The Leader’s Responsibilities in Virtual Working - setting the culture.

There are new challenges as more work is done remotely. Technology means we will need to connect with people more deliberately to build relationships that might have evolved more easily when sharing physical space. Also, being away from each other means our work is no longer visible, and our conversations no longer overheard. As a result it is more difficult to gauge what stage of a task someone is at, and whether they are comfortable or struggling. It isn’t enough to be using channels like Yammer and Slack or tools like Trello.

The difficulty comes when we need to share our thought process, understand each other’s decisions, and to know when to reach out for help or offer support at the right time, to feel able to challenge and question at the most useful stage.

A Mind set for leading remote teams.
A revisit of mindsets can set the tone for a shift toward a more open and supportive culture where collaboration can thrive.

Old Mind Set

New Mind Set

Technology gets in the way of getting to know people.

Technology can be people orientated

Collaboration happens between a fixed team of people in an office at a specific time.

Collaboration has few boundaries, team membership can flex, the process is ongoing,crosses geographical  borders and time zones.

Quality communication only occurs face to face.

Quality communication is supported by a range of tools to be chosen as most appropriate for the situation.

Leading remote teams is about learning to use technology.

    Leading remote teams is about teams and people.

People will speak up if its important to them.

People know they are not risking career or personal         damage if they ask questions, seek help, or share concerns. They also contribute ideas and put forward solutions.

Design an interaction strategy
To connect to people, as well as having technology in place, the leader will now also need an “interaction strategy". Building relationships needs more planning, and to be successful needs to be both formal and informal, task and social. If not a formal plan, at least a recognition that different communication channels offer different degrees of reach and depth. A text or email might be great for a quick update or decision, but video conferencing will work best when looking for collaborative work to innovate, or resolve complex problems that require exploration and critical thinking. Reserving video conferencing, ideally with 5- 6 people, for depth demanding tasks will foster higher engagement and performance. Checking in with authenticity and compassion needs to be the new normal. Plan to make time to connect socially and for well being, as well as to make progress on tasks.

Provide Technology
A plethora of platforms and management tools all require the infrastructure in the home office, up-skilling and familiarity. The phone and email will also still remain popular. A mix of technology will help collaboration. Collaboration might, for example, start online within a project management system, and proceed asynchronously before reconvening back in a video conference.

Embrace a more open culture
Once the technology is up and running, even with the increase of the flattening of authority in new working environments, leaders are still responsible for setting the cultural tone, whether at an organisational or individual meeting level.

The future of hybrid working together with a long awaited inclusion agenda signifies a new responsibility for leaders to ensure that everyone in ‘the room’ feels equally enfranchised, that a group of people working in person from corporate HQ have no more power than the the individual working remotely on the other side of the world.

The leader has a responsibility to ensure psychological safety (more below) and also an awareness of where the team are in terms of progress from problem to solution or resolution.

The room as a whole, whether a zoom call or in person, is always smarter than the individual in it. But just letting a group get on with it without any attention to group process, can result in poor outcomes, even spectacular mistakes.

In 1962, the brightest and best people gathered at a US Command centre to deal with the emerging Cuban missile crisis. Their decisions resulted in the humiliating and shocking near miss of a nuclear war, whilst Castro looked valiant. Subsequent investigation of the group dynamics under the charismatic President Kennedy recognised the catalogue of catastrophic decisions as the result of groupthink.

A strong awareness, by the leader, of the group process, together with enabling high quality contributions, will sustain both innovation and challenge.

In addition to the actions recommended in the ‘What helps’ sections of previous articles, covering familiarity with tech, reducing cognitive fatigue and load, how to manage participation in meetings, here are additional suggestions that anyone leading a problem - solving team can use.

1. Put time into thinking about the type of problems (e.g. complex, practical, emotional, ambiguous), and issues you want your teams to resolve. Prepare accordingly:

  • Allocate complex problems to teams who have the benefit of previous time served together and, ideally, have the working capital of in person team working. They can hit the ground running, trust is high and they are able to work both autonomously and collaboratively to shared objectives more easily than teams who have spent less physical face to face time together.

  • Allocate the discussion of emotional issues to occasions when you know resilience and psychological safety are high; not the end of a meeting, not amongst less familiar groups. Rather make it the sole subject of a meeting, and agree ground rules for breaks and creating a psychological safe place that recognises the mental and emotional demands placed on your online contributors.

  • If there is a specific practical problem to be solved,

  1. invest in connecting with the team members individually and positively beforehand to promote their sense of what they can contribute. Go beyond a task related conversation to share more personal experiences - of anything! This is because you are aiming to build their confidence to contribute. Personal resilience can take a real hit when we are on our own for a long time. This has been explained by negative beliefs hiding away in our subconscious - “I’m not good enough, productive enough, smart enough, likeable enough” etc. This negativity can grip more of our psyche when we are on our own for a long time, making us full of self doubt, and reducing both our personal resilience and ability to perform. With prior conversations, when you meet whether on online or P2P, you will have already got to know your team member as person that bit more, ideally know what special skills, interests or background they can draw on, and trust will be higher.
  2. lay groundwork for the team to think wide to accommodate more complex nuanced views by getting a a sense of what lies behind their opinions, and modelling a wide focus and exploring approach. Use questions such as ‘Where do you think this began?’ What stands out as most important here?’ and ‘What questions should we asking?’

