Daniel Tarker, MFA, Ed.D.
Relational Leadership in a Virtual or Hybrid Workplace
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us had probably not given much consideration to how relational leadership approaches transfer to online workplaces. And if asked, we probably would have reflexively said they could not transfer. The barrier of the screen and internet connections would have seemed like insurmountable obstacles to building relationships with employees and colleagues.
But as people pivoted to remote operations in March of 2020, web conferencing tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangouts – to name a few – allowed people in many industries to gather online and collaborate to move their work forward.
And as organizations now look to transition to a so-called “new normal” work environment, which will likely contain more remote work options than the pre-pandemic world offered, organizational leaders need to take time to reflect on how this will impact their approach to leading their people.
Over the past several decades, research has demonstrated that relational leadership approaches grounded in theories such as transformational and servant leadership are highly effective at creating healthy and innovative organizations. But that was in-person. Now we have to ask, how do these relational approaches translate into a virtual or hybrid workplace?
To consider this, lets reflect on the four leadership behaviors associated with the transformational leadership framework to think about how they have been impacted by the virtual work environment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Idealized Influence – The leader acts as a role model
This behavior describes how a leader acts as a role model for others. In an in-person environment, employees and colleagues can easily observe the behavior and actions of a person in a leadership position on a daily basis in order to emulate the example they set.
But this is much harder in an online environment in which interactions are limited to specified meetings over Zoom.
On one hand, this could be a benefit to leaders. It could allow them to prepare and cultivate an online image that they want their employees to emulate. However, in this age of media cynicism, the image projected through a screen may come off as less trustworthy than someone who presents themselves in-person.
There is undoubtably something lost in the relational interaction within an online environment. Meetings always feel like they end abruptly. People don’t mingle and engage in casual conversation after they leave a conference room. And leaders could easily be seen as artificial since the people who work with them don’t get to observe them in an organic, in-person environment.
Inspirational Motivation – Speaking to shared values
This behavior involves speaking to shared values in order to motivate people to achieve higher performance goals. It increases morale among team members because everyone sees themselves contributing to a goal larger than themselves.
Clearly, discussing and developing shared values and goals is something that can take place in a remote workplace. But again, the digital distance raises questions about certainty and authenticity. It’s difficult enough in an in-person setting to determine if the majority of people in a room are buying into a shared goal or just nodding to appease a leader. And in a virtual environment in which leaders see a screen of profile pictures, floating names, and nodding digital heads, reading the energy in the virtual room is considerably harder.
Intellectual Stimulation – Encouraging new idea creation
Transformational leaders encourage the cultivation of new ideas within their organizations using several methods. They bring new ideas and research to discussions. They offer new ways of addressing challenges. They confront obstacles like the “this is the way we have always done things” default response head on by encouraging out-of-the-box thinking.
This is one attribute that can clearly be maintained in an online work environment – and may even be enhanced by it. It is easier to bring in speakers from a distance who offer new ideas. A few strokes on the keyboard will locate the latest research. Conversations can happen in two-dimensions, through video and in chatrooms, which may create opportunities for more voices to be heard than would be normally heard in a traditional in-person meeting.
Though it is important to note that current online conferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams do not promote energetic, free-slowing meeting spaces. The technology requires a more structured turn-taking approach to facilitating conversations otherwise the meeting would degenerate into a cacophony. While this undoubtably promotes more civility, one wonders if these structured conversations also inhibit the generation of ideas because conversations cannot evolve in an organic fashion.
We have to ask: does Zoom kill epiphanies?
Individualized Consideration – Knowing the team
This behavior involves developing relationships with people within an organization. It speaks to the importance of getting to know people. And it should be noted that this goes beyond just knowing the strengths and weaknesses of an employee to strategically position them on a team or project – though that is undeniably important. It also involves getting to know them as a human being – finding about their family, interests, and history.
Nobody likes feeling like a cog in an organizational hamster wheel.
This is certainly not an impossible behavior to actualize in an online environment if one is intentional about it. Leaders can encourage taking time during meetings for personal check-ins, allowing digressions to occur about things that are happening in people’s lives, and asking questions to get to know the people meeting in the virtual space – especially during one-on-one meetings.
But this becomes more challenging when working within a larger and more complex organization. Chance meetings walking across a courtyard or passing a colleague in a hall no longer occur – nor to the casual, personal conversations that ensue. In addition, some people are private and may not like turning on their cameras. So, it becomes difficult to read them and spot when someone needs additional support – especially when working remotely during a pandemic.
The purpose of this post is not to offer solutions or recommendations. And it is certainly not to determine of relational approaches to leadership can be transferred to online or hybrid work environments. More research and much deeper inquiry would need to take place to render a verdict on that topic. The purpose of this is to encourage reflection on how a successful leadership approach like transformational leadership could translate to increasingly virtual and hybrid workplaces.
And an even more important question leaders need to consider as we navigate the next wave of organizational changes – how long can an organizational culture that blossomed in an in-person environment continue to thrive when cut off from its root? It can certainly thrive for a time in an online environment with some careful nurturing, but how long can it last until the culture changes into something else? As personnel changes naturally occur and the new team slowly loses contact with the root that connected them to the pre-remote operations culture, how will this change the organization?
Maybe the new changes will be good. And maybe not. Time will tell. But it is something to ponder moving into the next phase of the pandemic.
To learn more about my leadership training and consulting services, please visit danieltarker.com