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The Importance of Virtual Leadership Skills

IBM is rightfully considered a pioneer of the remote work movement, known for embracing the telework concept as far back as the mid-1990s.

That’s why it was newsworthy when, this past spring, the tech titan asked thousands of remote workers to leave their home offices and relocate to regional offices.  

The idea behind rethinking its virtual work policy, according to the company, was to spur greater collaboration and get work done faster.

Yahoo and Reddit had the same goal when they issued similar edicts to remote employees in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

These are some of the most high-profile examples of companies opting to ban or at least curtail remote work. But will these decisions have the intended effect? You don’t have to look far to find those who question this type of move. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, for example, was greeted with a chorus of criticism upon announcing the organization’s new no-working-from-home policy in early 2013. Forbes described it as “an epic fail.” The Huffington Post called Mayer’s move “the exact opposite of what a CEO should be doing.”

Encouraging Collaboration

In IBM’s case, the leadership team did what it thought was best for the company. And they’re not the only ones rethinking remote work at the moment. In fact, new i4cp research on agile leaders and organizations finds 8% of companies are thinking about calling virtual workers back to the office.

If your organization is among this group, what must you consider first? If you’re hesitant to take remote work options away from employees, the answer might instead be to help managers overseeing teleworkers develop the virtual leadership skills necessary to keep their people connected, engaged and productive.

(Earlier this year, i4cp offered a few tips on how managers can model effective collaborative behavior among both on- and off-site workers)

These skills will only become more critical for leaders going forward, with a growing body of research finding more employees spending at least some of their time working remotely.

And make no mistake: Your organization will need to embrace the virtual work trend in order to survive and thrive, and must find ways to improve collaboration among these types of geographically dispersed teams. And be advised that the price for failing to do so could be steep, in the form of remote workers that feel disconnected from their colleagues and their employers.

For years, i4cp has noted the importance—and dearth of—virtual leadership skills, including in the report Global Leadership Development: Preparing Leaders for a Globalized Market. The study, conducted in partnership with the American Management Association, found the ability to address and resolve performance issues of virtual or remote team members was more apparent among high-performance organizations (49%) than low-performance companies (35%).

That research also saw a correlation between leaders’ proficiency in this area and the overall effectiveness of global leadership development programs. In addition, the study identified the need to teach virtual leadership abilities as one of the 10 most-needed skills not included in most global leadership development programs.

Embracing Technological Tools

The roots of this deficiency might lie in leaders’ unfamiliarity with the technology needed to get virtual teams collaborating on all cylinders.  

In fact, the 2013 iteration of the same i4cp/AMA study found “comfort and competency with the latest advances in virtual technology” to be one of the key missing ingredients in global leadership development programs.

“With employees, customers and suppliers located worldwide, global leaders must be able to leverage technology for collaboration,” according to the research, which also saw more than half (54%) of high-performance organizations citing collaborative behavior as the leadership behavior most often attributed to having participated in global leadership development.

Further, i4cp has identified the ability and willingness to rely on virtual and social technologies to engage, connect, communicate, and collaborate with others as one of the 14 future leader capabilities that will be crucial to leaders in the days to come.

That report found a high correlation to market performance when organizations teach leaders to use synchronous virtual technologies such as web conferencing and instant messaging, as well as social technologies like Yammer and Jam, as part of their development efforts. And, more recently, our aforementioned agility research sees 45% of organizations prioritizing the development of a technology platform that connects workers and enables better collaboration.

The reality is that many organizations—even if it’s largely out of necessity in some cases—have made it a point to offer employees the type of flexibility they crave, in terms of how and when they work. These same companies recognize that assembling world-class virtual teams is critical to succeeding in a global market. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still room for improvement when it comes to teaching leaders how to encourage collaboration among employee groups spread out across disparate locations, and how to coax the best performance out of virtual teams.