  • Allocate ambiguous problems to groups with a strong sense of values, mission, purpose or cultural perspective or any thing else that you want to call the framework of what is desirable, acceptable and required that your organisation operates under. Alternatively, make time to ensure you have this framework in place before delegating ambiguous problems. This should ensure you have more alignment in understanding and sense making, saving time and energy for generating forward leaning ideas amongst a group of people who have a shared  view, and trust in, each others’ ways of working.

2. As a leader, aim for the “long win”. Look ahead to invest in the capacity of your team to work together.

  • Remove the need for “impression management” as much as you can. Remember every contact is an opportunity to elevate the relationship you have with someone to a level where you can both be more relaxed. If someone is constantly unclear about what you want them to do, or by when, or is distracted by concern about how well they are seen - they are not able to help you as much as they or you would like. Individuals need clarity and appreciation from their manager.

  • Make it clear how much you appreciate those who report to you, and in what way you value their contribution. Even if you can’t guarantee what will happen in the future - you can be certain and clear that you will look after their interests.

  • Look after your staff - check and support their physical and mental/emotional health. Every interaction is an opportunity to build a trusting and closer relationship. Be caring by being curious about how they are managing their situation and what they need from you.

  • Draw up a Team Charter with your teams so that the team agree in advance how they will use technology to communicate, collaborate and share information. Also how they will know when others are available, how often they will update each other and how regularly they will meet. Even if the team is strong and stable, its worth agreeing, writing down and revisiting often.

  • As a leader, establish ways, that become familiar to the team, of how you plan and carry out updates, meetings, and check ins. This will also feed into your interaction strategy.

  • Build in the capacity to look from multiple perspectives - a diverse team, with strong relationships. During your problem - solving meetings, get used to planning in plenty of breaks away from the (2d narrow perspective of the) screen. Seek out and encourage the use of different types of data. Ask for, and reward empathy where it is represented by the capacity to perceive the emotion and perspective of others, customers or suppliers as well as other employees.

  • Establish working hours spent off screen as normal, releasing more cognitive power for when they, and you, are on screen.

  • Look ahead to when your team needs to be able to look outside the box. Build your own, and other’s, networks of experts and customers. Look at affiliations, partnerships, and organisations to connect with.

  • Psychological safety is as key as it ever was. If you’re looking for innovation and creativity, ensure you contract for this - maybe not all the time, but consider how you can create a specially supportive culture for a significant meeting by taking additional time to build trust, through honest disclosure in off task conversations perhaps. Provide the rationale for openness and speaking up by offering your own humility and curiosity - “we haven’t had to deal with this before, but I’m interested to look at what sorts of things we could do.” Practice a culture where everyone contributes, and feels able to talk openly about emotional responses to meeting content. Work towards this by building up from sharing ‘safe’ information for example about holidays, to more intimate ‘what frame of mind you are bringing to the meeting - and what might have caused that, (it won’t be a frenetic commute in these times, but it maybe the washing machine flooding or a neighbour complaining). Every interaction is an opportunity to nurture and bank trust towards building a positive holding space.

  • Build the team’s capacity for sub task work by developing 1:1 relationships between people. This will promote the capacity for sub teams to evolve in the online space through individuals becoming aware of each other’s strengths, and crucially, developing the confidence to take on tasks away from the main screen/group, knowing work on a sub task will still be valued, and that they will be brought up to date on re-entry. Ideally the group participants know each already. If not, then setting up 1:1 non work related conversations beforehand will fast forward the teams’ capacity to bond, their preparedness to work for, and with each other, facilitating the best division of labour into subgroups as people know each other’s areas of expertise and preferred working styles.

3. When ‘in the moment of’ working collaboratively, consider the following as options that you might find useful.

Be confident in your team, clear about the situation, and be prepared to not be the expert.

The best model for starting collaborative working through complex problem solving online seems to require, a strong clear brief which, given the complex nature of the scenario is probably not going to be a straightforward objective. The start point could be presented by any individual not necessarily the leader or manager, but certainly someone who can grasp the needs of the situation quickly, convey their understanding clearly, and facilitate agreement of the next steps.

Rather than presenting the solution or even the problem itself, sometimes this might be framed as 'this is what we think we know, this is what we don’t know/might need to know’. This confidence and clarity energises the group by introducing simple clarity and confirming its OK to be experiencing not knowing the answer!

Even if the problem feels intangible, hearing from the leader about the overarching reason for the group being together - that their purpose is to work together to resolve whatever is on the table, and that they are the people selected to do it - can help momentum in the most ambiguous situation.

Talk about your fallibility and be curious.

The leadership role here is crucial. Traditional expectations of the leader having the answer are inadequate. Instead, the leader will seek contributions and the challenge of ideas by modelling fallibility and curiosity. ‘We haven’t been here before, we need all the ideas we we can get.’ and ‘I can’t be,and I'm not, all over everything, so your perspective could be the link we need to join the dots’.

