10 challenges of leading Virtual Organisations during a crisis

10 challenges of leading Virtual Organisations during a crisis

CoVid-19 shifted, overnight, the way companies and individuals work and cooperate. Most companies are now facing short and long-term challenges.

All companies, even those that don’t appear to be negatively affected, face a sudden unexpected test: Leading a virtual organisation and learning how to do it quickly in an unprecedented global crisis.

Challenge 1: Leading 100% of the organisation remotely
The challenge is not simply ‘how to set up employees to work remotely’. It’s how to switch suddenly into a virtual business without having the luxury of time to be prepared. It’s not just some individual employees working from home, it’s the entire organisation.

For some, this has been a major shock and they’ve had to do it in the space of a few days. Even leaders with experience in leading a remote workforce still face a challenge as they must now lead the whole organisation virtually.

Challenge 2: ALL leaders within a company need instant skills to manage virtually
Leading virtual teams at scale has suddenly become mandatory to succeed. Teaching and coaching all leaders at various levels within a company on how to lead their virtual teams effectively is extremely challenging to achieve. Some leaders may no longer be the right person for the job.

Challenge 3: The usual politics can become toxic during a crisis
Working remotely may increase the risk for misunderstandings. During a crisis, survival instincts can kick in. Silo mentality and finger-pointing increase. The crisis will bring to the surface all inefficiencies within a business.

Some individuals within a company will see it as an opportunity to strike at their internal opponents allowing power games to grow and become more toxic. Toxicity can easily spread across an organisation during a crisis when informal channels of communication thrive. An effective leader will know how to spot this and ‘nip it in the bud’.

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Challenge 4: Leading efficiently from a ‘busy’ home
Working from home is not the same as working from a café or a drop in hot desk, and it presents its own unique challenges at the best of times. We’ve all seen the video of the children being extracted from the room! Now the entire family, who are also undergoing a great deal of change, both physically and emotionally, are full-time at home too!

This puts added pressure on everyone and allows frustrations to escalate quickly. Leaders must be able to strike the balance between work commitments and a family who needs them too.

Challenge 5: Being productive when negative emotions are high
Managing people when fear and uncertainty highjack their minds and productivity is not a skill most leaders have ever needed before. Not all leaders are skilled at demonstrating empathy towards employees or understand how mental health can affect performance.

Leaders need to consider how they will support employees and any serious mental health problems that could present.

Challenge 6: Leading “volunteers”
Leaders have little control of how people use their time when they work remotely. While there are many ways to control effort and activity and monitor project delays, leaders must be able to inspire teams and gain their hearts and minds.

Challenge 7: Assuring a fair team effort
Working from home was previously perceived as a ‘benefit’, giving people the flexibility to work without supervision and time/place constraints. However, there’s always a risk that it could create misunderstandings amongst peers regarding an individual’s effort and performance.

Whilst most employees work tirelessly to serve customers and improve a company’s performance under adverse conditions, some may see it as an opportunity to ‘hide’ when not supervised.

Leaders need to find the right balance between showing compassion and demanding accountability so that the whole team feels it’s a joint effort and everybody is ‘rowing the boat’. Fairness is important for a team’s morale.

Challenge 8: Leading the organisation’s ecosystem
Even when companies succeed in leading their own teams efficiently, their success depends on the extended ecosystem of suppliers, partners and authorities who naturally face similar challenges to perform efficiently themselves. Leaders must ensure their ecosystem is working effectively.

Challenge 9: Providing a competitive service to customers
Customers, especially business customers, depend on the organisation’s performance to succeed. Leaders need to maintain the quality and standards of their company’s product or service to keep their customers happy and avoid loosing them to a competitor who is managing ‘virtual’ better and doing ‘digital’ well.

Challenge 10: Leading and staying resilient during Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity (VUCA)
Navigating unchartered waters forces leaders to change directions frequently during VUCA when teams expect clarity and some stability. Leaders need to frequently communicate the context and the logic of decision making to keep the teams motivated and engaged.

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Moments of Truth
Crisis brings to the surface how people and organisations genuinely think, feel and behave:

  • This is an opportunity to strengthen the bond in the organisation and their ecosystem
  • This is the time to engage with and value customers
  • This is the time to test if organisations abide by their Purpose, Vision and Values
  • This is the time to see leaders who are authentic, “walking their talk”, demonstrating congruence between what they say and do
  • This is the time that Servant Leaders work 48hour days to inspire, coach and align employees, suppliers and partners, aspiring to provide the best service to customers

The need for Servant leaders during a crisis
Organisations need to adapt fast to remote working and virtual cooperation. We don’t know how long the crisis will continue but we know it will not be short. Businesses should assess quickly whether they have the internal leadership capabilities to cope with the current and future challenges.

If they do not have enough qualified leaders in the business they should immediately hire or source (interim) leaders with the right capabilities: experience in leading virtual teams, experience in leading in crisis, servant leader mentality, energy and resilience. They will bring 3 key benefits:

  • Coping with immediate challenges on how to lead the organisation
  • Helping the whole organisation to learn the new skills faster and adopt effective processes
  • Re-assessing the situation with a fresh eye, advising the board on strategy, accelerating transformation and innovation.

Urgent action to shape the Organisation for a better future
We are at the beginning of a massive shift on how we all work, communicate and cooperate with each other. While the crisis creates major challenges, it also becomes the catalyst to quickly transform mind-sets and an organisation’s approach.

Remote working will become the new normal, improving the lifestyle of millions (less commuting, increased productivity, more time for leisure and family). It will contribute positively to the global environment and urban challenges, such as traffic, commuter congestion and pollution.

While survival instincts currently prevail, pro-active leaders will understand this is the time to re-design and shape how their organisation should operate and perform.

This should not only include policies, governance, processes and technology, which are all key for business agility but also the important “soft” elements such as leadership style and culture which are critical to succeed.

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