Remote and Virtual Leadership

Remote and Virtual Leadership

In this chapter we will explore:

  • The challenges of remote and virtual leadership
  • Different considerations of remote and virtual leadership
  • The impact of rapidly changing, unknown, environments
  • How to maximise the impact of technology
  • Where leadership makes a difference

11.1 Introduction

When I planned this book, I had not included a chapter on remote and virtual leadership. The events of 2020 onwards, and the rapidly changing environments of life and work, made consideration of these aspects of leadership in veterinary medicine a necessity. The veterinary professions have shown they can adapt to, and adopt, new ways of working with professionalism, ingenuity, and innovation. Like the rest of the world, however, technologies and their use have moved far faster than academic dissection of their significance and application. It is likely, too, given the speed of change that any such analysis will be out‐of‐date all too soon. Nevertheless, there is some knowledge with which to work and interpret on the principles of leadership both remotely and virtually; scenarios which are related but not the same.

Leadership has occurred ‘at a distance’ ever since humans have been able to communicate outside of a physical presence; it is not a new construct. Co‐ordination of human activity, and enhancement of organisational effectiveness, can occur within geographically and/or temporally separated groups and individuals. This ability, developing in line with increased cognitive powers and a capacity to empathise or ‘share mental states’, is a significant driver of human evolutionary advantage (Bohn 2017). Many of the systems we take for granted (books, for example), can be vehicles for remote leadership.

More recently, leadership has been facilitated by modern communication technologies, where two or more individuals can be remote but in a shared ‘virtual space’ contemporaneously. This is most obvious with advent of digital technologies such as online meeting rooms (e.g. Zoom, Microsoft Teams) but equally since the advent of telephony.

As professionals, when clients adopt technologies as a matter of everyday life and work, we have no choice but to work with them; to not do so would be arrogant, short‐sighted and, ultimately, lead to irrelevance. Clients will choose to work with professionals who share their terms of reference or go elsewhere.

As always, new technologies have created new horizons in the veterinary professions, challenged the regulatory space (e.g. online consulting and prescribing) and called for different forms of leadership. Advantages of telemedicine services, for example, include rapid access to specialist support, flexible scheduling, improved colleague inductions, increased interaction between professionals and information sharing through novel media (Patel et al. 2021). As with digital healthcare more widely, however, leadership not yet formerly conceptualised (Laukka et al. 2021). Adoption of technologies that enhance professional practice will increase the need for remote and virtual leadership and the necessary leadership repertoires will, inevitably, emerge.

11.2 Definitions

It is worthwhile clarifying some terms because the language in this developing area of leadership studies is predictably inconsistent, see Figure 11.1 (Fitzsimons et al. 2011; Ospina et al. 2020).

  • Collective leadership. ‘Represents an emerging theoretical umbrella that captures diverse scholarship on the shared, distributed, pooled, and relational aspects of leadership, its emergence and relation to hierarchical leadership, as well as its impact on work and performance’ (Ospina et al. 2020).
  • Co‐located leadership. Occurs with team members in the same physical space, such as a veterinary practice.
  • Distributed leadership. Is a concept where leadership occurs throughout a system, such as across a group of linked businesses (e.g. within a veterinary group).
  • Remote leadership. Occurs at a distance from the point of activity, such as when there is a ‘hub‐and‐spokes’ model.
  • Virtual leadership. Occurs when team members are separate from each other and communication is digital, e.g. via phone‐based messengers and video meetings.
  • Shared leadership. Occurs when leadership activity is performed across a team, virtual or co‐located (Chapter 9). A multidisciplinary team might share leadership of a complex task such as management of an infectious disease outbreak.
  • Self‐leadership. Where individuals manage their own tasks, time, and motivation (Manz 1986). When an individual is expected, and able, to accomplish goals without reference to others (Stewart et al. 2011).
Schematic illustration of aspects of collective leadership. Teams can be co-located in physical space or completely virtual; or a combination of both. Leadership of teams can be distributed across a system and invested in a local leader, shared across the team, invested in the self, or can be remote.

Figure 11.1 Aspects of collective leadership. Teams can be co‐located in physical space or completely virtual; or a combination of both. Leadership of teams can be distributed across a system and invested in a local leader, shared across the team, invested in the self, or can be remote.

Source: After Ospina, S. M. et al. (2020), ‘Collective dimensions of leadership: Connecting theory and method’, Human Relations 73 (4): 441–463. doi: 10.1177/0018726719899714.

