Leading Effectively Online

Niki Panteli
Professor of Digital Business|Royal Holloway University of London

In the current unprecedented times caused by the Covid-19 outbreak where many of us have been forced to stay at home and work virtually, the role of the organisational leader is critical.  In this new context, leaders willingly or not need to become e-leaders and are expected to enact this role effectively in a technology-mediated setting. Clear direction, constructive feedback as well as encouragement and empathetic and motivating language help the home-bounded, now virtual employees to become more engaged and to increase their work commitment despite the distance that separates them from their colleagues.

Drawing on earlier research, I present below key factors that can support e-leaders in enacting their new role:  

Task-ICT fit 

Work-related use of information communication technologies (ICTs) should be selective; this should be based on the type of communication needed and task requirements. On the one hand, synchronous ‘live’ communication tools can be used when immediate information sharing and feedback are required. Such tools are also most appropriate for conflict resolution. On the other hand, the use of asynchronous technologies may be used for documenting and recording agreements and providing brief, simple updates to work progress.

ICT use 

Though ideally synchronous, real time communications should be used due to their potentials for face to face, enhanced interactivity and immediate feedback, it is also important to recognise that is possible to develop and maintain employee engagement in the virtual context with simple communication means such as email (Panteli et al, 2019).  That is, despite its text based and asynchronous nature, email may become an effective means through which employees are informed, updated and motivated. Thus, it is not the type of medium, but rather, how this is used that matters for effective online collaborations.

Social Interactions

Virtual teams that work well are found to include a social and fun element in their interactions and this helps in creating a stronger bond and identity (Panteli and Tucker, 2009). E-leaders have a responsibility to promote social interactions in order to reduce  isolation and improve interpersonal relations among virtual team members.

Set boundaries & work flexibly

In the virtual work setting, boundaries between work and other commitments are clearly blurred. However this does not mean that employees should be available 24 hours for work matters. Virtual working gives the opportunity to employees to work flexibly and to fit work around family responsibilities. In the current situation with the whole family unit being in lockdown, flexible working should not only be allowed but encouraged. The e-leader plays a key role in cultivating a culture where boundaries between work and family boundaries are respected with employees being allowed to work flexibly and as their family situation requires.

The blog has drawn research that was presented in the following publications:

Panteli, N., Yalabik, Z and Rapti, A. (2019), Fostering Work Engagement in Geographically-Dispersed and Asynchronous Virtual Teams, Information Technology & People, 32(1), 2-17.

Panteli, N. and Tucker, R., (2009), “Power and Trust in Global Virtual Teams”, Communications of the  ACM, December , 52, 12 doi: 10.1145/1610252.1610282

About author: Dr Niki Panteli is Professor of Digital Business at Royal Holloway University of London.. She has conducted extensive research on the dynamics of geographically distributed, technology-mediated (known as virtual) work teams, particularly those spanning national and temporal boundaries. The underlying assumption in all her research initiatives is that whereas digital collaboration is a technological given, it is the complex social and human factors bound up in the practices involved that determine whether such collaboration succeeds or fails and consequently, these factors have become the focus of her investigations.

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