Build and maintain a clear framework. This will help trust individual(s) to work away, possibly offline, off screen or asynchronously, in a way that will fit back into the team.

To sustain attention and minimise cognitive load, the next operational steps can sometimes best be taken offline or away from the team online format. This allows individuals to approach the information in the way that suits them best, e.g. reading, making notes, doodling whilst thinking.

This could mean individuals/sub groups are acting autonomously, and will need a clear framework to bring their information back to the group. That means when and how. Team commitment to this process needs to recognise that new information can change things significantly, and requires openness on the part of individuals to change their hard won information and insight after hearing from other people.

Each individual needs the confidence of the rest of the team that they possess sufficient, if not strong, analytical skills to work with data and information in a way that ensures that they can also communicate what matters, and could matter.

It is vital then that the decisions made by autonomous individuals and sub groups are done so within a pervading cultural framework of purpose and values - reflected by buy in to “this is what we are here to do, this is how we do things, and this is what’s important to us”. Some of this could already be established as part of the Team Charter mentioned above.

Intervene with questions and make space to promote exploration and challenge evaluation that is too quick.

The most challenging online collaborative moments - synthesising and evaluating - when teams are making sense of previously unconnected information, require online teams to perform with less signposting than those working face to face. Our ability to read the other person, or read the room is reduced and context is restricted. We might not have enough brain energy to sense where we are as a team. Holding an awareness of the problem solving process demands considerable cognitive effort when, as discussed in Part One, we have so many extra demands on us from working via screens. Sometimes it might feel easiest to get through it all as fast as possible.

To avoid safe, perhaps mediocre outcomes, we must be prepared to be uncomfortable, to challenge, to present our perspectives, listen to those of others and balance diligence with out there ‘fliers’, knowing the team will respect all views but they will also expect evidence to back any ideas.

It can be useful to frame this phase of activity as a ‘ lets see what we’ve all been looking into here’ as opposed to a report back of definitive information. And in case of time pressures, “anyone seeing anything else they believe could be useful/urgent/critical”.

Create space for other’s voices: Maximise your emotional intelligence to notice what is being said, what is not be said, and invite others to speak. Make use of polls to canvas opinion, and chat spaces to log queries or thoughts, and to talk to individuals or groups. Follow up with telephone calls or 1:1 video.

Bring the concept of psychological safety to life.

An environment where team members
- feel safe to share ideas,
- ask questions,
- give and receive feedback,
- admit mistakes and ask for help

without fear or retaliation, will outperform any other environment. A team will not find it easy to share or challenge ideas if they feel intimidated. Look up Amy Edmundson's TED talk on Psychological safety. She gives dialogue ideas to frame tasks and acknowledge personal fallibility that promote a sense of psychological safety.

Further practical ideas include:
  • turn every agenda item into a question,
  • establish the idea of rounds where everyone speak in turn that you can trigger at the start, end, or at a tricky point in the meeting,
  • contract for everyone to listen without interrupting, and in return, to be succinct so as not to won’t frustrate others by waffle,
  • model listening with full attention, eyes on the person, not on your notifications or other devices,
  • ask people to ‘work out loud’ to share their thinking. This is the communication that gets missed remotely and is part of how we get to know someone.
Also explore the book Adaptive Leadership (Heifetz,1994). The author talks about creating a holding environment in which leaders interact with their followers to create a safe space so that all voices are heard. He suggests that a strong focus on the overarching purpose of why the team is coming together to solve a problem will sustain momentum. This could be as specific as - “we have all the department heads here”, to “this was the team that worked together through the last crisis - we learned a lot and that gives us a head start”. It helps people to understand why they are in the 'room', and why them specifically.

Heifetz also notes that, the leader builds meaningful relationships at all levels which foster trust in the vertical lines of authority and enables leverage of camaraderie in horizontal bonds.

The other critical role of the leader he identifies is to regulate “distress”, turning up the heat if necessary by using the stimulation of reality to encourage adaptation. However leaders also need to be able to reduce pressure and load to prevent people becoming disengaged and then avoiding talking about what needs to change.


None of this is completely new. The very best leaders will be doing this anyway. If we are to really lever the collective intelligence in our virtual teams, then collaborating online means it has become more important than ever to build relationships, identify a working culture in advance, and refine team working behaviours.

The is the fourth and last part of a series to help people collaborate remotely and successfully, by reinforcing the need for critical thinking and enhancing the communication space.
About the author - Judith Cantrell, Dir. Braintoffee.
With an MA Experiential Education from the University of Colorado, and over 30 years providing development training for management groups, Judith’s focus is on designing complex problem solving activities for leadership, team and executive education programmes. Her experiential activities help teams develop the capacity for collaborative team work; to apply critical thinking to complex problems and manage times of discomfort and uncertainty. She has designed activities for using online and in person training, and observed groups in both environments, before and after lock-down. This has provided valuable insights into how teams work through complexity when working in person compared to remotely.