11.3 Considerations for Remote Leadership

Remote leadership is based on the assumption that information is, at best, out‐of‐date, confused, contradictory and, at worst, plain wrong. This challenges ‘command‐and‐control’, hierarchical leadership structures and can create difficulties where there is conditioning for ‘parental’ leadership which does not live up to expectations. This creates anxiety, for example, when veterinary professionals, taught in hierarchical learning institutions where they are tested and rewarded for ‘being good’, expect (and do not necessarily receive) well‐informed, directive leadership from a remote central regulatory body.

11.3.1 What You Cannot Do Remotely

Remote leadership means you have a reduced influence and ability to direct; because of the unreliability of information and delays between send and response, directive leadership risks being wrong. Furthermore, because relationships are not nuanced, differences are more obvious and may be amplified without the ability to explore and find commonality that can occur with more immediate interaction. So, when remote, you cannot readily co‐create solutions and you cannot rely on clarity of information exchange; you must be prepared to live with ‘the fog of war’.

11.3.2 What You Can Do Remotely

What you can do remotely is to trust the leadership that is in place locally. You can provide a small number of simple rules, with a clear message, creating rules of engagement. A common understanding (shared mental models), can be derived from similar experiences and training. This accounts for context of leadership (Schmidt 2014).

Different types of remote work have different implications. Simple activities can be managed with clear rules and targets which, if reported and met, validate achievement within defined parameters; trust in application of values and behaviours is, nevertheless, key. Complicated activities using knowledge and technical skills can, similarly, be locally led within defined parameters and with specified lines of communication and relationships. Once we move into complexity, however, remote leadership cannot offer anything ‘in the moment’; all you can do is create the conditions for local shared leadership so that problems can be solved in ways that are ‘good enough’ and based on collective intelligence, relationships, and creativity.

Within the veterinary professional context there is a default remote leadership from regulatory bodies that create shared mental models through validated training and rules of engagement within boundaries of professional practice and with a shared purpose (‘animal welfare’).

11.3.3 The Importance of Local Leadership

The smartest remote leadership is, inevitably, less informed than local leadership. Leadership that is directive, assumes omnipotence, and gives direction from a distance in the face of ignorance will develop impotent ‘followers’ who do not feel psychologically safe and fear taking the initiative.

Local leadership that is given clarity of vision and purpose, knows the boundaries, and recognises that mistakes and ‘failure’ are tolerated if work is performed with the right intent and within boundaries will thrive. When local leadership is trusted and feels psychologically safe, and that trust is shared within the local team, creative solutions to complex, uncertain, and volatile problems should emerge and be celebrated.

This is the principle behind professional regulation where failure is tolerated when we act within the rules of professional behaviour. Principles of trust and delegation are applied; professionals are assumed to be doing the right thing until proven otherwise. We are trusted to show local and self‐leadership.

11.3.4 Thriving Remotely

Working remotely has become, for many, a normal part of life. Even when there is a need for physical contact with animals, many veterinary professionals will have opportunity to perform part, or all, of their professional work from home and/or away from the office or practice. This brings with it different challenges, benefits, and needs as one environment replaces another. Whilst there is still much to learn about optimal ways of working and blending remote and co‐located activity, a few principles deserve consideration for remote working:

  • Autonomy. Having autonomy over when, where, and how you work is helpful (Perry et al. 2018). This means being given parameters, boundaries, and expectations but allowing creative individualised, and local solutions. From a leadership perspective, the quality of the work is relevant, the how less so. Allowing ‘work‐at‐home’ to interdigitate with ‘life‐at‐home’ offers the potential of sustainable alternative ways of working.
  • Proactive, two‐way communication. Being remote can be lonely, and ongoing communication ensures both relational connection and a sense of belonging, as well as being important to ensure activities are relevant and timely. It is demoralising to deliver something you have spent time and effort creating only to be told that it is no longer needed.
  • Boundaries. Ensure boundaries, for yourself and others, are established and respected to maintain care. These include time (when you work), space (where you work), and task (what you do).
  • Knowing needs and resources. What are you not getting that you would get at work, when you are working remotely? This includes technological, social, physical, environmental, and psychological resources. Be aware and communicate to ensure these needs are met in different ways, for yourself and others.
  • Clarity on task constraints. You will have different constraints when working from remote locations (including home) than remote partners. Being aware of the constraints under which others are working, when ‘normal’ cues may not be available, requires proactive communication and facilitates leadership (Lim 2018).
  • Role‐modelling. As always, how you behave influences others. It is important to role‐model the right behaviours remotely (even when someone is not watching), not least because they will help you, as well as those you work with.

