As Singapore settles into Phase 2, we explore different ways leadership can adapt and work in a virtual workspace. Through relevant research, we identify three main ideas, with practical tips, on how leaders can create a supportive and positive online workspace.
As Singapore slowly re-opens and settles into phase 2, many are talking about the coming of a new ‘normal’ for the working world. With remote and staggered working arrangements becoming the norm, how can leaders continue to lead their team effectively and build a collaborative and supportive work culture virtually?
Remote and teleworking have been gaining popularity since the 2000’s, even before the recent surge of popularity. Using relevant existing research, here are 3 ideas to consider when it comes to enhancing team support and effectiveness sustainably in our current setting.
1. Authentic Leadership and Management by Objectives
As workplace practices change, soft skills like leadership and communication styles can change and adapt as well. Even if they are not visible, the impact they can have on building a supportive and positive work culture is significant (Klein et al., 2013). Without the usual nonverbal cues we use to build rapport with the team, how else can we ensure good leadership and communication?
With what we have understood from research, here are two ideas.
Authentic Leadership: Authentic leadership emphasizes a leader that is and promotes self-awareness, transparency, being open to feedback and being morally ethical in both thought and action (Gardner et al., 2011). These aspects of authentic leadership can better support a virtual team, which we talk about more below:
- Being consistent in communication: Providing structure and reliability in the form of consistent and transparent information sharing sessions (monthly newsletters, meetings, etc.,) ensures everyone is up to date with the state of the company and their team. In fact, greater knowledge sharing is linked to greater trust and organizational commitment in employees (Golden & Raghuram, 2010). Trust and rapport can be found in not only socializing activities but these knowledge sharing sessions as well, which leaders can utilise by being open and clear during these sessions.
- Actively requesting feedback:Without physical cues that indicate when someone wants to speak or how they might actually be feeling, feedback can be actively solicited from the team (polls, meetings, email surveys etc.). This not only ensures transparent communication but also helps employees feel valued and respected (Cooke & Hilton, 2015). This, in turn, leads to increased motivation to contribute back to the team (Olson & Olson, 2013).
- Practicing vulnerability to build trust: Transparency in authentic leadership can mean leaders being open about their feelings and anxieties with their team. Vulnerability is a human emotion that we all experience and professional vulnerability can provide opportunities for reflection and learning for both the leader and the team. Research shows that being open and transparent when communicating results in higher trust from employees (Norman, 2006). Increased trust, in turn, can result in more proactive work from employees (Sharkie, 2009).
- Management by objectives (MBO): Essentially, management by objectives requires both the leader and the team to decide on a goal that is to be done in a set time frame and to an agreed standard (Drucker, 2017). MBO might prove suitable as task-oriented leadership was shown to be a good indicator of job and communication satisfaction for teleworkers (Madlock, 2012). Remote workers who experienced a higher quality of MBO had higher job satisfaction and experienced less irritation (Konradt et al., 2003). So how can one start to implement MBO into their leadership?
- Formalise common goals, roles and communication methods. By doing so, researchers have found that it improves the effectiveness of a team (Gibson et al., 2019), especially if it was done at the start. One way to ensure the goals are easily understood is to have them in objective and/or quantitative terms use them consistently to evaluate progress. You can also establish a common set of vocabulary and working styles in the team from the start.
2. Implementing adaptable and flexible practices
In times of turmoil, people look up to their leaders for strength and guidance. No matter what level of leadership you are within a company, your employees will be looking to you for direction. By being adaptable and flexible, you can create innovative solutions in the face of new challenges and lead your team beyond the crisis. Here are some ways adaptable and flexible practices can be implemented.
Allow for personalised and flexible working schedules. Working from home can be both beneficial and detrimental in different aspects; from increased likelihood in experiencing negative emotions (Mann & Holdsworth, 2003) to decreased amounts of work-related stress and exhaustion (Allen et al., 2015). The type of job and type of individual can change how one is affected by remote work (Allen et al., 2015).
With that in mind, consider allowing individuals to personalise their schedule to their preference and job requirements. Not only does it help create efficient working schedules, having the ability to choose how they want to work can result in better health outcomes for employees, even if the job itself is stressful (Karasek, 1979).
- Acknowledge, review and build on past practices: Take some time to look at how your team did both pre-COVID and during CB. Acknowledge your strengths and seek potential areas for improvements. Identify management practices that did and did not work and pinpoint the type of leadership or management style it falls under. By systematically looking at what worked and what did not in different aspects of the company, leaders can learn from the past and effectively plan for the future and encourage a learning culture as well (Raelin, 1997).
3. A Strong Foundation: Prioritizing employee well-being
Past research has shown that physical, emotional and psychological health is linked with work performance (Cropanzano et al., 2003; Ford, et al., 2011). This is not unsurprising; in fact, Employee Assistant Programs (EAP) are based on this idea and are also common among companies. Given the increased stress that some might feel from the sudden transition into remote work and the incoming recession (Kit, 2020), what else can leaders do to take care of employees’ well-being remotely? Here are some ideas for your inspiration:
- Conducting ‘health circles’ sessions: Consider having ‘health circles’ sessions within your company! These are structured sessions for teleworkers where they share their personal struggles with working from home, identify the main stressors and develop appropriate coping strategies together. The research found that employees viewed having these outlets to discuss these topics as helpful and positive. They also reported significant changes to major stress factors. These effects happened both immediately after the sessions as well as in the long run (Konradt, 2000).
- Encourage virtual socialising and informal interactions: With social isolation being one of the main effects of remote working (Mann & Holdsworth, 2003), remote social events are important to ensure the team socializes and develop trust with one another (Zheng et al., 2002). Here are other ideas to consider for your next company event.
- Virtual game night, where the employee’s family also join in on the fun. (Kahoot, Jackbox, Monopoly, etc.)
- Sending care packs to employees with different themes. (Food, self-care, Hygiene, etc.)
- Catering lunches regularly and hosting lunch video calls.
How you implement these ideas and how effective they are will vary based on the specific work culture and structure you already have. Take it as easy as you need but when you do decide on what to do, be consistent, transparent and listen to feedback. Creating a positive and supportive work culture may seem difficult but it is important in ensuring an organisation’s success, especially in these stressful and uncertain times.
Jasmine Low, PhD.
Camellia Wong, MA
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