is not hanging over us.

Reach out if you have questions or would like to share your own stories and ideas.

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