11.4 Remote Leadership Tasks

Deriving from the considerations above are several questions for remote leadership, either centrally, from the ‘hub’ or remotely, at the ‘spokes’. As always, clear communication and delineation of responsibility makes the difference.

11.4.1 Central Leadership Tasks

  • How will you ensure there is clarity? Consider the when, how, who, and what before the remote team or individual is set to task. Ensure there are safe opportunities to question, experiment, explore, and modify and that clarity is obtained. Be on the lookout for blind spots; seek criticism.
  • How will you create commonality? What are the shared purpose, common mental models, expected behaviours and mutual values? Use listening and questioning skills to bottom these out before they are needed. Practise if needed.
  • What are the agreed rules? What are the rules of performance? When should advice be sought and when can local decisions be made? What are the soft and hard boundaries? What nature and frequency of communication is expected? What should you do if communication is lost?
  • What resources do you need to provide? What resources are needed for the remote team/individual to perform their task safely and efficiently? What reserves might be needed? Communicate with those that are going to be in the field to ensure they have what they need.
  • What are you prepared to delegate? If you are not prepared to delegate, why not? Is it really something you need to retain control of, or should you let go?
  • How will people know they are trusted? Trust people to do their best even if you are not looking. You chose to work with them, after all, so if they cannot be trusted, what does that say about your judgement and ability to delegate? Be prepared for failure, and for mistakes, but also be prepared to sanction negligence (i.e. not caring).
  • How will support be provided and learning achieved? Be ready to learn lessons from the field. Ensure there are opportunities to de‐brief, catch up, cool down, support, and encourage. Think about how you make this happen.

11.4.2 Local Leadership Tasks

  • What skills will be needed? For remote teams, either in the physical or virtual space, the terrain and task will dictate the necessary skill profiles needed. Pay attention to this before the task starts and liaise with the central leadership to ensure you have the necessary resources.
  • How will you access local knowledge? When you are away from a central base, the local environment may well be unfamiliar, initially to you, often to your base. It is, certainly, likely to be changing too fast for liaison with base in a timely fashion. Knowledge of local conditions is, therefore, vital and you will need to tap into this. This could be as mundane as knowing where the amenities are in an unfamiliar town or as important as knowing where there is a safe water supply when you are a long way from modern resources.
  • How will you help create community? When you are away from a central base you are likely to be working with others, who have different skills and responsibilities. You will need to form a team and learn, sometimes quickly, how to work well together. What contribution do you need to make?
  • How will you communicate with your ‘base’? Know how, and when, you are expected to communicate back to base, who will be expecting to hear from you. If you are entering physically remote territory, communication protocols are key, but even for virtual remote work, some people will want more frequent contact than others; establish when contact is expected and what to do if it is not possible, and what ‘base’ should do. Know what is expected of each other.
  • How will you collaborate? How is the remote team going to work together? Be explicit in asking this question and exploring together. Do not wait for events to expose a lack of clarity.
  • How will you record your activities? Recording what you have done, how you did it, what worked and what did not, helps self‐development and learning for the central team and future remote activities. What is the best way to do this in your specific circumstances?
  • How will you care (for yourself and others)? If you are remote, you are away from familiar resources. Know what you, and your team, may need. Ensure you have the physical and psychological resources you need to maintain effective performance through caring for yourself and others.

11.5 Considerations for Virtual Leadership

Whilst virtual leadership might be performed remotely, and the considerations above apply, this section considers the implications of working through digital media. Virtual teams are typically established to meet challenging circumstances and access geographically dispersed members holding diverse expertise and perspectives (Hoch and Kozlowski 2014). They may, or may not, be short‐lived and project specific (Lim 2018). Whilst many of the general principles of leadership in co‐located teams apply, the lack of physical proximity means that intuitive, responsive, leadership behaviours that might maintain relationships and correct or compensate for ‘minor’ destabilisations, may not occur. Challenges of virtual leadership include task complexity, and diversity and stability of team membership. Relationships, and leadership, therefore, should be actively created and maintained; there must be intent.

