Many leadership teams struggle to keep pace with rapid changes affecting today’s workplace. Leading the modern workforce requires a new approach to applying and practicing skills — especially when managing a dispersed team. Over recent years, the demand for virtual leadership skills has heightened. Data from Work Trend Index reports that 73% of employees want flexible work options and are more likely to stay with the company long term if this benefit is offered.

“The need for effective hybrid and virtual leadership is only going to increase because as younger generations are entering the workforce, work flexibility is expected,” Verity Creedy, Vice President of Product Management at DDI, highlights.

However, according to DDI’s 2023 Global Leadership Forecast, 58% of leaders worldwide now work in a hybrid role, yet only 27% of those leaders feel prepared to effectively lead a hybrid or remote team. In the same survey, only 20% of leaders rated themselves as “very effective” at leading virtual teams.

Virtual leaders share different experiences and challenges versus those tasked with leading in-person teams. This is why virtual leadership requires a different subset of skills and capabilities. Though these skills may be evergreen (e.g., communication, trust, empathy) leaders must shift the context of how they apply these skills in a virtual work environment, and how to use this new blend of skills to solve problems significant to virtual leadership.

3 Pitfalls to Leading a Hybrid/Remote Team

There are three common pitfalls many virtual leaders make when leading their hybrid and remote teams:

1.   Business as usual.

The first pitfall to virtual leadership is attempting to conduct business as usual, instead of adjusting their processes and leadership approach to meet their dispersed teams’ personal and unique needs. Employees who don’t feel a sense of belonging or aren’t receiving the support they need in their role are more likely to disengage from the organization. As a result, the level of trust for that leader is affected and productivity takes a hit. Establishing trust and building relationships looks different in a virtual setting, and virtual leaders must be able to recognize those differences and apply the right skills to mitigate this challenge.

2.   Micromanaging.

The second pitfall in virtual leadership is adopting a micromanaging approach due to the lack of visibility. Virtual leaders can feel a loss of control since they cannot visibly confirm their team is performing and staying productive. As a result, many leaders adopt a micromanaging approach. For example, they may schedule more informal check-ins to track progress and schedule additional meetings, disrupting employees’ workflows, thus hindering productivity.

This lack of trust is evident to employees and can affect relationships and engagement. Micromanaging can make employees feel as if they must always be “on,” which can lead to burnout.

Lastly, many virtual leaders can fall into the trap of proximity bias — the unconscious tendency to prefer people who are physically closer to us on a regular basis. Since leaders can visibly see their on-site employees, they may unconsciously show preferential treatment to them.

3.   Poor communication.

The third pitfall to leading a virtual team is poor communication. Many virtual leaders fail to shift their communication practices when relaying information to their team. This can leave gaps and room for misinterpretation.

Conducting team discussions or meetings with a hybrid team, where some employees are in person and others are remote, can create challenges for leaders to engage both groups inclusively. For instance, a leader who is in the office may inadvertently show preferential treatment to in-person employees. This act of proximity bias can cause remote employees to feel excluded and disconnect from the team and organization.

Feedback can also suffer in a virtual work environment. Data shows that 80% of employees who receive meaningful feedback are more likely to be fully engaged. While video conferencing and instant messaging can make a leader and employee feel as though they are in constant contact, these tools by nature lack nonverbal cues and make it difficult to show empathy or communicate effectively.

Training for Success: 3 Skills for Virtual Leadership Development

Virtual leadership is a new capability that requires training. “The good news is that skills around being a good hybrid team leader are developable,” Creedy shares. “They are very much trainable skills.” Many leaders already possess the knowledge of these skills but are unaware of how to apply them effectively to solve the common challenges of managing a dispersed team.

Let’s review the three key skills virtual leaders need to successfully lead hybrid or remote teams.

Build trust.

