How to be a Better Virtual Leader in a Hybrid World?

Written by Philippa Hale, Senior Associate, Advanced Workplace Associates.

Being a virtual leader in a hybrid working world, in some ways, is no different from leading a team in person, but there are some subtle, practical differences, particularly around communicating and engaging with a hybrid team, that many overlook. By hybrid, I mean you might see some of your team members less frequently face-to-face (if at all) than others.

Because of the way our brains work, we all experience both conscious and unconscious cognitive biases. The familiarity bias is one. It kicks in when we don’t see people regularly. All the subtle verbal and non-verbal exchanges (banter, eye contact, smiles, handshakes and high-fives) are a lot harder to read when we’re working apart, which, if not carefully managed, can have a negative impact on social cohesion (one of AWA’s integral Six Factors of Productivity).

So what can we do to make our virtual interactions more effective and more socially cohesive in a hybrid world?

Top 10 Tips to reinforce positive team cohesion in a hybrid work model

  1. Agree a signal if anyone is ever feeling disconnected – no matter how small or insignificant at the time the cause may be. For example, being left off an email thread, or realising the team is discussing something they hadn’t been aware of. Invite the team to stop, recap, and check in with that person to make sure they are clear on the content and have had time to process it.
  2. Remember the time lag – agree the rules of the game from the get-go and remind people how to handle technological or natural silences and pauses. If you do this at the start of meetings it will gradually become automatic.
  3. Speak more slowly than might seem natural (as technology can distort voices). Or why not try adding subtitles? Whether or not team members need this, they can help if an individual’s line or signal isn’t good and save them embarrassment.
  4. Share the airtime – going ‘round the virtual room and the zoom’ and asking people for their contributions can ensure people don’t feel rushed, disengaged or overpowered by others.  It brings out all sorts of valuable ideas and suggestions or risks that others haven’t spotted.
  5. Plan the meeting – be clear on what topics do you want to cover and how much time must be allocated for each? Don’t try to cover too much content as that will encourage you to go too fast, people will miss content, and concentration will be difficult to sustain.
  6. Encourage people to use their video when you are talking about important/sensitive topics. Look at the screen rather than at yourself or your notes. Look at the people, their body language, any facial expressions. Don’t make any assumptions – check if what you are seeing is real by asking. For example, are they sighing, or did you just catch an unfortunately timed exhale?
  7. Talk about topics outside of work – it can often be more difficult to pick up on subtle signals working remotely.  Be a good listener – on screen this means visibly paying attention and giving genuine and visible reactions.
  8. Read the room – take time to consider the deeper ‘group dynamics’. What’s going on between team members?  In his book, ‘Reading the Room’ David Kantor talks about the 4 Player model:
    1. Movers: initiate and provide direction
    2. Followers: support and provide additions
    3. Opposers: challenge and provide corrections/alternatives
    4. Bystanders: observe the process and provide perspective on the direction of the conversation/suggest improvements/give feedback on the group process

An effective virtual leader needs to understand these subtle group dynamics and notice if there are too many of one role and not enough of the other. It’s helpful if the team members are aware of this too. Rather than focus on whether people are remote or together, it encourages us to think about the type of contributions they are making.

9. Take time to plan and think through your workload. Aim to allow 10% of your week for planning and reviewing so that you can continually do things more efficiently and learn from mistakes and successes.

10. Introduce a working together agreement – give people a set of clear guidelines and parameters – “the non-negotiables” that may relate to your organisations’ people policies or the constraints of the type of work you do.  Then invite them to specifically discuss how, when and where they believe they work at their best, and review this regularly – ideally at least once a month.

Lots to think about!  But over time, it’s amazing how much a team dynamic can shift and become more inclusive and positive, if you – the manager – give your teams some of these tips and information. This will reinforce an ‘adult to adult’ dynamic, rather than ‘parent to child’.

If you’re interested to know more about hybrid work models, and the implications on HR and People Policy, why not join us for the final two sessions of AWA’s People Series. Registration is entirely free and just one click away below:

Virtual leaders – we salute you!

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