Leading from a distance

Mar 14, 2021

Managing through a virtual work environment certainly has its challenges, but it’s more important than ever to persevere and lead.

Over the past year, we have all been forced to adjust and alter the way we manage our teams. Managing through a virtual work environment certainly has its challenges and can sometimes make for additional work. Activities such as project staffing, employee reviews, and progress checks all have been reimagined. Employee dedication, productivity, and efficiency have all come into question. Overall, the AEC industry has adapted to virtual management nuances, and we have seen our project teams continue to be effective and deliver great work.

While this may be true for management, how exactly does virtual leadership look? So much of leadership is tacit knowledge and conveyed through working together in a collaborative physical environment. How exactly does this translate into a virtual environment and influence overall company culture while also driving teams to success?

  • Leading by example. It isn’t easy to lead by example when you are not co-located with your staff. They cannot visualize your work ethic, dedication, commitment, or servant leadership. Looking back, I was always encouraged to see my leaders’ dedication – coming in early, staying late, sacrificing lunch to help a client with an urgent need. How are these things communicated virtually? Leading by example is about being visible to your team, accessible during work hours, and helping the team remove barriers. Perhaps it is sharing an email with your team first thing in the morning, so they know you have begun your workday and are available to help. It may be as simple as having your camera on during a Zoom call, so they know you are not in a recliner wearing sweats but rather at your desk paying attention. This may even be in the form of virtual office hours where your team can drop into a Zoom call at any time within a specific window. Whatever the case may be, it is more critical than ever to make yourself visible to your team/staff. These small intentional acts begin to paint the picture of an effective leader and go a long way in motivating your teams.
  • Culture. It is easy to think that the culture you have been building so deliberately throughout your organization’s life has been decimated over the last year. You have lost touch with your staff and teams. Small talk about your personal lives, families, kids, and hobbies has all but ceased to exist. Relationships have gone from personal to transactional. In sustaining culture through a virtual work environment, you cannot lose sight of what is truly important: people. As leaders, it is more important than ever to be there for our people. Many are struggling financially, physically, relationally, and emotionally. It is our job to support them and uplift them. Activities such as virtual happy hours, virtual trivia, virtual coffee, or virtual water coolers can facilitate these personal relationships. We begin our regular team meetings with a round-robin of personal and professional bests. This allows us to get to know one another on a personal level. We are also testing new technologies to further facilitate collaboration such as multi-user VR environments. Lastly, trust is more important than ever. We hire professionals, treat them like professionals, and expect them to perform like professionals. We don’t micromanage or babysit, though it is important to verify this trust. Through these activities, I would argue that our culture is more robust than before the pandemic.
  • Communication. Communication is arguably the most essential aspect of virtual leadership. In an environment where communication takes extra time and effort, it’s easy to forget to communicate or dismiss its importance. As leaders, we must be intentional about sharing and not taking knowledge and information for granted. If leaders do not take control of the narrative, negative narratives will take control of the firm. This may mean increasing the frequency of your communication. You also want to be intentional in communicating through different media and not neglect the importance of visual and non-verbal communication. By investing the additional time needed for proper communication, you will reap the benefit of the cultural impact, sustaining motivated teams, and a positive (virtual) culture. For example, BSA leadership shares a video update each Friday called “The Pulse.” This video conveys pertinent information to the entire company, but it also builds our culture by shedding light on events within various studios, and even some trivia sprinkled in.

Leadership is not easy and leading from a distance only makes it that much harder. Don’t give up. Your teams need you. We are starting to see the light at the end of this tunnel, and it is more important than ever to persevere and lead.

Chase Miller is the director of planning at BSA LifeStructures. He can be reached as cmiller@bsalifestructures.com.

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.