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Binghamton University, State University of New York

Leaders must adapt to virtual workplace to effectively support employees

The workplace has transformed into a new, online landscape, thanks to the coronavirus. It can be difficult to adjust to this new workplace, but leaders must rework their initiatives to set the tone for their employees, says Cynthia Maupin, associate professor at Binghamton University’s School of Management.

“As many organizations have transitioned to virtual work environments to promote employee safety in today's world, it is important for leaders to reevaluate how they are leading others,” says Maupin. “Leading in virtual environments requires shifting your leadership styles to accommodate the "new normal" rather than relying on what used to work in face-to-face interactions. 

“One major change that has become very salient for leaders and their employees is the shift to video conferencing platforms for regular meetings and updates. Although these platforms allow you to "see" one another's faces, the body language cues many of us rely upon to interpret the meaning and emotions behind a leader's words are notably absent, with an increasing reliance on facial expressions instead. Since a leader's emotions can greatly influence those of their employees, leader's in today's virtual environment have to remain aware of their facial expressions and the meaning they are indirectly communicating to others. It is important to take the time to clearly communicate what you're thinking instead of hoping your employees infer the correct meaning based on your facial cues.

“Another major challenge when leading others in virtual environments is expecting everyone to know how to appropriately interact with one another. Many employees are working in physical environments with a variety of distractions, which can derail important business conversations if left unchecked. Therefore, it is also critical for leaders to lay out their expectations for what is and isn't appropriate in their new work context in order to help employees with the transition to the virtual workplace. This may mean encouraging employees to remain muted during business-related video calls unless they are speaking, promoting the use of virtual backgrounds to minimize distractions from their physical environment, or relaxing professional attire requirements to accommodate employees balancing both their work and family responsibilities. Regardless of your expectations, creating these new norms for your employees will help to provide some additional structure in their newly unstructured work environments.

“It is also important to consider that communication over virtual environments may be more difficult for many employees than face-to-face communication. For example, many employees who previously felt comfortable speaking up in-person might have anxiety related to their virtual technology skills and choose to remain quiet on group calls. Additionally, employees may be over-courteous and refrain from speaking up due to fear of interrupting others. Rather than expecting employees to respond the way they always have, leaders can ask specific individuals their opinions or allow additional time and space for people to ask questions before or after group meetings. By creating additional flexibility, opportunities to speak up, and being understanding about employees' potential struggles with virtual environments, leaders can encourage better communication within their groups.

“Lastly, leaders need to seek out feedback from their employees about both what is and what isn't working well in order to create an effective work environment. Employees and leaders alike are figuring out their virtual environments through trial and error, so learning what is working well for your employees and sharing that with others as best practices can help your organization as a whole to adapt more effectively. Likewise, finding out what isn't going well can help leaders adapt their expectations, leadership styles, and interactions with employees to promote effective working relationships and employee well-being.

“New environments beg new leadership styles, and leaders who adapt to support their employees during these challenging times will experience enhanced employee productivity and well-being, which is critical for success across all levels of an organization.”

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