Leading in a Virtual Environment Doesn’t Have to Suck

We’ve had several leaders reach out to us lately because they’re realizing that remote working might be here to stay, and they’re worried.

Maybe they’ve done a respectable job leading in a virtual environment while in crisis mode, but now it seems that the crisis wasn’t temporary, and that remote work is here to stay.

If you’re struggling with how to be an effective leader in a virtual environment, you aren’t alone. We hear variations of the following concerns all the time:

  • How do I know (really know) my team is working or getting their stuff done?
  • How do I connect with them?
  • How do they connect with me?
  • What about the “water cooler” talk?

Today, we wanted to take some time to answer these questions and let you know why this transition is so hard on your brain. Plus, we’ll share some tips for overcoming the obstacles and getting you back to being the confident leader you are.

Yes, you can lead virtually with confidence.

Why Your Brain is Fighting This New Normal

Our brains love patterns because patterns keep us safe. As a result, our brains prefer when we do the same thing every day and fight against us when we try to change them. So, in a way, our patterns and habits are hardwired.

That’s why so many of us are hanging onto those old patterns, the “old normal.” Our brains are more familiar with the way things used to be, especially if we did those things for a long time. They’re fighting the change to get back to what feels comfortable.

To combat this, many leaders have opted for a “fake it until you make it” strategy, which can actually work if you’re diligently trying to make it. Unfortunately, the problem now is that many of us aren’t trying to make it at all.

Instead, you’re just trying to fake it until things go back to the old normal.

Our brains recognize intention, and if we’re excited about change and growth, the brain will work to support that. Alternatively, if we’re feeling negative or fearful of what we’re faking, our brains will resist us from adapting to the change at every turn, and you’ll be anxious until you revert to your normal way of leading.

Pet cameos in virtual team meetings still don’t feel “normal” yet.

In fact, if we act against our habits or start saying things like, “I can’t do this anymore” or “I’ll never succeed at this,” our brains move into a threatened state instead of a toward state.

When you’re in a threatened state, you feel drained all the time, you can’t keep up, and you can’t lead your best. So, now, you’re trying to navigate this new normal in a less-than-optimum space. Sound familiar?

If this resonates, you might feel like quitting and finding a new job that makes people come into the office, but you’re only doing yourself a disservice. Adaptation is critical because we don’t know many of those office jobs will be around in ten years.

3 Tips to Adapt Your Leadership Skills to the New Virtual Normal

If you’re ready to feel like yourself again at work, here are some things to try.

1. Recognize your thinking.

Start by paying attention to how you’re thinking and feeling. Note when you’re feeling stressed and the unhelpful thought patterns that cause that stress. Pay attention to when you’re feeling better about things and the helpful thoughts that trigger those good feelings.

Know that you aren’t alone in feeling unprepared. Many leaders are feeling just like you feel right now. Take the time to figure out the behaviors and thoughts that cause you the most stress when it comes to working in this “new normal.” Remember to be specific and nonjudgmental. This is about being curious!

2. Make a list

Now that you’ve done some thinking, make a list of the things that are helpful. Refocus your brain on those things. When you focus on the negatives and thoughts like, “when are we going back to normal,” you’re keeping yourself in that threatened state.

Instead, when you focus on what’s working, you can start building a more positive relationship with virtual leadership. Here are some examples:

  • The virtual environment works well since my team doesn’t all work locally and working in a hybrid environment allows me to connect with those virtual team members.
  • I can pet my dog between meetings in a virtual environment, and I love that!
  • I really enjoy the time I’ve gained by not commuting every day.

Once you have your list of helpful and positive things, take time to reread it, and engage with it. For example, if petting your dog helps you feel happy, do it more often! If you enjoy your extra time, find something fulfilling to fill it with. Remember, these don’t have to be huge things. Start small and begin building.

3. Start with what works and add to it

Now, keep practicing and choosing to focus on things from your helpful list. Set a goal to add a new helpful or positive thing every week, like:

  • Staying focused during virtual meetings and not looking at your email to help you and your team feel more connected.
  • Popping into team “rooms” periodically to interact with team members.

Practice and add each new idea to your list. Remember, small incremental changes will build over time into lasting change. If you add one new idea to your list every week, you’ll have fifty-two ideas at the end of the year (plus, whatever you started with).

This represents fifty-two new possible ways to make your job more enjoyable and your leadership more effective. If you commit to doing these things on the list, you’ll become a better leader — even in the virtual world!

Becoming the Best Leader, No Matter the Environment

Once you realize that your brain is working against you to adapt, it’s easier to overcome it. These three steps will help you feel more confident leading in a virtual environment.

But, what about the other concerns that we mentioned earlier? Let’s take a look at those again:

How do I know (really know) my team is working or getting their stuff done?

This idea comes from the fear that people at home aren’t working. But study after study has proven this false.

How do I connect with them? How do they connect with me?

This is really hard for all leaders, but it can be especially tough for introverted leaders. Fortunately, our tip about creating a list of ideas can help. Think about ways you can meaningfully connect with your team in a virtual environment, add them to your list, and practice them.

What about the “water cooler” talk?

First, understand that chatting in the break room used to be considered a rich source of information. But, in most offices, it was more likely to be a rich source of gossip that actually got in your team’s way. You can emulate this same sort of thing with chat, “spaces,” and Slack and by encouraging your team to chat in between tasks! But, because it’s online, they’re much less likely to be gossipy and more likely to genuinely connect.

If you’d like some more tips or you’re curious and want to learn more about how to effectively lead remote and hybrid teams, our coaching services can help.

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The Disruptive Element is a leadership performance company. We are coaches, consultants and executives who bring a been-there-done-that perspective to clients.