The Economist Intelligence Unit estimate that 62% of people in the global workforce will be conducting work remotely as a major part of their job by 2020.  This is driven by the rapid advances in technology, as well as the new generation of young people coming into the workforce (Gen Z), who have only experienced an on line/social media/internet and cyber connected world.  More and more organisations are understanding the changing and beneficial aspects to remote/dispersed and virtual workforces.  These can include:

  • Decrease in office space rent/ assets (increase in business profit margin)
  • Less equipment costs/uniform
  • Reduced carbon footprint (no daily travel/commuting to work)

But with the benefits come drawbacks, one of which is the perception of leadership and the notion that ‘traditional’ leadership approaches will still work in this situation.

It has to be understood that many of the traditional aspects of leadership were born from various aspects and have subsequently changed or been adapted over the decades.  One of the key components in many of leadership theories and styles was the concept of leadership ‘presence’. Whether that was seeing the archetypal leader: ‘leading from the front’, ‘charging forward’, ‘leading by example’, or taking a ‘command and control’ view to lead the team.  It is often cited that in the televised Presidential Election campaign between Nixon and JF Kennedy, Nixon won the votes of those listening by radio, whilst JFK, won over those watching the television, highlighting a major point about leadership physical presence.  But in a virtual or dispersed team – how can you lead through cyber space – where your ‘presence’ will be mainly internet media related?  What style of leadership will now be best?  With the decrease in human interaction and personal engagement this environment causes – how are you able to gain the trust and respect of peers, colleagues and the team?

For example, it is sometimes thought that an informal, relaxed and ‘Laissez-Faire’ leadership style may work best for virtual teams.  Unfortunately, research has shown that this style of leadership may, in some cases, cause more harm than benefits.  Leading a virtual team requires excellent and precise communication – involving clear instructions (more often than not written within emails or e-documents), more focus on expectation-setting, clear and concise problem solving; as well as increasingly excellent tools and methods in order to monitor the output and progress remotely, as well as manage people performance to ensure that deadlines are not missed.

Despite this, it is not micro-management, it’s about adopting a flexible leadership style, but putting greater emphasis on some leadership areas, whilst relaxing others.  You will have to adapt your traditional leadership thinking and embrace new ideas or ways of working.  What may have worked in the past may not be the best way to work now.  Knowing how to do this will equip you with the necessary leadership skills which will be in more demand over the coming years.

As more Generation Millennials (Gen Y) and now Generation Z – the most recent generation to be named, starting from the mid-1990s, with some just entering the market.  This generation are characterised by their mass use of the internet from an early age, where they are comfortable with technology and interact easily on social media.  Their expectations of work and the work environment will be different from their superiors.  Technology, remote working and cyber connection are the norm, and their perception of leadership will be different from the traditional view and this will challenge many perceived ways of doing work.

As you can now understand, leading a virtual, dispersed or remote team requires a different mind-set than ‘traditional’ leadership, but it will still require using some of the basic and traditional methods.  Are you ready for the next phase of leadership?

Whether you are a seasoned Leader with many years’ experience or newly appointed in the role, we all have something we can learn to improve our overall development and performance.  Or if you are responsible for development in your organisation, you can now understand how critical the new Virtual Leader’s role is to an organisation’s success.The 360LEADERS Academy training course: "Virtual Leadership: Leading Dispersed Teams" has been specifically designed and developed to address the behaviours, skills and competencies required to achieve excellence in the Shift Team Leadery role.