With 45% of the U.S. workforce working remotely in the fourth quarter of 2021 and 90% of those saying they want to maintain at least some degree of it, the work-from-home trend is here to stay. On a global scale, 18% of the world works virtually. This is important as leaders step into those digital spaces, where communication methods like face-to-face conversations and body language no longer apply. Virtual leadership skills become critical in the new era of remote work.
Remote work creates implied distance between employees and teams. Without daily coexistence—getting each other coffee, racing to the cafeteria, sitting at a table together, etc.—an emotional distance can develop as well.
Fully remote teams may lack the camaraderie of in-person ones simply because they don’t have enough non-work interaction to maintain team cohesion. Good leadership and emotional intelligence is key to bridging that gap.
What is emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence (EI) is a concept first introduced to the business world in a 1994 book of the same name by Daniel Goleman. Today, EI has risen to become an important and necessary skill in leadership. Goleman defined the trait as having five measurable parts: self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, social awareness, and relationship management.
Knowing yourself and your emotions is an important part of leadership. Yet, many people move into leadership without even decent emotional literacy. Understanding that what you’re feeling is annoyance, discomfort, jealousy, etc., can help you gauge whether those emotions are fair in a given situation.
In leadership, it provides the tools to moderate your responses to others and, most importantly, to learn your reactions and communication style so you can adjust to different situations.
That might mean showing empathy to someone who needs it, or acknowledging you may come off as cold or harsh to someone and need to alter that behavior to be more comfortable for them.
Learning how other people respond to you is an important part of interpersonal communication. It involves being aware of people’s reactions and how they talk to each other, and observing team dynamics.
That’s significantly more difficult in virtual environments, as text famously creates perceived tension and passive aggression where none is intended. If you can’t look at team interactions and understand their dynamics, you probably don’t know your team well enough and need to hone your emotional intelligence.
Supporting independence while enabling teamwork
It’s impossible to have full oversight of someone who spends most of their time in a room by themselves. So, remote workers need to be self-driven, independent, and capable of taking ownership of their work. Good virtual leadership enables people to do their work efficiently and passionately, with the autonomy to decide when, where, and how to do it.
At the same time, you have to introduce processes and standardization across the team and have communication in place. While it may be tempting to run Discord or Zoom constantly while working, those tactics can be disruptive.
Instead, you should find the middle ground. For example, individuals generally will not work on a project on their own for more than a day. People can ask for help and have team sessions online to work on an issue or solve a problem and then go back to their own tasks.
Creating opportunities for real-time collaboration with tools like VoIP and cloud documentation can be extremely valuable here.
Being a good leader means seeing when this cooperation is wanted, when it’s not, and creating opportunities for both. Sometimes people themselves are the bottleneck and you’ll have to build stronger relationships before you can foster that kind of collaboration.
Building interpersonal relationships
Most people think of interpersonal relationships as something you form in person. But with decades of online relationships, long-distance friendships, and successful remote work collaborations, that’s not entirely the case. People can and do connect in purely virtual environments—you just have to give them the chance to do so.
In many cases, that means adding touchpoints for people to interact about things that are not work-related. It can involve giving people more time to talk and speak up. For example, adopting a 15-minute daily stand-up where people have to answer questions like, “What did you do yesterday?”, “What are you working on today? How do you feel about it?”, or “Are there any barriers or problems you’d like help with?”
This tactic, which is espoused in Roy Osherove’s book, Elastic Leadership, lets people connect, shows leaders what’s going on within the team, and gives room to tell people whether they’re pushing too hard or not enough.
Additionally, you need to develop connections in non-work environments. Pizza and virtual board games can help. You can also engender feelings of camaraderie by having team members share what matters, what they’re working on, and what challenges them.
Wrapping up: Build strong virtual leadership skills with EI
While EI is often pushed as a leadership skill, it can be beneficial at every level of your organization. When the people in your teams better understand themselves and their peers, their communication improves.
Stronger communication leads to a deeper knowledge of people’s emotional motivations. People rarely have bad intentions; rather, they often simply want their emotional perspective to be acknowledged and respected.
Offering some level of emotional intelligence training to your team can help them connect and build real relationships.
To truly be a “team,” members must feel connected and motivated to participate in the group. That means providing stability, commitment, communication standards, and the same tools and processes, and collaborating on projects. Once you have that, a good leader can guide everyone toward strong, lasting connections necessary for effective teamwork.