Sarah Dovlo


Virtual leadership – how can we lead with empathy at a distance?

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How can I lead with empathy at a distance? How can team spirit be successfully developed and maintained at a distance? Even before the coronavirus pandemic, my team and I primarily worked together on a virtual basis. However, this work approach took on a completely new dimension over the past year. In addition to the onboarding of new colleagues, we have held virtual creative sessions as well as conflict workshops – across borders.

What is challenging when it comes to leadership at a distance?

One of the biggest challenges is surely having to understand each other “just” by telephone, through written communication, and through videos. As a result, we end up foregoing an important part of non-verbal communication; sometimes technology plays tricks on us, and – especially when dealing with cultural or linguistic differences – understanding each other online is always a little bit more difficult.

Virtual working makes us tired faster, our attention span is shorter, and – if the calls last for more than an hour – the temptation to also play on our phones or answer emails is great.

Heart colored hands

Leading virtually and still living team spirit - a challenge, not only in times of Corona.

There are no chance encounters such as the quick chats in the tea kitchen and there’s no office grapevine. Informal chats that make a huge contribution to team connections simply don’t take place virtually unless an effort is made to set aside and schedule time for them.

As we no longer have to switch between meeting rooms or sites, and could theoretically seamlessly move from one call into the next, we could – in theory – schedule a great deal more in terms of topics in a single day. However, if a meeting takes longer than planned, I notice I spend the whole day trying to make up these five minutes and, completely stressed out, go from one call to the other without taking a breather. Then there is not enough time to follow up meetings, reflect on a discussion, or properly conclude them.

However, I find it challenging to onboard new employees at a distance without the team having a chance to get to know them, to properly celebrate successes, or to give long-standing employees a proper send-off when they leave the company.

Virtual leadership – my hacks

I would like to share my experiences of virtual leadership here. Do you have any other hacks that could make working together at a distance easier and more personal?

Always put the webcam on: I always try to make use of video calls, irrespective of whether the whole team is present, whether it is a one-to-one call, or whether I am speaking to stakeholders. And – no matter how my hair is looking – my camera is always on. Just seeing people shaking or nodding their heads and seeing whether they are smiling or not really makes communication much easier. It also helps me to be fully there in meetings and not do other things at the same time. When I arrived at Deutsche Telekom in 2018, I was surprised how normal and natural it was for the majority of team members to have their webcams on. In the past, I had to work hard to convince all team colleagues to turn on their webcams. In my experience, it is always worthwhile to do so though it sometimes takes time to make changes.

Make time for small talk: As we are having to do without the tea kitchens, we should consciously make time in both team and one-to-one meetings for small talk. For instance, my meetings generally last 45 minutes, of which I plan 10 minutes for small talk and the rest for the actual meeting. As the meeting takes 45 minutes, I then have a buffer of 15 minutes for the next meeting.

45-minute rule: In principle, I try to keep meetings to around 30-45 minutes so that I have enough time before/after the meeting for preparation/ follow-up and to ensure I am 100 percent mentally present in the meeting itself.  

Set aside time for lunch: I also find it is important to not give in to the temptation of filling up your calendar with a series of meetings. For example, in addition to the 30-45 minute calls, I have a continuous “lunch blocker” in my calendar. I introduced this after “zooming” through the day and, at some point in the afternoon, noticing that I had not yet eaten any lunch and was correspondingly grumpy.

Daily meetings: Over the past year, we have also held regular daily calls lasting 15 minutes in which we start the day. This helps to reduce emails and creates a good routine for the team. This regularity helps to foster a feeling of connection and to keep everyone up-to-date equally which is something that isn't possible with only a weekly team call.

Tools to get the team closer: Of course, there are also tools that can help to create a greater closeness in the team. The free tool FunRetro helps to generate a virtual retrospective. All participants can edit the board at the same time and, in addition to the team building questions that can be created independently or selected in the tool, we are always learning more about how we can improve our collaboration and work together as a team.

We used the online whiteboard Miro to not only work together in “ordinary workshops”; we also used it in a conflict workshop and I was impressed how well the tool helped us to bring our team forward with regard to difficult topics. Of course, success is always linked to how the tool is used and the importance of preparation must not be underestimated.  

Kahoot is a good option for “interrupting” and “shortening” virtual workshops lasting several hours in a fun way as it is a tool in which quiz questions must be answered. Even guessing which team member is behind which nickname is funny.

We use Trello for our team meeting– here were have elements such as team bravos or weekly woes as well as the rumor-mill in addition to the standard topics. Every team member can fill out these elements prior to the calls. The meeting facilitator changes each week. As a result, each team member gets to responsible for facilitating the meeting or taking notes.

One seasonal tool that the team particularly liked is the virtual advent calender. We created this calendar together as a team and each team member designed a window complete with a contribution.

Good old snail mail: In addition to all these virtual options, I still occasionally make use of postal mail and send greetings and messages to colleagues. It is definitely a different sign of appreciation compared to a “thumbs up” via WhatsApp once an important project stage has been successfully completed.

What helps you the most when it comes to virtual collaboration or leadership?
How do you virtually celebrate your successes?
How do you think virtual leadership will develop in the future?

I look forward to your feedback.