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How to Lead in a Virtual World

The way organizations train and develop employees must keep pace with the increasing number of them working away from the office.

January 30, 2013
Related Topics: Leadership Development, Learning Delivery, Management, Learning Delivery, Leadership Development, Management, Communication, Virtual Learning

There’s no doubt technology has changed the way business is accomplished. Its increased use has changed the interaction patterns of employees on multiple levels.

Whether in accomplishing tasks, completing projects or enhancing personal development, individuals are no longer confined to face-to-face encounters. Such changes and advances in technology have impacted the way in which employees live their lives and accomplish everyday tasks. Moreover, with the impact of globalization, organizations have expanded outside of the traditional corporate office.

The Telework Research Network conducts a variety of surveys with both private and public sectors in the United States, Canada and the U.K. Here a few of the findings it has discovered in its research.

The number of employees working virtually grew by 61 percent from 2005 to 2009, and this percentage is estimated to grow to 69 percent by 2016 — meaning an estimated 4.9 million people will be working virtually. Moreover, 79 percent of workers in the survey said they would rather work virtually, and 61 percent would take a pay cut to do so.

Additionally, Best Buy, British Telecom and Dow Chemical found that virtual workers are 36 percent to 41 percent more productive when working virtually.

It’s clear that learning professionals’ methodologies must evolve to reflect these technological trends.

The following is a list of things to consider when working or leading virtually.

Create a clear path to success: This is important for both the employee and the leader. Are the objectives and goals of the project clearly understood by all involved, and is there a clear path to get there? Outline the project’s objective and the desired goals and keep them on an intranet or SharePoint site. Revisit them on a regular basis.

Provide clear direction: Virtual employees or teams can often fall off the radar and lose the attention of their managers. It is easy for objectives to get lost in translation when people are not communicating face-to-face. Therefore, there should also be a clear understanding around the frequency of check-ins between the people involved. Be clear, concise and consistent and make sure actions are in alignment with the business priorities.

Develop structure: There is a tendency for people to not implement the same disciplined practices they use in face-to-face work when working virtually. Depending on the organization’s culture, implementing structure when working with virtual employees helps to maintain accountability, which will help to ensure the project’s success.

Use agendas, checklists, regular touchpoints, staff meetings, timelines, project flow charts and scorecards, and post these on a SharePoint site to make sure the structure stays in place.

It is also important to note that when selecting someone to work virtually — whether individually or on a team — if that person was not organized when working face-to-face, then he or she likely won’t be when working virtually.

Understand facilitation: As a virtual leader, your role often shifts from one of leading a project to facilitating a process. Facilitation is an art. Understand what it means to facilitate. This will help you become more effective as your lead the various virtual mediums — conference calls, video conferencing, WebEx, etc.

Maintain connection: Creating a virtual workplace water cooler is a great way to ensure those who are working virtually maintain connection with their colleagues and the company. Set aside a time at each meeting to discuss important news. This should be news from co-workers as well as important news occurring within the company. Allowing time for social networking will help make sure everyone feels connected.

Pamela L. Van Dyke is managing principal of Leverage Consultants, a human capital consultancy. She can be reached at

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