11.5.1 Team Balance

Virtual teams should, ideally, have a balance of personalities, capabilities, and cognitive diversity. In the veterinary professional context this will include not just veterinary skills but the ability to facilitate communication, systems and structures that allow the primary task to be sustainably performed. In virtual team settings (studying MBA students, mind….) the personality dimensions of extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability have been shown to predict leadership emergence and team performance (Hoch and Dulebohn 2017). Whilst the optimal team balance for veterinary virtual teams is likely to be context specific, it is worth considering how you want to develop this if you are creating a group that you want to become a team. Balanced selection becomes important, as does initial team development and, for new members joining established virtual teams, induction, and on‐boarding needs to be intentional. Sharing of a team’s history with new members might help explain current norms and expectations (Kozlowski et al. 2021).

11.5.2 Structures and Systems

How information is delivered, exchanged, and processed affects leadership (Schmidt 2014). The greater the frequency of communication and the richer the information provided by the chosen medium, the less reliant teams become on individual ‘leaders’ and the more opportunity there is for development of co‐operative relationships and shared leadership. As the digital world moves forward, systems and structures are emerging for working together, which outpace analysis and it is reasonable, and expected, that context specific ways of working and relating will emerge. In this context, leadership that is invested in one, or few, individuals will fail to appreciate and react to the whole; it is simply impossible to keep track of communication between group members that is achieved via, for example, messenger apps on mobile phones, in the same way that one would in a co‐located group through noticing atmosphere, body language, subtle responses, etc. When creating and developing virtual teamwork; therefore, the choice and facility of structures and systems for interaction and relationships will have profound impact on the nature, and relevance, of leadership.

11.5.3 Technological Competencies

Technological fluency becomes an essential component of virtual teamwork and leadership and should be facilitated through training, where necessary. It is worth investing in the right IT setup, including front lighting (so you can be seen), a decent microphone (so you can be heard), adequate speakers (so you can hear), and, where possible, a lack of background distraction (although human reality of home working can break the ice and show humanity and vulnerability). Most laptops have good enough cameras, but their microphones, and those on earphones and headsets, are often poor. Where possible, please turn your microphone to mute when you are not speaking and make sure it does not rub on clothing!

In addition, if you are working from home, ensure that your desk is set up appropriately for safe and comfortable working. It is tiring being online all day and this is just made worse, with risk of long‐term repetitive strain injury, if your posture is not set correctly.

Use technology to create clarity and shared mental models; online white boards, etc. offer creative ways of sharing, and interacting. A myriad of options require relatively little investment, compared to the return. Ask team members for tips, experience, advice, and feedback. It is likely that a team will include a range of skills, experiences, and preferences; explore and exploit them.

Be aware of the potential for technology to cross boundaries and blur personal and professional life more than is intended (we inevitably bring some of ourselves, and it is great if we feel we belong whoever we are, but this is not always the case). Ensure the technology, and how it is used, respects this and accounts for legal issues such as data protection.

11.5.4 Virtual Communication

The quality of virtual communication is determined by communication technology and team dispersion (Kozlowski et al. 2021). Facets of communication technology include the degree of reliance on specific technologies, the richness of the medium and the synchronicity of interaction (Kozlowski et al. 2021). Team dispersion can be spatial, temporal, and configural, the latter determined by site, relative isolation, and imbalances in these (Kozlowski et al. 2021).

Virtual communication assumes a degree of sensory deprivation; sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste are all impacted by virtual media. As sensory beings, humans have a multi‐modal appreciation of their environment, including those around them. Many of these senses are altered, attenuated, or completely inhibited in the virtual space; conflicting signals from the physical and virtual spaces you are inhabiting might be disorienting and tiring. Whilst powerful communication and relationships can develop and be maintained virtually, language, reading of signals and sense‐checking are not backed up, in the same way, by the intuitive feedback of proximity (e.g. from facial expression, body language, tone of voice). We must apply changed behaviours, including increasing communication frequency, choice of medium, nature of delivery, and active seeking of feedback to check the intended sense of a message.

