How HR should be involved in developing strong virtual leadership

The people profession has a critical role to play in helping ensure leaders are proactive about their future collaboration, argues Ghislaine Caulat

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Hybrid working has unsettled workplaces: there’s a mess of policies and practices, issues of trust and engagement. It’s been the same story over the past 20 years – with the setting up of global virtual teams and the response to the pandemic emergency, HR teams have taken a back seat: they have preferred to support managers as and when needed, watched situations emerge rather than take a clear stance and actively working with the business to develop strong virtual leadership strategy and culture.

Based on my experience in virtual leadership over this whole period, my view is that HR has an essential proactive role to play in developing strategies so that leaders are proactively shaping their future collaboration; where they are leading the use of technology instead of being led by it.

HR should be involved in the following six key areas:

Training leaders and managers

Often, organisations do not realise that working and leading in the virtual space is part of an entirely different paradigm of management with its own idiosyncrasies. Different skills and competences are required. When managers simply transfer what they do face-to-face onto the virtual environment, this might work up until a certain point – but they then soon reach a plateau, and virtual working remains ‘second class’.

Shaping the technology landscape

Organisations underestimate the impact different IT platforms can have on collaboration in the long run. Knowing which platform, which features to use and how in order to develop collaboration, is essential. HR needs to establish the bridge between technology and psychology to ensure leaders consciously shape their virtual leadership and collaboration culture.

Shaping systems

Many remote workers are concerned whether their performance will get recognised and whether their chances of promotion decrease. Managers’ big concern is how they can best manage people’s performance if they cannot see what they do. Managing performance and onboarding virtually requires different processes and systems shaped by HR.

Working differently with hierarchy

Organisations tend to get their middle managers and senior leaders trained in virtual leadership, but not their boards or executive teams. Those who have been trained start to implement new ways of working and connecting virtually, but become frustrated when executives join meetings and simply transfer onto the virtual space what works best for them from their face-to-face practice. This often remains unspoken because challenging upwards can feel daunting.

However, since virtual collaboration and leadership belong to a different paradigm, learning also needs to happen – and I would say particularly – at the top of the organisation. HR has an important role to play in helping boards and executive teams to realise their need to unlearn and learn anew.

Ensure the right logistics

How many people have had to work from their bedroom or kitchen table during the pandemic? Whether people work in hybrid teams or in global virtual teams, they need to have the right equipment, the right light, the right furniture, etc. HR’s role is to ensure wellbeing and safety wherever people are working in the virtual space

Creating a strong virtual leadership culture

Working from within a different paradigm will invariably bring new views about leaders’ identities and roles: new values related to collaboration, performance and teamwork. And, more broadly, new images of employers, where a company does not have to be equated with head offices in bricks and mortar, and work does not equate to a specific place any longer. Helping employees and leaders to shift their mindset and attitudes to suit this situation will increasingly be of strategic importance.

Dr Ghislaine Caulat is founder and managing director of Black Gazelle and founder of Virtual Leadership Associates