Is Your Virtual Leadership Lacking? 3 Ways To Change

By Jessica Thiefels|24-06-2021 | 7 Min Read
Consider these three distinct areas where virtual leadership is often lacking – and how you can change your strategies for the better.

When considering what remote work looks like long-term, it’s important for leaders to consider their roles. In order for it to be sustainable, leaders must promote and invest in the wellbeing of their teams within all facets of the organisational culture, suggests Deloitte’s 2021 Global Human Capital Trends report

However, some remote employees feel a lack of trust, clarity, support and connection from their leaders which adversely impacts both well-being and performance, according to Frontiers in Psychology

This is why it’s crucial to evaluate whether your virtual leadership is up to par. Consider these three distinct areas where virtual leadership is often lacking – and how you can change your strategies for the better.    

Insufficient face-to-face communication.

When it comes to interpersonal communication, we derive context and meaning from the visual cues we take in. Watching another person’s nonverbal signals, such as facial expressions, hand gestures, eye contact or body posture leads to more transparency and understanding. As Leila Ansart, founder of Leadership Impact Strategies, explains in a recent virtual communication article:

“When someone speaks to us, we are subconsciously taking in their facial cues, like the way their eyebrows go up quizsically or when they are passionately speaking. We’re also looking at their body language, whether they lean in or not and what their breathing and speaking tempo are like.”

Face-to-face conversations are integral to great virtual leadership.


This is why face-to-face conversations are so integral to great virtual leadership. In order for team members to feel heard and understand in this new work environment, they need to see your face. When they don’t, Ansart suggests that we make our “best guess” as to what the person means. 

“Our minds love to complete the picture, so in the absence of fact, sometimes we piece together the cues. Imagine offering feedback to your direct report on a phone call. You hear a sharp intake of breath, and your brain has to make sense of this; give it a meaning. You don’t know if their cat jumped on the keyboard, the person spilled their coffee, or they were truly surprised at your feedback.”

When this happens, miscommunication runs rampant, your messages aren’t heard correctly, and you risk creating problems where there were none. 

What to do instead

The solution to face-to-face communication in a remote landscape is video conferencing. As Owl Lab’s 2020 State of Remote Work survey found, 79 per cent of WFH employees think video conferences are at least as productive as in-person meetings (if not more so), and 64 per cent consider them more enjoyable than in-person or teleconference meetings. 

Here are three ways to maximise your video communication, according to Ansart.     

  • Plan video meetings for times when it’s reasonable to ask everyone in attendance to turn their cameras on. Keep time zones and family obligations in mind.
  • Set the tone for the engagement and attentiveness that you want others to exhibit as well. Be just as present in a video meeting as you would if the conversation were in-person. 
  • Expand your focus from just discussing the status of projects to checking in with your team members on a personal basis every one or two weeks. This one-on-one interaction will communicate genuine empathy and care which can help remote employees feel more connected overall.

You Don’t Prioritise Employee Recognition

Your employees might not be feeling appreciated. In a poll of 2,000 U.S. remote employees, more than 50 per cent reported having felt a lack of appreciation and recognition from their leaders since they started working from home, reports Dr. Bryan Robinson, author, researcher and expert on work-life balance. 

What does this mean? A whopping 68 per cent of remote employees feel unmotivated to work since their contributions are overlooked, and 65 per cent are cutting back on productivity.

Productivity in its natural habitat.

The ripple effect of this lack of recognition is significant – 26 per cent of American workers who left their jobs in 2020 did so voluntarily, and a lack of recognition was one of the main reasons cited for this turnover, according to a Talent Retention Report from iHire.    

What to Do Instead:

Making time for employee recognition and appreciation can boost engagement by 55 per cent, according to McKinsey. Here are some action steps you can implement to virtually recognise the contributions of your remote workers and help them feel like valuable members of the team.

  • Ask employees how they prefer to be recognised with a questionnaire. Use those responses to tailor your appreciation for each individual accordingly. For example, some might prefer words of affirmation, while others are motivated by tangible rewards. 
  • Make peer recognition a part of your team culture. Set aside a few minutes in your virtual team meetings for employees to affirm one another for a job well done. You aren't the only one who needs to provide recognition, but you do need to remind employees to follow suit.
  • Select a different team member as 'Employee of the Month', and allow that person to choose from a list of possible rewards that make WFH lie better. Think: meal delivery from their favorite local restaurant or an hour early clock-out time once a week for the month.


Ultimately, it’s important that you thank employees for the work they do on a consistent basis. Tell them you notice the long hours they put in and that you’re grateful for their commitment to the team as a whole. Even a simple verbal acknowledgement will be appreciated.

You Don’t Consider Your Team’s Work-Life Boundaries

Almost 50 per cent of surveyed remote workers feel pressure to communicate during their off hours, suggest a 2021 report from Egress. What’s more, 39 per cent do their best to answer work-related messages as quickly possible, no matter when they receive it. These unreasonable time pressures are among the top five predictors of remote employee burnout in the wake of COVID-19, a Gallup survey found. 

If you contact team members when they’re off the clock and expect a timely response, it sets an unsustainable precedent and disrespects their work-life boundaries. This obligation to refresh chat notifications, check email inboxes and answer internal communications at a moment’s notice makes it hard for employees to get the rest they need. 

Just as onsite employees are allowed to leave their work at the office in the evenings and return home to their personal lives, remote workers need the same consideration. That starts with your leadership and encouraging – and holding yourself to – set and clear work-life boundaries.
What to Do Instead:
Instead of overreaching into your team members’ personal time at home, encourage a work-life balance at all organisational levels, from leadership to the newest hire. “Be transparent about your availability plan, then set boundaries and invite others to do the same. Sabina Nawaz, global leadership coach, suggests: 

“Be transparent about your availability plan, then set boundaries and invite others to do the same. You can say, for example, ‘I’m prioritising my time with you. I’ll reach out in a variety of ways...[But] let me know if you need some space and don’t want to connect quite so frequently.”

Use these specific and simple strategies to let your remote team know they have permission to set boundaries with you.  

  • Establish ‘office hours’ during which employees can reach out with questions, updates, requests for feedback or whatever else they might need. Set office hours for all employees, like 12 to 2pm so you can easily reach them without overstepping their boundaries or maintaining different “on” schedules for all employees.
  • Avoid sending or responding to communication threads once the workday is over. If you receive an important message after hours or over the weekend that requires your immediate attention, include in your response a caveat such as: “Please be aware in the future that I normally do not answer work-related emails after 6:00 PM on Monday through Friday, nor do I expect this of my team.” 
  • Be flexible. Many leaders have learned during the last year that working from home means many employees are also managing childcare, home life and other family obligations while trying to work. While this may become less prominent in the future, staying flexible is critical as a virtual leader trying to manage boundaries and on/off work times.

Improve your virtual leadership now

This shift to remote work was hard for everyone – including leaders. If you’ve been struggling to keep employees engaged, set better boundaries, and connect with your team, use these strategies to improve your efforts. Sometimes, a small change can go a long way in ensuring everyone feels appreciated, motivated and connected.

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Jessica Thiefels is the founder and CEO of Jessica Thiefels Consulting, a content marketing agency. She has been writing for more than 10 years and has been featured in top publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur and Fast Company. She also regularly contributes to Virgin, Business Insider, Glassdoor, Score.org and more.
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