Virtual leadership – how does it work? What tools can people use to stay in touch when physical contact is prohibited? How can they best collaborate at a distance? As an executive coach, I give advice to leaders from the most different industries. I talked to some of them about what forms of team work they preferred during the corona lockdown. In part 4 of the “virtual leadership” blog series, I am now going to present a selection of tips that some leaders offer concerning the most efficient groupware solutions.
Nowadays, video conferencing replaces the meeting. In this way, people can get together at least virtually. Yet what tools are actually available and what experiences have people made using them? My clients and I used Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Go ToMeeting, Slag, and, of course, Zoom. All applications offer participants the opportunity to communicate via a chat function during the conference.
Google Meet was praised because the tool provides a quick and easy-to-use possibility of video-conferencing – whether just for an employee and their manager, for a small team or for large groups of up to 250 people. Users of Microsoft Teams can see nine participants at the same time when using the conference function. However, this rendered non-verbal communication more difficult because, in general, the images were found to be rather small. Still, the application worked well in international communication: it was used to talk to external partner companies in Asia.
GoToMeeting was mentioned as a second option when it comes to holding formal conferences. The tool also shows several speakers at the same time. The paid version allows up to 250 participants. All of the above video-conferencing solutions require a meeting to be scheduled in advance, with the participants joining in when the meeting has started.
Zoom is yet another software solution that supports high-resolution video-conferencing. It was generally the tool of choice for me as it can also be used for virtual team work or online training courses. The monthly fee depends on the number of participants (up to 200), a free version allows 40-minute conferences. The decisive advantage for me was that Zoom has what they call a “breakout room”. This is a separate virtual room to which participants can withdraw to discuss things in smaller groups. In this way, some issues can be clarified more efficiently.
One of the leaders I interviewed said that her favourite tool for internal communication was Slag. It offers very direct communication, showing only the speaker. The interviewee found it to be fast and easy to use: there is no need to arrange a meeting in advance as you can call your colleagues spontaneously. This is definitely an advantage when an issue needs to be resolved quickly in a face-to-face conversation.
Particularly in the first weeks of the lockdown, many of my clients said they had been bombarded with information on all channels – by e-mail, chat, phone, video, SMS, and mobile phone. Soon it was obvious that tools would be needed to discuss documents more efficiently or to work on presentations together etc.
“We quickly tried to structure our work using platforms such as Sharepoint, One Drive, and other agile methods. With these, you cannot only send documents but also store and organise them.” (AH, a manager working in logistics)
“Last year, we completely switched to GSuite: the communicating and collaborating applications are extremely useful. Google Meet, in particular, enables quick and easy-to-use video-conferencing. Uploading files on GDrive allows for collaborative and even simultaneous editing of documents, which supports virtual project work. We have also held workshops using virtual whiteboards with Microsoft Sticky Notes to do virtual brainstorming.” (VF, an HR manager in the aviation industry)
While Sticky Notes work like digital Post-it notes, which allow you to take notes directly on your desktop at any time, virtual whiteboards, for example in Microsoft Teams, are a great way to capture, sort and structure shared thoughts. Unlike in a physical meeting for a brainstorming session, here, everyone contributes – and no one has to be the secretary at the flip chart. Another good option to do this is Trello:
“We enjoyed using Trello to get structured. Projects can be divided into individual steps, so-called Trello Cards, and you can always see what has already been done and what still needs to be done. Comments, attachments, due dates and much more can be attached directly to the cards.” (JF, a manager of an import and trading company)
The list is far from complete – and yet the large number of solutions mentioned in this article shows that the tech world has long been ready for agile work. Some software options were already in use before corona, but the emergency situation of the pandemic forced many of us to deal with such tools more closely. All interviewees stated that they would like to use more of it in the future and to try out new things from time to time. Well, then: let’s embrace an agile working life!
In the course of my work as a lecturer at the FOM University of Applied Sciences for Economics and Management, I intensively dealt with virtual leadership. As an executive coach, I also experience the practical day-to-day work of leaders on a daily basis. Corona has confronted these leaders with completely new challenges. Digital work has suddenly become a reality. I talked to some of them about the current challenges and have summarised the results of these talks in this blog series.
In the next and final episode of my blog series on the topic of “virtual leadership”, I will be presenting in a nutshell the experiences and tips on the topic of “leading at a distance”.