9 tips for great virtual leadership – with or without a pandemic

Virtual leadership is now the ‘new normal’. Expert and author Dr Penny Pullan, shares how to get it right.

In March 2020, we were plunged into lockdown by COVID19. As we begin to emerge and explore possibilities of working with some people in the office, some at home, we must use the principles of virtual leadership to still get the best out of our teams. After all, even if one person is remote and everyone else is in the office, you still have a virtual team. Read on to find out how…

1. Remember that we’re only human!

Often it seems that people are treating themselves and others like robots. This might explain why so many people are sitting in front of their computers from 8 am to 8 pm, losing focus as they go from video meeting to meeting without pause, and grabbing food and bio breaks at random. If you want people to work at their best, encourage them (and yourself) to take breaks and eat properly, so they can be fresh and well-nourished, able to focus and be productive throughout the day.

2. Leadership style

If you use command-and-control, then please stop now! It just doesn’t work with a virtual team. Instead of trying to micromanage everyone, agree with them what you’d like them to do, how they’ll report progress and how they can get help if they need it, and then get out of the way. This is the sort of leadership style which works best virtually. Most people find this sort of autonomy motivating, and they’ll feel trusted too.

3. Understand yourself and your team

For example, what are your preferences when it comes to how to keep in touch with everyone? Do you love speaking on the phone, or prefer sending text messages? What about Zoom calls (or Teams or Webex)? Do you love them or loathe them? What are your strengths and your weaknesses? What about your own biases? Then together with your team, work out what suits all of you. Decide your team norms and ways of working so that, for example, the introverts and the extraverts are all going to be able to work well, the night owls and the early birds too!

4. Build common ground

Aim to build common ground, connecting across the mix of different people in your group. In virtual teams, many of the aspects that stand out when you’re in a room together are less prominent online. Ethnicity, generation, appearance, nationality all take a back seat, along with whether people use aids such as wheelchairs. A friend says that she has been spoken to differently in meetings since lockdown, as usually, her wheelchair is the first thing people notice in-person. Instead, we can connect as fellow human beings using more intangible aspects, using our common humanity to build rapport and connection. Here’s to comparing what we can see out of the window, sharing what books and films we enjoy, plus how we are keeping fit and much, much more!

5. Be clear

In virtual and hybrid sessions, it is really important to be even more clear than when everyone is in a room. Be clear on how you’ll be working together as a team. Be clear on the point of every meeting and its objectives. Be clear on what’s happening when. Be clear what actions people have agreed. Be clear, and check understanding too.

6. Engage others in team meetings

There are many ways to engage people in virtual teams, and many not to! Most virtual meetings go on for far too long and are deadly dull. Instead, change things up by telling stories (which help people stay connected and remember what you say), use visuals instead of words when presenting, and draw all over your slides. (In PowerPoint, select ‘Pen’ in a slideshow and start scribbling. It helps people to stay focused as your annotations develop.)

7. Use asynchronous as well as synchronous

At the start of lockdown, people rushed to use virtual meetings (there are many options). They used these almost exclusively, and a new phrase entered the language: ‘Zoomed out’! It’s not the best way to work virtually, and it isn’t sustainable. Use different time (asynchronous) ways of working together, supported by tools such as recordings, chat and collaboration tools, to allow people to join in and do the work when it suits them. This breaks the endless stream of meetings and lets people breathe. Take someone who has caring responsibilities – for example, for an at-home school child or an elderly parent – there are times in the day when they won’t be available. Asynchronous working frees them up to work when they can. For everyone else, it’s motivating and breaks the cycle of endless video calls!

8. While tech is great, it’s not key

With virtual teams, you do need technology to connect. It’s like we need electricity to able to live in a house. In England, in the winter, you’d get very cold without heating and heating controls! But we don’t think about this all of the time. Electricity doesn’t make a house a home. Same with virtual tech. It’s easy to become obsessed, but once it works, focus on the other things that make a group a team. Like leadership…

9. Use your senses

When we’re limited to conference calls, we only use one sense: hearing. Augment this by adding video. Add in touch by sending out a laminated picture showing the headshots of everyone in the team that people can place in their workspace at home. Even better, add in the final two senses by sending out a parcel by post for each person, with some treats of food and drink. Make sure you know their preferences first of course!

We all want to level the playing field for diverse people to be able to work together well. As we take the step into hybrid teams (virtual plus in the office), there is a danger than we shift this balance and exclude those who remain virtual. Keep up your virtual leadership and follow the steps above to keep people with you and working together.


Dr Penny Pullan was forced to go virtual nearly 19 years ago when 9/11 stopped her from travelling for months. Since then, she’s worked virtually and helped others to learn the skills to do so effectively through her company Making Projects Work Ltd. Her book: ‘Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams‘ has become a bestseller in the pandemic and is available here.  

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