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Leading in a Virtual Environment

July 9, 2020

An excerpt from Ascend Learning & Development Team’s “Leading in a Virtual Environment training article.

While so many of us across the country continue to lead and manage our people and our teams virtually, we thought these useful virtual managing insights from our own internal Ascend Learning-Learning & Development Team could help all managers. This excerpt from our internal training provides remote meeting and relationship building tips and provides fresh perspective on virtual leading. As we all continue to evolve as virtual leaders and remote employees, we hope this article will help you and your teams feel more included and cared for as we learn how to become better overall virtual people managers, employees and resilient leaders.


As leaders of virtual teams, it is easy to fall into the common trap of remote management – focusing too heavily on employee engagement activities, while overlooking the development and maintenance of trust in our relationships.  Although virtual happy hours, Skype coffee chats, and Zoom birthdays are important for connectivity, some of your team members have more critical needs to tend to before they can worry about any sense of belongingness. Whether a spouse has lost a job, a single parent is balancing work and childcare obligations, or a shared apartment is not setup for a Tetris-like schedule of back-to-back video conference calls, some of your team members are feeling vulnerable and in need of help.


Cultivating a Trusting Culture from Afar

The problem is, not everyone feels safe enough to raise their hand and ask for help – especially when remote. It then becomes our job as remote managers, to proactively and passionately nurture an environment of trust amongst all members of the team so that help can be solicited, and support offered. Below are three quick and actionable behaviors and strategies to help foster trusting cultures on our teams right now.


  • Offload Distractions: Most virtual team meetings start with some ritualistic version of small talk. What if instead at the beginning of the meeting, you simply ask every participant to answer, “what’s in the background for you today?” Meaning, what are they worried about or distracted by at this moment in time? It’s not for the purpose of setting an agenda, but rather, it’s about getting everyone in the room present, offloading any preoccupations, and pressing ahead.  Using this technique can reduce the Cognitive Demand a distraction has on you, and increases your team’s focus and performance for the meeting at hand.


  • Prime Contributions: While most remote teams have tools to store knowledge (i.e. CRM systems) or platforms to transfer knowledge (i.e. Instant Messaging), virtual communication often discourages actually contributing knowledge in real-time. To reap the benefits of a fully engaged and contributory virtual team, turn on your video and ask your team members to do the same. Although we all have excuses for not wanting to ‘be on’ (ahem humidity hair anyone?!), scientists have discovered that establishing face-to-face communication can increase a team’s performance by 35%[1]! In fact, we are more likely to contribute our insights and opinions when we can see nonverbal cues from our audience on how well we are being received. Once on video, encourage equality of all voices by actively soliciting perspectives individually instead of letting the loudest and most talkative fill the airspace.


  • Lead Out Loud: Subtlety evaporates in virtual communication. Leading from a distance requires us to exemplify integrity, display vulnerability, and embody candor louder and more often than in-person. Leading out loud means role modeling visibly, audibly and regularly the type of communication and actions that you expect from your team. Anticipate miscommunications amongst the team by taking the few extra minutes to clarify any expectations, points of view or actions that might be misinterpreted. When an opinion rubs you or others the wrong way, role model the habit of Assuming Benevolent Intent. Position your responses from a state of curiosity (rather than judgement), clarify for understanding and listen for what is right about the opinion being discussed. Some examples of leading out loud are:
  • “I want to make sure I am understanding your point of view, do you mind clarifying what you meant by…”
  • “As an FYI, Jillian needs to hop off early this afternoon, so please ask her any questions you have before half past or follow up with an email.”
  • “Thank you for telling me upfront about the batch error, I had a similar issue myself a few years ago…”
  • “Apologies for needing to check my phone constantly, my son is sick today and I am expecting a call from the doctor.”


About the Authors:

Carolyn Vasquez is Ascend Learning’s Talent Development Manager. She is responsible for the design, management and implementation of ongoing and new leadership and development initiatives across the Ascend organization.


Madelyn Wilson leads the talent management and development efforts across Ascend Learning including executive development, succession planning, performance management, and company-wide learning and leadership development initiatives, in addition to her role as HR Business Partner for the Professional Education and Legal groups.


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[1] Harvard Business Review. (April, 2012). The New Science of Building Great Teams. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-new-science-of-building-great-teams