Published on 2021/04/28

Preparing Leaders for the Virtual Workforce: A Systemic Approach for the Teleworking Environment

Although many new practices were accelerated and adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its particular challenges, many‚ÄĒlike telework‚ÄĒare primed to remain post pandemic. Organizations must prepare accordingly by training their leaders and staff to work effectively and collaboratively in this virtual environment. 

Telecommuting, otherwise known as teleworking, has become more common as a means for organizations to continue operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although, some organizations have allowed employees to telework in the pre-pandemic era, the recent necessity for teleworking can have substantial and long-term effects on brick-and-mortar operations in post pandemic. Many may contend that COVID-19 was the driver for expediting the need to develop a virtual workforce. Much of the recent research has focused on issues related to logistics, including technology and employee competencies to function in the virtual environment. Authors such as Apgar (2020), for instance, focused on important areas related to internet bandwidth, home-based technology and security software to protect confidential information. Although logistics may have been at the forefront for a strong continuity of operations, there is an opportunity to focus on which leaders and, more specifically, what types of leaders are best fit for the virtual workforce. 

Virtual leadership is defined as the part- or full-time responsibility to lead employees who are not in the traditional office environment. Although, the fate of organizations and whether they choose teleworking in lieu of the brick-and-mortar environment (post pandemic) is still unknown, it is necessary to address challenges related to the continuity of operations in our current environment and that of the future; some organizations may realize the benefits of teleworking for its efficiencies and potential for a reduction in overhead costs related to office space. The current challenges and future implications drive the need to focus on a systemic approach to maximize performance in the virtual environment, which impact leadership approaches. 

In this article, three crucial areas were chosen to address how organizations can prepare and recruit the appropriate leaders for the virtual workforce:

  1. Virtual servant leadership 
  2. Performance measurement and employee monitoring
  3. Supporting a strong work-life balance/separation for employees

Leadership Selection and Development

Organizations have the daunting task of recruiting leaders with the appropriate skills and abilities to manage employees in a virtual environment. Equally, it is important to ensure that current managers are able to adapt their leadership style to accommodate employees who are unable to be observed in the traditional office environment. Leaders who desire higher levels of control most likely will struggle in the virtual workforce because physical observation is absent. Leadership in this sense must be viewed as service and support functions rather than the traditional definition of control, which can be akin to what managers do in a production environment. 

‚ÄúServant leadership relates the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. The conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead…The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant‚ÄĒfirst to make sure that other people‚Äôs highest priority needs are being served. The best test…is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit or at least will they not be further deprived?‚ÄĚ (Greenleaf, 1970, p. 15). Hiring the best virtual leaders with servant leadership traits is not as simple as it sounds, as many do not have the flexibility to adapt. According to Eliot (2020) virtual leaders with a higher level of resilience enable those around them to react utilizing behaviors that manifest in positive resilience traits.  A recent study indicated that servant leaders influence their followers by fostering social exchange rather than social learning (Madison, Eva, & Newman, 2020). The focus on serving employees in this sense involves a high degree of adaptability to the employees‚Äô specific situations and the consistent engagement in the company‚Äôs cyber culture; even if there is little to no face-to-face communication, strong connections still need to be maintained. 

Performance Measurement 

Assessing employee performance in the virtual environment may be radically different, as there is more of a focus on results rather than the amount of time spent working. Employees may need to batch their work throughout the day rather than relying on the traditional set work hours. This type of flexibility not only serves the needs of employees (especially during a pandemic) but may be an incentive to increase productivity and allow for the recruitment and retention of high-performing employees. A results-only environment will relieve the need to assess performance based on the hours present in the office in favor of evaluating the quality of work delivered. 

The need to be evaluated is required for not only the employee but the virtual leader as well. How can virtual leaders measure their employees‚Äô performance? How is the virtual leader performing within the organization, and how well does that leader perform as the virtual leader? What skills are required of a virtual leader to measure and analyze projects clearly and in an easily trackable way? Performance evaluation can be a direct result of the actual training of virtual leaders. However, evaluating the effectiveness of the actual training is difficult to measure (Urbancov√°, et al., 2021). There is an opportunity to provide consultation to educate leaders for the virtual environment through the lens of servant leadership. There is also an opportunity to screen managerial candidates for the ability to practice servant leadership. This should be at the core of the curriculum, so that the leaders are able to meet the needs of employees, who can in turn perform at high levels even at a distance. 

Promoting a Strong Work-Life Separation

The pandemic has created a need for continuity of operations through a remote workforce; perhaps the pandemic itself quickly drove the inevitable reality that companies will not rely as heavily on brick-and-mortar to operate in the future. Although it is difficult to determine whether COVID-19 expedited the need to research and discuss virtual leadership, it is important to prepare for the possibility that many organizations may adopt a permanent virtual work environment after the pandemic ends. Setting boundaries between home and work can be challenging for employees (Hyman, Scholarios & Baldry, 2005). Training, coaching and mentoring may help team building and teach newer methods to complete tasks effectively. One such method is known as batching, which involves separating tasks throughout the day while also meeting various other obligations. This can be productive because the employees will have some relief to manage life’s obligations, especially during a pandemic. Virtual leaders should trust their employees and have deadlines or completion times that allow this flexibility. Virtual leaders could also help employees better develop, produce and perform with their co-workers (van der Lippe, & Lippényi, 2020). The bonus here is that organizations may be able to create a culture that attracts and retains a diverse composition of employees who would otherwise struggle to meet family obligations, for example. 

References

Apgar, C. (2020). Tips for telework during the COVID-19 pandemic.¬†Briefings on HIPAA,¬†20(5), 6‚Äď7.

Eliot, J. L. (2020). Resilient leadership: the impact of a servant leader on the resilience of their followers. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 22(4), 404-418.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1970). The servant as leader. Westfield, IN: Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership

Hyman, J., Scholarios, D., & Baldry, C. (2005). Getting on or getting by? Employee flexibility and coping strategies for home and work. Work, employment and society, 19(4), 705-725

Madison, K., Eva, N., & Newman, A. (2020). Do Servant Leaders Create Servant Followers? 

Exploring Social Learning and Social Exchange Processes. In Academy of Management Proceedings (Vol. 2020, No. 1, p. 15389). Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510: Academy of Management.    

Urbancov√°, H., Vrabcov√°, P., Hud√°kov√°, M., & PetrŇĮ, G. J. (2021). Effective Training Evaluation:¬†The Role of Factors Influencing the Evaluation of Effectiveness of Employee Training and¬†Development.¬†Sustainability,¬†13(5), 2721.

Van der Lippe, T., & Lipp√©nyi, Z. (2020). Co‚Äźworkers working from home and individual and team¬†performance.¬†New Technology, Work and Employment,¬†35(1), 60-79.

Disclaimer: Embedded links in articles don‚Äôt represent author endorsement, but aim to provide readers with additional context and service.

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