In times of COVID-19, virtual work is a test of real leadership

In an atmosphere of uncertainty, employees look for reassurance and encouragement from leaders

Business leaders have a crucial role to play in leading their organisations through the current COVID-19 crisis. In times of disruptive change, like the one we face today, traditional leadership skills may not suffice. COVID-19 has forced us to do a lot of things differently. It has forced many of us to work remotely, for instance, and leaders overnight find themselves leading their organisations virtually.

How do good leaders lead their people in a virtual environment? How do they connect with them? And how do they keep them motivated while also ensuring teamwork and creativity? Capgemini Research Institute’s Virtual organizations need real leadership: COVID-19 and the virtual operating model presents key insights on working in a virtual scenario, and the kind of leadership it takes to run things remotely.

The CRI report isn’t just a compendium on organizational best practices in the current crisis but may well be a primer for virtual work situations at all times. It lists the fundamentals of effective management – and what separates good leadership from the great – in a virtual setting.

For a start, having trust in your people – by allowing a sense of autonomy and also setting accountability – is of the essence. Also, individualization is critical because the best leaders always personalise their interactions with each employee. And doing so in a virtual environment shows real purpose.

In the midst of any chaos, leaders should be positive agents of change. Therefore, motivating and engaging a remote workforce is critical – exactly the reason why emotional intelligence (EI) assumes criticality at the workplace. Yet, another Capgemini study has found that only 32% of organizations conducted training for middle management on EI.

In a pandemic situation, in an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, what employees look for is reassurance and encouragement from leaders. What they seek is constant communication – truthful, honest, and empathetic. For example, employees who haven’t worked remotely earlier may be susceptible to “virtual distance.” It helps when leaders alleviate feelings of isolation among such employees, and it helps more when you push employees to take care of their own mental health.

And this goes across all levels of the organisation. In fact, your ace performers need as much attention as the others. These go-getters are usually at risk of overworking themselves. Without the boundaries that office life has, they may have workdays that never end, setting themselves up for exhaustion and alienation.

In virtual work conditions, not every tool is going to be a good fit for your team. The best remote work situations are those in which workers have same systems or processes of work, have technology that encourages collaboration, and knowledge of how to use that technology. Now is the time to explore your digital options and use your tools creatively – and ensure everyone is using them consistently and to full benefit.

In our VUCA world, with its baggage of danger and opportunity, leaders shouldn’t allow themselves to be overwhelmed by circumstances. Do not count yourselves out of the crisis. Whatever leadership role you play, be aware of your own emotional turmoil, its effect on your behavior, and its influence on your leadership abilities.

Look at it this way. If a COVID-19-type situation unfolds again, are you going to be prepared mentally and otherwise? All leaders agree that crisis planning is important, but experience shows that key resources are seldom in place for contingencies. And if they are, they’re usually inadequate. Use this as a good lesson for the future.

The current situation will pass. At that point, every leader in every organisation must think back on the scenarios discussed here. Virtual work may well fulfill the ‘kaizen’ style of constant improvement – where organisations and leaders will not be restricted by the existing way of doing things.