How to manage in cyberspace

3 May 13
As technology advances and pressure mounts on the public sector to cut costs, virtual meetings are a possible solution. But to work effectively in this uncharted territory, leaders will need to adopt skills that may seem alien to them. Ghislaine Caulat advises

By Ghislaine Caulat | 1 May 2013

As technology advances and pressure mounts on the public sector to cut costs, virtual meetings are a possible solution. But to work effectively in this uncharted territory, leaders will need to adopt skills that may seem alien to them. Ghislaine Caulat advises

Virtual Working

Virtual working has become increasingly common in recent years thanks to globalisation, growing concern for the environment and the need for organisations to find savings.

It has been enthusiastically adopted by ‘Generation Y’ employees who have grown up in a digital world – and by those who are seeking to achieve a better work/life balance for themselves and their teams. In the public sector, it is attracting increasing interest, especially with the pressure to cut costs and the increase in remote working. Restructuring has also resulted in more geographically dispersed teams.

Despite the pressure, many managers continue to regard virtual working as second-best – a last resort for when you cannot travel or meet face to face. They struggle with the concept of leadership in the virtual space and managing the performance of people they rarely see.

But virtual working is not something to be done purely out of necessity. It is a highly advantageous way of conducting business that allows organisations to deploy the best brains to the task in hand, regardless of where they may be located.

Managing effectively in an online world does, however, require new approaches. In a virtual environment, leaders need to put more emphasis on relationships than tasks. They need to find new ways to motivate people, build trust and facilitate communication between remote workers.

So here are ten ways to maximise the potential of virtual working and get the best out of remotely located teams.

1. Adapt to your New Environment
It’s important to recognise that in the virtual workspace, everything is amplified. As a consequence of this, leaders will find themselves more exposed. Personal traits and behaviours are more visible in a virtual environment than they may be face to face. People listen more intently and can see the flaws in arguments more easily. Leaders need to develop a stronger self-awareness of how they manage their emotions, react to situations and express themselves when communicating to their staff.

2. Learn to listen differently
Most managers have been trained to be alert to body language and to pick up visual cues
when in meetings or while speaking
one to one with members of their
teams. Body language, however, often distracts us from what is being said. To work effectively in the virtual space, leaders need to learn how to listen in different and more attentive ways. They will have to develop a kind of seventh sense that will allow them to connect with people at a deeper and more intuitive level.

3. Create a level playing field
Getting the team dynamics right in a virtual meeting requires that everyone is linked in, both virtually and independently. Combining virtual participants with others sitting face to face round a microphone simply doesn’t work. Trust can quickly become eroded. For example, it is very easy for someone who is isolated on the end of a line to misinterpret a silence and worry that the people at the other end are ‘ganging up’ on them. The separation in distance can create an emotional gulf between the participants of the meeting.

4. Consider People’s Schedules
Managers working with shift-orientated teams will often arrange virtual meetings at a time convenient for them, without taking account of those who are working on different schedules. There may also be a need to consider time zones – for example, where services have been outsourced overseas. Finding a time for the virtual meeting that suits everyone is not always possible, but it’s important to be transparent about the way meetings are scheduled so that no-one feels disadvantaged. It may mean alternating who has to be available at unsocial hours.

5. Get the basics right
People taking part in a virtual meeting should be in a quiet room, alone and undisturbed. They should be equipped with headphones and should ideally use a telephone line rather than more unreliable computer-based lines. Invite people to log in at least ten minutes before the start of the meeting so that any technical issues can be resolved. These small technical details may seem obvious, but often make a big difference to the success of the meeting.

6. Keep a sensible pace
Don’t squeeze virtual meetings back to back with face-to-face meetings. Plan a ‘buffer’ before and after the meeting and ask other attendees to do the same. Allow the participants to settle in and connect rather than jumping straight to the task in hand.  Close the meeting by allowing people to disengage from the virtual environment, perhaps by saying something before they sign off, like a virtual handshake.

7. Help people focus
Use a focusing exercise to help participants ‘tune in’ to virtual meetings. This might involve getting people to relax, making sure they are sitting comfortably and thinking about the colleagues they are about to interact with. People may find this strange at first, but it will help them disconnect from their immediate environment and concentrate on the meeting.

8. Plan for success
Think carefully about how people might need to prepare before the meeting. Send out an agenda in advance outlining key steps, activities and timings, then ask for feedback. If you are using slides, prepare not just ‘content’ slides but also ‘process’ slides containing questions that encourage people to engage with the issues and each other.

9. Learn to work with silence
Many people find silences uncomfortable and try to fill them by repeating information or asking others why they are quiet. It’s important to recognise, however, that the communication process is about more than just speaking. Being silent doesn’t mean people are ‘absent’, they are more likely to be considering their response and you need to give them time to do that.

10. Build and nurture relationships

Relationships are the pillars of virtual leadership, so building and nurturing them is essential. Managers need to spend time on a one-to-one basis with each member of their team, perhaps by following up on a point raised at the previous virtual meeting.  Some virtual leaders have experimented successfully with concepts like ‘virtual coffee corners’ – meetings with no set agenda, where people are invited to come together and talk about whatever is on their mind.

Ghislaine Caulat is an associate at Ashridge Business School, specialising in virtual teams and virtual leaderships. She is also the author of Virtual leadership: learning to lead differently


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