Virtual Leadership for a Different Normal

The transition from leading in-person teams to leading virtual teams or even hybrid work schemes is becoming an embedded and permanent feature of the different normal in which we all find ourselves.  Whilst the practice of leading distributed teams is nothing new, the extent to which it is now a key part of working life is new.  Organisations are now beginning to comprehend the corresponding rise in leadership skill gaps they will need to close in order for the people they lead to continue to thrive.

The traditional focus of leadership on productivity and performance is being improved by the greater attention given to staff wellbeing and engagement. Forward thinking leaders know the wellbeing of their people is a force multiplier for motivation, commitment and talent retention.  Given the reduced level of social interaction in the now virtual normal, taking care of staff wellbeing is an even greater leadership challenge and consequently staff engagement has never been a more vital priority for people operating remotely.

Five Essential Elements of Wellbeing

To meet the wellbeing needs of people working from home it is essential that organisation leaders understand the scope of wellbeing in the virtual workplace and fully appreciate the context of its application for each individual team member.  As an introduction to understanding what is at stake, Tom RATH and Jim HARTER outlined the results of research exploring the ‘demands of a life well-lived since the mid-20th century’ in their article ‘The Five Essential Elements of Well-Being[1]’.

They highlight the following five elements of what matters utmost in people’s lives and although they don’t touch everything that is important they do represent a common set of priorities for most people.

  • Career Wellbeing: this is about how you individuals occupy their time or simply liking what they do every day.
  • Emotional Wellbeing: this concerns an individual’s emotional health and overall mental functioning and is the combination of feeling good, functioning effectively, positive relationships with others, having a strong sense of purpose and meaning in life and opportunities for personal growth and development.
  • Financial Wellbeing: This is about effectively managing economic life.
  • Physical Wellbeing: The fourth element is about having good physical health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis.
  • Community Wellbeing: This is concerns the sense of engagement you have with the area where individuals work, live or call home.

For Emotional Wellbeing, a good place to start for organisation leaders is to create a shared and positive vision of a healthy workplace, both virtual and in-person, that reinforces the commitment to balancing the needs of staff with the work demands and expectations of the organisation.

Building this commitment into an organisation’s core values will cement the belief in the wellbeing of staff.  It will also shape a culture where everyone can feel confident and comfortable in speaking openly about emotional wellbeing, without fear of stigma or discrimination.  It is possible, and indeed necessary, to normalise the subject of emotional wellbeing by directly addressing staff concerns at all levels through open and trusted conversations.  Ensuring everyone understands it is not a taboo subject, it is an important part of being in the organisation and that the leadership is taking the lead in conversations with individuals and teams about emotional and physical health.

The Power of Emotional Intelligence

In order for this approach to work effectively, organisation leaders will require exceptionally mature emotional intelligence and is one of the first leadership skills gap to be closed.  Concerning Emotional Intelligence, here is a shout-out for the Roche Martin Emotional Capital Model[2] , which is widely regarded as the gold-standard for evaluating the leadership potential of professional people based on their emotional intelligence. The model evaluates 10 factors of emotional capital distributed across the 5 domains of Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Skills, Agility and Social Awareness.

Elevating Staff Engagement   

The other skill gap to close is Staff Engagement.  Clear, inspiring, regular and consistent communication is central to the success of virtual leadership.  As the disruption caused by COVID-19 begins to settle and the different normal starts to take shape, organisations leaders should take the opportunity with their people to look to the future and have the explicit conversation about a new sense of common purpose and a refreshed set of shared values.  Reinforcing the pre-existing organisation purpose and shared values may be all that is needed although they perhaps could incorporate recent lessons learned from the disruption, individual experiences and feedback. Nonetheless, by leading this conversation, the recovery of the organisation’s energy, momentum and direction staff will accelerate as the staff will appreciate being part of the conversation, being listened to and for their input being acted upon.

Suggested Next Steps

  • Lead the conversation with your team to review your organisation’s Purpose and Core Values and adapt if necessary with lessons learned and experience from the impact of COVID-19.
  • Introduce a simple method of measuring the emotional wellbeing of your people that can be used to monitor individual trends and anticipate potentially hidden difficulties before they become serious problems (a very simple approach is the Bradburn Scale of Psychologic Wellbeing[3]).
  • Create virtual breakout rooms to replace for the lost coffee machine, water cooler, corridor conversations.
  • Launch an alumni network that nurtures the talent pool and enables staff to connect with potential coaches, mentors and subject matter experts as well as building relationships with others not necessarily within their immediate circle of work colleagues.
  • Adapt team processes to take into account remote working arrangement such as document sign-off procedures, personnel admin approvals and development appraisals.
  • Review feedback arrangements with all team members including explicit reward and recognition processes to ensure consistency for all team members irrespective of location.
  • Establish a personal check-in routine individually with each team member and use the Bradburn Scale as a quick and easy indicator of wellbeing trends (see the summary below).

Bradburn Scale

Participants answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the following:

  • Positive affect questions:

During the past few weeks (did you feel)…

  1. Did you feel particularly excited or interested in something?
  2. Proud because someone complimented you on something you had done?
  3. Pleased about having accomplished something?
  4. On top of the world?
  5. That things were going your way?
  • Negative affect questions:

During the past few weeks (did you feel)…

  1. Did you feel so restless that you couldn’t sit long in a chair?
  2. Very lonely or remote from other people?
  3. Bored?
  4. Depressed or very unhappy?
  5. Upset because someone criticised you?


  • For Positive Affect, participants receive 1 point for every ‘Yes’ they say.
  • For Negative Affect, participants receive 1 point for every ‘Yes’ they say.
  • The overall Balance score is produced by subtracting the Negative Affect score from the Positive Affect score.
  • The real benefit is in monitoring the trend of the scores over time.
  • Take the time to explore the causes of either a positive or negative trend.
  • Examine what corresponding actions, if any, might be necessary.




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