Leadership 4.0 is not for beginners

Keeping up trust, promoting team building, rewarding success – how can that be done in a virtual environment?

In my blog series “Virtual leadership”, I discuss various aspects of collaborating at a distance. One of the things that inspired this blog series is my work as a lecturer at the FOM University of Applied Sciences for Economics and Management. Another factor is, of course, Corona: the crisis helped to render virtual leadership a prominent topic. Whatever the effects of the pandemic all over the globe, it also contributed to lasting changes in the world of work.

What is surprising, here, is the wide range of challenges and opportunities: from loss of information to more competencies for employees. In conversations with my clients, I was able to better understand the most important changes and to spread their practical tips via my “virtual leadership” blog series – whether they related to meeting structures or included software recommendations. How, then, can leaders be prepared for this changed world of work?


Out of sight, out of mind?

Keeping in touch without having personal contact is a balancing act. Training courses for leaders should, thus, focus very much on human interaction. How can you establish and cultivate the commitment of employees and a strong relationship with them? My clients recommend something rather straightforward: arrange a personal audio or video call once every other week or, better still, once every week, even if there are no immediate tasks that need to be discussed. These calls may also deal with private matters.

“I have a mixed team consisting of younger colleagues and older, more experienced colleagues. The younger ones require more guidance, the older ones have weathered quite a few crises. I spend more time on each employee than before. Regularly calling the team once every other week means talking for half an hour to each of the 28 team members. However, there was hardly a chance to discuss long-term development goals, because the period during and after corona is also about a struggle for survival. One employee, for example, was working short-time with his hours reduced by 100 per cent. He was feeling anxious and feared being made redundant. These topics and emotions now need to get special attention. Another challenge is to talk to the lone wolfs: picking them up from where they are, staying in contact with them, and also leaving room to discuss private things.”

(BW, a regional manager for a consulting team in the IT industry)


Such talks, which are potentially fraught with tensions, require tact and sensitivity – particularly, if there are no non-verbal signs to interpret, as is the case, for instance, on the phone. In video calls, by contrast, the participants can better read non-verbal signs and respond to them.

“Leaders should try to adapt their leadership style to the actual situation and to respond to the different personalities of their employees. I endeavour to interact with my employees on an equal footing and avoid words and phrases that signify a manager-employee relationship. I find that changing the perspective is very useful for me to empathise with my employees. One aspect, here, is discussing topics that we have in common, for example, talking about family or personal matters such as child care. It is important to leave room for topics that individual employees are really concerned about, that are on their mind. The communication may well be casual, leaving out the hard-and-fast facts.”

(BW, a regional manager for a consulting team in the IT industry)


And how to communicate successfully in a large group? Digital conferences can be tricky. This is a truism, as everybody will know who participated in such a conference in the last few months.

“Virtual meetings are much more demanding than analogue meetings, requiring more discipline from everybody. Simple rules help to provide structure: hearing the other out, talking not too long, keeping to the point, etc. I also think that limiting the number of participants is important and useful. Who is really relevant to the topic of the meeting? It certainly makes sense for one person in the team to facilitate the meeting – and that should not be the leader.”

(BW, a regional manager for a consulting team in the IT industry)


“Here’s pot luck for you, kid”:  virtual team development – a different way of cooking together

So much for the tips regarding communication by audio or video call. What is, and remains, a challenge, though, is achieving proximity from a distance. I have had good experience with team-building events. These need not be extravagant at all; cooking together, for example, is always extremely rewarding. While the colleague from HR chops the coriander and the member of the creative team uncorks the cooking wine, private matters can be discussed much more easily. But can that also be done in a virtual environment? Of course, it can! In fact, it is easy to implement. I got my inspiration from COOKZU, a streaming show to watch and cook, organised by the manager of the eat!berlin festival, Bernhard Moser, and Daniel Finger, presenter at radioeins. (The name of the show, “cookzu”, sounds like the German word for the imperative “watch!”.) They talk so casually about chicken in Traminer wine and monkfish saltimbocca – you could do that together with your colleagues.


“Write it down!” – communicating in writing

Especially in times when people work from home and collaborate at a distance, written communication is gaining in importance. What is crucial in this context is writing clearly and to the point. This is why I recommend to leaders that they strengthen their ability to communicate in writing. It is often the little things that determine the success of a project text, a cover letter or even the fastest written form of communication, an e-mail. For feedback on texts, I personally prefer to rely on the expertise of my trusted copywriter, Natalie Fingerhut. Here I also get tips and tricks in between about how to communicate successfully.


 “We managed this as a team!” – speaking about success

 In the past, anyone whose sales pitch at the customer’s premises was successful might have gone to the restaurant around the corner to drink a toast. Yet, what if the pitch has taken place digitally and afterwards everybody pulls out of the MS Teams meeting? Well, clearly, then you need an extra virtual meeting to celebrate. Even if you are not toasting with mojito, here, it is important to commemorate achievements, because they weld people together. This (virtual) room for feedback from both sides is highly relevant also if things didn’t run one hundred per cent smoothly. Where else can the competencies of the individual team members become evident?

Make your team even stronger by focusing on what you have achieved together – because that does not only make your employees happy!

You would like to learn more about virtual leadership? Please, read also the first four articles of my blog series on the topic: “Home office to home office – virtual leadership – a challenge offering opportunities”, “You want to have more competence? Here you go! Virtual leadership in enterprise 2.0”, “Is this New Work? How virtual work becomes a reality as the result of a crisis“, and “About video conferencing, chats, etc.: software solutions in practice”.  I hope, you will enjoy yourself and get some interesting ideas as you explore the material.

 Have you become curious? Or do you need support in coaching, in change processes or in team development? Please, send a message.