Many leaders don’t recognize how their own behaviors can influence trust in their teams. However, trust is vital to team cohesion and motivation: In DDI’s study, employees were 4.4 times more engaged when their manager regularly maintained trust. Establishing trust is a gradual process, one interaction at a time. Virtual leaders must develop the capability to build trust in a virtual setting where most communications will be via a computer screen.

DDI’s GLF study found that remote workers have better trust with their leaders. Leaders who work remotely are 22% more likely to trust senior leaders compared to those who work in person.

Creedy shares that to maintain trust in their virtual teams, virtual leaders must practice empathy and recognize personal and cultural differences. This means that virtual leaders should be flexible and have awareness of their people’s individual preferences and backgrounds. For example, if a remote employee lives in a different time zone, the virtual leader needs to take this into account when assigning work and scheduling meetings.

Trust is also built on inclusion. “That’s part of the trust — being consistent, including everybody, and working with all members of the team,” Creedy shares. “And that I’m not demonstrating any sort of proximity bias.” Virtual leaders should learn ways of maintaining team cohesion and inclusivity to cultivate a close-knit team and an authentic relationship with employees.

Communicate effectively.

Communication may be an obvious challenge in hybrid and remote leadership; however, many virtual leaders are unaware of the ways they’re falling short. First, leadership development should train virtual leaders to communicate practically. “Communication is often through technology, so it has to be done in a very clear and understandable way,” Creedy says. “It’s about making sure that you’re meeting the practical needs of that function, whether solving a problem, working through a project or planning with a client.” The mode of communication should fit the task.

Secondly, virtual leaders must communicate with the mindset of ensuring their people feel valued and respected. This requires consistency. Virtual leaders must consistently communicate the value of their team to the organization, and how their contributions impact the business. They must consistently share the organization’s mission, vision and values to their team and connect it to their work. It must be embedded in the culture so that each individual feels like their work is meaningful.

Lastly, virtual leaders need training to learn how to deliver constructive feedback in a virtual workplace. Feedback has become a top driver of engagement for remote employees. Creedy shares that the lack of proximity for remote employees increases the value of receiving constructive feedback from their manager. In DDI’s study, remote employees who received regular constructive feedback from their manager were 2.5 times more engaged than employees who did not regularly receive feedback.

Create visibility.

The third area in which virtual leaders must develop is creating visibility. Many virtual leaders are challenged with managing hybrid or remote teams because they cannot visibly observe team members performing. Since the leader doesn’t have physical visibility, they often rely on micromanaging to ensure good team performance. This not only breaks trust, but also can lead to employees feeling overworked.

Instead, leaders need to focus on building connection, regardless of whether employees are onsite or virtual. Creedy shares that it’s “keeping them connected with each other, keeping them connected with you and keeping them connected with the wider vision of the organization so everyone is really clear and committed about the goals and working on them together.”

Developing Virtual Leaders for Business Success

Virtual leadership skills are a necessity to effectively lead a hybrid or remote team in today’s business world. L&D professionals must create their training curriculum around these three skills: trust, communication and visibility. Creedy recommends a blended learning approach with some of the learning content delivered online through e-learning and the other delivered with their cohorts, via in-person classroom or virtual classroom sessions.

This enables leaders to complete the learning online in their own time and reinforce these skills with their peers. “You want to maximize the time when they’re together to be talking, networking, sharing and practicing what was covered online. I think that’s the golden ticket for what the learning can look like.” Beyond training, learning professionals should use assessment tools to measure behavior change and improvement in those three key skills.

Using 360 feedback can highlight tendencies and weaknesses that the leader may be unaware of and how this is negatively impacting their team. Team feedback surveys solicit feedback from direct reports on which hybrid leadership skills their leader is effective in and which they need to continue developing. “And there’s nothing like hearing that feedback from your team. It requires some vulnerability, but it’s so valuable for leaders to have that awareness.”

Organizations must work to ensure that their virtual leaders have the skills they need to successfully lead dispersed teams — because virtual and remote work is here to stay. Today’s leaders must be prepared to lead and support their employees regardless of where they are located.