Virtual Leadership – Lessons Learned: Managing Motivation and Performance Remotely

VGL Forum

29 May 2020

Key takeaways from a Virtual VGL Forum with two business leaders on their experience of managing remote teams.

First only considered a short-time solution to the pandemic, it now looks like remote work is here to stay – with the likely mixture of remote-local within businesses to establish itself. In response, managers are adapting their skills not only to lead through a crisis, but to build sustainable ways of working in a virtual age.

In a recent Virtual VGL Forum, our featured speakers Edgard Bou-Chahine, the General Manager of Schneider Electric Algeria and Tunisia, and Ilona Tomczak, a Senior HR Manager at Adidas, shared their experiences on how they managed the shift to leading a team virtually and the lessons they learned.

Case studies in review: Learning from the virtual shift

For Edgard and Schneider Electric, new ways of working had been on the table for a long time. The multinational company’s workforce required flexibility to work smarter while maintaining diverse lifestyles, which led Schneider Electric to adopt new ways of working for all subsidiaries. This early step not only freed up their employees’ energy, but also created room for better results.

“The digital transformation we are living today expresses trends which we, individually and collectively, must embrace for a sustainable future. Whether we are talking about the ever-evolving environment, disruptive technologies, the digitization of information and the ever-changing needs of our workforce, our ways of working as an organization must reflect this new paradigm.” Edgard Bou-Chahine

As Edgard explained, Schneider Electric introduced new collaboration and networking tools along with policies enabling flexible working hours and work from home set ups. With the onset of the pandemic, this meant that a majority of employees were working on a 100% virtual work setting.

A technological upgrade, however, also required a people-centered alignment, which was the company’s first challenge. With employees being based elsewhere, management needed to ensure that all people sailed into the same direction. To achieve this goal, they ensured a new level of proximity and introduced regular check-ins, which proved crucial in safeguarding an overall focus on shared goals and strengthening their value of a ‘people culture’.

What did they set up?

  • Departmental working groups using collaboration tools like MS Teams where managers could take the lead to vehicle the right messages and catch-up on key milestones;
  • WhatsApp groups were formed for more informal chats and queries;
  • And finally, one-on-one performance meetings to filter the shifting organizational goals into individual goals and explore how managers could best support their teams.

Looking after people’s well-being

Another main challenge was to support people’s well-being and the decreasing boundaries between work and personal life.

At adidas, Ilona said, leaders and managers needed to set realistic expectations from their team members, especially those who had to grapple with a home office schedule while home schooling their children. Similarly, at Schneider Electric, leaders had to shift their mindsets to being fully aware of the personal pressures many of their staff were facing and that work output would need to be assessed differently, with a gear change based on empathy and maintaining communication with team members.

How the two companies supported employee physical and mental well-being

  • E-learnings and live sessions on well-being, mindfulness and coping with stress and ambiguity
  • Virtual activity platforms to help with teambuilding and maintaining rapport and daily contact with each other
  • Holding frequent virtual townhalls with the cluster president, where employees could freely and safely share their ideas, concerns and thoughts
  • Proactively moving towards creating a flatter organization to encourage communication and bring more people together
  • Recognizing team achievements using different communication channels to value teamwork and collaboration
  • Sharing stories about purpose as a company could bring meaning into the day to day activities of team members

Edgard and Ilona sharing their leadership experience during the Virtual VGL Forum

Best practices: Showing a way forward, remotely

Edgard emphasized Schneider Electric’s people vision as a great transformation enabler. “Individually acting like owners is key for every transformation to happen,” he said. “So, listen to your people, value their advice, give them the possibility to act like owners by shaping their company, and put in place whatever it takes to make it happen.” Living the company’s people vision at every layer of the organization is the best strategy to adopt when confronted with disruptions, as they equip you with the mindset, competencies and behaviors required to make it happen.

Ilona went on to advise that working parents should not dismiss the important value of connecting with family and friends during the working week and whenever possible. A little can go a long way. Also essential is to find some time to reflect on their ability to influence or control the situation they and their families are in during a time of crisis such as a pandemic. She underscored the importance of not losing sight of the role of joy, including music, creativity and laughter as coping tools to share with colleagues and loved ones. She shared several examples of virtual resources that can be easily found online.

Both speakers stressed the need to keep the engagement agenda alive by employing strategies and tools effectively. Ilona shared her wealth of knowledge of tried-and-tested virtual tools and methods to manage and facilitate team engagement, self-learning and well-being. Next to in-company e-learnings and well-being sessions, she included examples such as the platform mindful.org, encouraging teams to be creative as shown by this adidas Global Director’s song about self quarantine, and sources like HBR’s How to Transition Between Work Time and Personal Time, the three zones of reacting to crisis, and how to manage one’s mindset by understanding the three levels of threat.

Key takeaways

Considering the heart of remote leadership skills, what was particularly intriguing about both Edgard and Ilona, and what spoke for them as exemplary, was their authenticity and ability to inspire during the Virtual VGL Forum. Just as at the office, a remote leader needs to maintain their own motivation first and foremost. Even more so in a virtual setting, leaders need to be able to transfer this motivation through screens to reach their teams. Edgard and Ilona’s presence showed how influential a leader’s own passion can be to create a buzzing and inspiring atmosphere, regardless of physical space.

What they left us with at the VGL Forum was this:

  • Try new things and encourage your teams to try new things to recharge their energy. Working at home is the perfect environment to try something new without feeling judged, be it a Zumba class, language learning, or virtual business communities to get inspired.
  • Never underestimate the power of collective intelligence in periods of change. Bring people together and care enough about their change journey so they care enough about your customers’ journey.
  • Be bold enough to admit to pitfalls, learn and grow from experiences. It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong when weathering disruptions as it is a journey of discovery.
  • Be determined and adapt. What makes a difference to finding solutions is your determination and adaptability because change is a constant variable.
  • Don’t forget the fun factor. You and your teams are people, and people like fun. By sharing playful experiences – team-building is not only reserved to physical workshops – there is an incredible potential to create strong bonds among teams and increase well-being, and thereby, motivation and performance.

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