“We’ve been forced into the largest work-from-home experiment, and it hasn’t been easy”

JMA Leadership client

Do online meetings (via zoom, MS Teams or any other platform) favour transactional interactions between people and limit opportunities to lead?

Does working virtually reduce your opportunities to connect, inspire, and meaningfully engage with your team?

If so, what advice can be given about “how to lead on zoom”?


What does the research say?

Firstly, a quick scan of online information shows that the focus of almost all articles or blogs are about how to technically host a meeting via zoom, or how to show up looking good on camera, rather than how to effectively lead a group of people. Interesting.

Secondly, when we spoke with a range of our clients (senior leaders in corporate businesses) some of them disagreed with the concerns above and instead told us how useful they found video conferencing with their team during lockdown.

They shared how they’d made connecting via zoom work for them. For example:

  • daily morning whole team check-ins
  • coming together for weekly virtual lunches
  • having some ‘time-out’ together via a team quiz
  • building in informal time on calls.

However, how effective these activities are in remotely leading vs managing the team has yet to be fully investigated.

What was clear from our research was that some leaders are quite positive about the benefits of using video conferencing to connect in and dialogue with their team-members.

Unsurprisingly, the nature of ