Virtual Leadership Styles for Remote Businesses

By 2025, 36.2 million Americans will work remotely, according to a report on the future workforce by Upwork. Remote work is nothing new, and trends indicate continued growth for remote workers and increased demand for virtual leadership skills.

  • Gallup reports that remote workdays for U.S. workers have doubled since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
  • A total of 45% of U.S. jobs can possibly be virtual, according to a report on the COVID-19 labor market from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Person having a video conference.

Experts say remote work, also known as telecommuting, will continue even after the pandemic restrictions are lifted and employees are able to return to the office. Gartner reports that 82% of business leaders are planning to let their employees work remotely at least some of the time.

How can businesses get ready for the transition? Individuals in virtual leadership roles can help guide the remote workforce.

Virtual leadership is the remote management of employees and teams. Remote work poses challenges, including communication breakdowns, lack of team building, and work-life balance issues. Organizations can address these challenges with a virtual leadership style that best fits them. This guide provides resources and related information about virtual leadership styles.

A Look at Virtual Leadership Styles

In professional office settings, leaders are physically present to provide face-to-face guidance and management. This isn’t possible in remote work settings. However, an effective virtual leadership style, such as participative, transformative, situational, and servant leadership, can get teams to collaborate and achieve results. Leadership styles that may be counterproductive in remote settings include authoritarian and laissez-faire.

Effective Leadership Styles for Virtual Leaders

Leaders motivate individuals and teams to excel. They use their communication and people skills to help achieve business goals, such as growing sales, providing excellent customer service, or maximizing operational efficiencies. Remote businesses can help ensure a productive workplace and help remote workers meet their goals with the following virtual leadership styles.

Participative Leadership

Remote business managers with a participative leadership style invite their employees to provide input about business decisions. The participative leadership style, also known as the democratic style, gets others to participate in goal setting, decision-making, planning, and other business activities.

Participative virtual leaders enjoy getting involved in group activities. They lead by example and encourage creative solutions. They earn the trust of their teams, establish morale, and minimize excessive and harmful competition. Participative leaders are known for their commitment to teamwork, enthusiastic personality, and drive to achieve results.

Transformative Leadership

Transformative leaders lead with a sense of purpose. They set the vision for organizations with a focus on positive change. Transformative leaders inspire others to action by leading by example. They use their charisma to set a positive tone, encourage buy-in, and create a culture of trust and innovation.

Transformative leaders guide organizations toward taking the necessary steps to achieve the vision. While transformative leaders are big-picture thinkers, they often work alongside others to identify opportunities for improvement. Common traits of transformative leaders include courage, empathy, and creativity.

Situational Leadership

A situational leadership approach suggests that no single leadership style is ideal for every situation. It focuses on adaptability: Each situation requires a different leadership style. The ability to adjust to different personalities is core to this leadership style. Common traits include flexibility, self-awareness, and sociability.

Situational leaders adjust to the evolving needs of people and processes. For example, as more businesses move to a remote workplace, situational leaders are called upon to help individuals and teams meet the challenges of a new work environment and new ways of communicating. Situational leaders achieve this by being flexible themselves.

To that end, they may choose a style that involves telling employees what to do, how to do it, and what they expect as a result. They may also select a more collaborative approach. Depending on the situation, they can choose to be actively involved in tasks or take a hands-off approach.

Servant Leadership

A servant leader inspires the growth, development, and well-being of the people they lead, promoting mutual respect, honesty, and teamwork. Servant leaders drive decision-making using collective processes and by inviting input from team members. Typical servant leader traits include collaboration, good listening, and commitment to employee growth.

Additional traits of servant leaders include empathy, caring, and self-awareness. They apply active listening skills to building healthy team relationships. They may use town halls or group brainstorming sessions to give everyone a chance to share their feedback and opinions.

When a team member falls short of completing a task, they take a proactive, all-hands-on-deck approach, as an equal, to help bring everyone back on track.

Harmful Leadership Styles for Virtual Leaders

The pandemic has led businesses to reimagine their workforce. The virtual leadership styles previously discussed help organizations rethink how work gets done. However, some leadership styles may do more harm than good, discouraging productivity, complicating processes, and straining team dynamics. Harmful leadership styles for virtual leaders include authoritarian and laissez-faire.

Authoritarian Leadership

Authoritarian, or autocratic, leaders can bring clarity to chaotic situations, and they’re known for rewarding individuals who perform well under their leadership with honors, bonuses, and promotions. However, like autocrats, authoritarian leaders leave little room for doubt about who’s in charge. They typically make all the decisions with limited team input, limiting opportunities for creativity and collaboration. This can lead to low morale, high turnover rates, and reduced employee satisfaction.

Additionally, autocratic leaders are often aggressive and focused on micromanagement. The strict controls associated with micromanagement align well with the needs of employees working remotely due to the pandemic. For example, many employees have difficulty balancing their own work while monitoring their children who are studying from home due to school closures.

Laissez-Faire Leadership

The term “laissez-faire” refers to allowing people to choose how they wish to do things, without interference or control from an authority figure. Laissez-faire leadership is the polar opposite of authoritarian leadership. Laissez-faire leaders prefer a hands-off approach to team leadership — an approach that may benefit skilled, experienced teams in office settings, but hinder remote teams that require timely and regular feedback.

Laissez-faire leaders are confident in their team’s ability to complete tasks without much or any guidance. For skilled, self-confident employees who typically thrive in independent work settings, laissez-faire  leadership can be empowering.

People who work in laissez-faire leadership settings may perceive that their leaders are disinterested or actively discouraging them, leading to low productivity. This approach also falls short in providing opportunities for employee development.

Resources on Virtual Leadership Styles

More information about leadership styles are available in the following resources:

7 Virtual Leadership Strategies

Social distancing guidelines due to COVID-19 have made it difficult for businesses to ensure that their employees are safe when working in office settings. In response, many leaders are supporting remote work, and businesses have allowed their employees to work from home. To address the challenges, individuals in virtual leadership roles can leverage seven key strategies.

1. Promote Transparency

Remote employees who have access to data will better understand their roles, goals, and desired outcomes. A virtual leader must ensure that data systems are transparent and accessible and regularly share information through meetings and collaboration tools.

2. Champion Inclusion

Employees want to feel like they’re part of a team, so inclusion is important to any organization’s success. By encouraging employees to contribute to project planning, virtual leaders let them know that their insights are valuable.

3. Lay the Foundation for Trust

Isolation or lack of accountability are common challenges in remote work. Leaders need to encourage a virtual open-door policy, allowing for honest dialogue. This helps lay the groundwork for trust; improves credibility and team cohesion, alignment, and individual accountability; and creates a culture of information sharing.

4. Encourage Creativity

Employees want to contribute to business success. An effective virtual leader lets employees know that they have a stake in the future and that their ideas are essential for promoting business growth and solving problems.

5. Communicate Regularly

Communication is a big hurdle for remote businesses. Effective virtual leaders ensure frequent and consistent communications between themselves and their employees. They also set the stage for team members to interact regularly. This helps to overcome disruptions, eliminates communication breakdowns, and reduces feelings of social isolation.

6. Show You Care

The move from traditional work to remote work can lead to feelings of isolation. Simultaneously, workers often face challenges in home settings. Leaders must empathize with their workers and be willing to allow flexible work schedules to help address these challenges.

7. Project Optimism

Remote work can lead to frustrations and anxiety about what’s to come, potentially leading to poor performance. A virtual leader can help employees have more confidence in their abilities and future by being truthful yet positive.

Resources for Virtual Leadership Strategies

COVID-19 has prompted leaders to embrace remote work strategies, but business can emerge stronger by accelerating their pace of business transformation, according to PwC. The following resources illuminate the strategies for adapting to the new normal and leading virtual teams to success:

Get Ready to Lead in the New Remote Workplace

In a recent survey conducted by Mercer, 94% of employers said that worker productivity was either the same or better than it was before the pandemic, which is why 83% of employers plan to establish more flexible work policies going forward. Even after offices reopen, remote work trends will remain: 70% of employers indicated that they intend to allow their employees to continue as remote workers, according to a survey from The Kung Group.

As the remote workplace continues to expand, businesses will turn to virtual leaders for help. Through the four effective leadership styles — participative, transformative, situational, and servant leadership — virtual leaders can build and lead high-performing remote teams and help businesses succeed in the workplace of today and tomorrow.

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