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The Best Leadership Style for Virtual Teams & their Hybrid Counterparts

Leadership is a tricky subject to tackle. If you’re the boss, it’s your responsibility to set an example for your team. But what if you’re leading a team that doesn’t work in the same office, or even live in the same state? That’s where things can get challenging and complicated. With so many different remote leadership styles, it’s no wonder that managers are struggling with how best to lead virtual teams! In this article, we will discuss the types of leadership style for virtual teams, best practices for leading remote teams, and the top tools for improving communication.

What is Virtual Leadership?

Virtual leadership is the practice of managing a team remotely. This type of management has grown in popularity as more and more people are working from home. According to an Owl Labs study, 16% of companies globally are fully remote. Virtual leaders must have the best communication skills to be successful. They also need to demonstrate excellent time management and maintain a positive attitude under pressure while juggling multiple projects at the same time.

Best Virtual Leadership Style for Virtual Teams

Which is the more effective and best virtual leadership style for managing virtual teams? There are dozens of virtual leadership examples, including the two extremes: authoritarian and the Laissez-Faire leadership in virtual teams approach.

Authoritarian leadership is running a virtual team with an iron fist. You hark orders and keep everyone in check. Laissez-Faire leadership, on the other hand, lets everyone work however they want without a lot of involvement and input from the manager. While managers use these styles in an in-person office setting, both styles are ineffective in a virtual environment. An authoritarian leader may suffocate a virtual team with over-communication, while a Laissez-Faire leader may demotivate them as a result of a lack of involvement.

So, if neither Authoritarian nor Laissez-Faire leadership wins out in the remote space, what is the most successful team leadership style for remote teams? These are the three best virtual leadership styles for managing virtual teams: transformational, participative, and situational.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leaders motivate others to act by offering them a vision of the future and encouraging them to make it happen. They are often charismatic, inspiring and lead their team by example. Finally, they like to encourage others rather than overpower them with negativity. This type of leadership is critical because it’s one of the best ways to build a positive and nurturing remote work culture.

Famous Transformational Leaders:

  • Jeff Bezos (Amazon)
  • Reed Hastings (Netflix)
  • Bill Gates (Microsoft)

Participative Leadership

As the name suggests, a remote leader with a participative leadership style ensures that their team participates in the goals, priorities, action plans, and improvements. A participative virtual leader ends up building an aligned team. This leadership type is effective in the long run because it lowers the attrition rate and increases productivity. According to a Gallup employee engagement report, there is a 67% decrease in attrition rate when employees are engaged.

Tools to Help Participative Leaders to Keep their Team Engaged:

  • HeyTaco! - Using gamification apps like HeyTaco is a fun way to keep your hybrid or virtual team engaged and reward the most active employees.
  • Chimp or Champ - Dubbed as the “employee happiness meter,” this tool makes it easy to collect authentic feedback about how your team feels.
  • Where - Facilitate in-person meet-ups for the purpose of work or simply for connecting with colleagues over a casual face-to-face chat.

Situational Leadership

What makes a good virtual leader? The ability to adapt to change. That’s why a situational leadership style is ideal for running a remote team. Situational leaders adjust depending on the needs of the times, people, and processes. If they feel that the team needs more help—especially if there’s a new change (like working remotely 100% of the time)—they will switch gears and use a more participative style. However, as the team evolves and becomes more confident in their new setting, they might take a hands-off approach.

Here’s a good illustration from Gunter Group on the four styles of a situational leader:

When dealing with interpersonal conflict, offer support by encouraging both parties to openly share their concerns with you. This can be done either synchronously or asynchronously (through a private discussion) that everyone can contribute to in their own time.

How to Lead a Virtual Team

How can leaders make virtual teams more effective and hybrid teams more equal? There are many unique challenges of working in a hybrid or virtual team. That’s why hybrid leaders must build the proper foundation to make their team not only effective, but ensure they are feeling happy and fulfilled. Leading hybrid or full virtual teams means building foundations, which include getting to know your team, fostering a supportive remote work culture, and valuing deep work. If you do all of the above, none of the virtual leadership challenges you'll encounter should threaten to beat you down and you'll be well on your way to master how to lead a virtual team.

Get to know your team.

Know each member of the team and understand what works for them.  For example, you can build rapport before diving into work-related tasks by having casual conversations. Building rapport is one of the best characteristics of virtual communication. You will find that this helps both in creating trust as well as gaining insight into their preferences. Knowing their preferences enables you to become a better leader, especially if you’re a situational leader.

Create a great remote work culture, even if you're hybrid.

How would you define your company’s culture? Is it founded on trust? If so, how can you foster trust in your team’s daily work routine? For example, a company that trusts its virtual team won’t use time tracking tools that take screenshots. Additionally, a result-driven leader will focus on what their employees accomplish rather than the hours they’ve clocked in daily. A good virtual leadership example is from our own interviews with one of the industry leaders in remote work, Ali Green. Green is the Co-founder & Co-author of Remote Works and believes in an energy-driven work and leadership style. Share shared:

"I work when I have the energy to. Remembering not all time is created equal so if I don’t have to, don’t force it (well most of the time)."

Situational leaders who understand the work style of their employees will give space for this kind of flexibility. Even though virtual teams don’t meet face to face, energy can be felt in so many ways—from the way you communicate on Slack channels and the quality of your work output.

Focus on deep work by using asynchronous tools.

Nowadays, some managers have 9-10 Zoom meetings daily. However, they often reported that these meetings were unproductive. Worse is that they don’t have enough time to do actual work because meetings dominate most of their working hours. Give your team plenty of time to focus on uninterrupted deep work, so they feel more fulfilled and productive. For example, Shauna Moran, Owner of Operate Remote encourages global virtual teams to take advantage of asynchronous tools. In our interview with her, she shared:

“We were able to leverage some really great kinds of strategies around asynchronous communication, around continuing momentum, and engagement.”

Pro tip: Do you want to know how to effectively lead virtual team meetings? Use an asynchronous check-in tool to replace daily stand-up meetings. Integrate it with Slack, so everyone can see the team’s focus for the day without having to jump in a call.

Whether you're holding an asynchronous or synchronous meeting, here's how to effectively lead virtual meetings:

Set the agenda ahead of time

✅ Stick to the goals and objectives of the call

✅ Turn insights into action items with owners before the call ends

Time to Reflect on Your Hybrid and/or Virtual Leadership Style

Whether you’re part of a remote team or not, the principles we discussed should help you improve your leadership skills and set you up with the best leadership style for virtual teams. Successful leaders know how to engage their teams and create an environment where everyone is valued for who they are, what they bring to the table, and how hard they work. Which type of virtual leader are you? Are you a transformational, participative, or situational leader? What guidelines are recommended for effectively leading virtual teams based on your experience? If you're not sure, there is plenty of virtual leadership training that you can learn from other remote leaders.