Way back in the 90s, I had the opportunity to work with a great team of people, some of whom were virtual leaders. The word “virtual” was being bandied about with great imprecision, and nobody really knew what virtual or distance working looked like in most corporate settings. Corporate settings involved lots of ties and hosiery (though probably not on the same person), and laptop computers were really hefty little beasties that required a strong back and deep sense of commitment to take on a business trip.
One of my colleagues worked for a large company that had instituted an “offsite” or “home office” work program. While this was partially an effort to keep the company overhead costs down by eliminating large office buildings, many of the employees had to adapt to being isolated. Without the rich communication media today (this was so far before tablet-phones, Skype, or even cameras on laptops), the only real communication protocol was the phone. Email was available, sure, but it was a new technology and not always reliable. Even conferencing calling was an expensive, cumbersome process.
The shift that many of the leaders faced was a crisis of communication. On larger teams, leaders had to spend up to 80% of their time actually speaking with their employees, as opposed to having a team meeting in a conference room and sending everyone off to pursue their own chores and work tasks. I was not a supervisor then, but I would have really struggled in a similar situation to lead effectively with a very limited set of technology tools.
As a virtual leader, I have recognized that there are behaviors that support distance leadership, and I try to use those behaviors as much as possible. Whether it’s reaching my team members through instant messaging, phone texts, email, video conferencing, phone calls, or in-person meetings, distance leadership today looks very different than it did in the 90s.