Communication effectiveness impacts the quality of leadership (Neufeld et al. 2010; Connaughton et al. 2011). Communication and leadership are discussed elsewhere (Chapter 8). In the virtual context, you might consider:

  • Frequency. Communication frequency links to the quality of interaction between ‘leaders’ and ‘team members’, and more is considered better (Schmidt 2014). Be clear with your colleagues their specific needs and expectations.
  • Context. The situational context will influence the nature of communication. Where it is ‘simple’, communication may be directive on task and relational around support of team members. As the situation becomes more complex, communication may need to emphasise shared purpose and aim to develop interactions between team members and relationships that facilitate task management, e.g. through shared leadership.
  • Medium. Consider which medium works best for the individuals and the context. Static messages (written or recorded) may ensure consistent delivery and simple repetition may be needed to ensure clarity across dispersed teams. Video and audio calls may be needed for intimate, nuanced, relational one‐to‐one emergent work (e.g. coaching), where emotion and nuance are important. Group‐wide media such as online forums or live‐messaging platforms might facilitate community, connection, and collaboration (Ferrazzi 2014).
  • Psychological safety and inclusivity. Creation of a psychologically safe communication environment, where everyone feels comfortable, safe, and valued helps to overcome some of the challenges of virtual working. It is ‘characterized by support, openness, trust, mutual respect, and risk taking. A psychologically safe communication climate facilitates innovation because it involves speaking up, raising differences for discussion, engaging in spontaneous and informal communication, providing unsolicited information, and bridging differences by suspending judgment, remaining open to other ideas and perspectives, and engaging in active listening’ (Gibson and Gibbs 2006).

Challenges to the development of psychological safety in virtual teams include the increased time and effort required and the risk of social ‘bubbles’ forming (Lechner and Tobias Mortlock 2021). Enablers include acceptance (and noticing) of others, investing in the outcome of work, connection, and discussion of individual needs within the group (Lechner and Tobias Mortlock 2021).

Whilst it takes time for teams and individuals to develop and, or ease into, psychologically safe virtual environments, the considered use of tools in virtual group settings such as hand raise, yes/no questions, anonymous polls, chat, and breakout rooms, may help (Edmondson and Daley 2020). Everyone should feel safe to add their views and contributions, and technology can be leveraged to helps this happen. Furthermore, facilitators of online conversations can pay attention to goals, who is invited, who is included, power, turn‐taking, the narrative thread, pace, and cadence, and can attend to ensuring that errors and misunderstandings are fixed and clarified (Stillman 2021).

11.5.5 Develop Relational Connections

Complex tasks need to create collective intelligence and, whilst psychological safety is important, so are relationships. Frequent, informal, spontaneous, and unplanned communications help develop shared identity and shared context, reducing conflict in virtual teams (Hinds and Mortensen 2005). Active relationship building can be facilitated by structural considerations that allow one‐to‐one and group work that is focussed on people, not task. This might be through attention to gaining awareness of each other’s environments and situations, which may be less obvious virtually, and developing curiosity and interest in different realities.

11.5.6 Develop Trust

Trust is a key component of virtual teamwork (Maduka et al. 2018). We need to trust in the competence, integrity, and intentions of others (Mortensen and Gardner 2021). The virtual space can make it more difficult to observe how others are working, what they are doing, what their motivations are and their reliability (Mortensen and Gardner 2021).

Trust in virtual teams is engendered by decreased monitoring, development of shared and self‐leadership and is facilitated by bursts of communication between individuals, by sharing of personal information and demonstration of your own trustworthiness (Kimble 2011; Mortensen and Gardner 2021). Different people respond differently and build trust differently – some need more evidence than others – so it is important to individualise your trust building. If in doubt, ask what you need to do to gain someone’s trust.

11.5.7 Encourage Self‐Leadership

The virtual environment increases possibilities of (and even the need for) self‐leadership, which has been linked to virtual team effectiveness (Carte et al. 2006; Castellano et al. 2021). Development of self‐leadership is facilitated by natural rewards (i.e. the positive experience of working on a task), self‐observation (i.e. noticing what you do and the effect it has) and cueing (i.e. feedback that encourages helpful activity) (Stewart et al. 2011; Lim 2018).

11.5.8 Promote Shared Leadership

Shared leadership, where individual team members share leadership tasks, is associated with virtual team satisfaction (Robert and You 2018). It is more difficult to create intentionally, rather than through emergence, because of the lack of random and unplanned interactions. It is facilitated by connection, showing genuine interest, sharing appropriate information (leader vulnerability), and creating new experiences together (e.g. through exercises and/or problem solving together) (Patel et al. 2021).

Nov 6, 2022 | Posted by in SMALL ANIMAL | Comments Off on Remote and Virtual Leadership

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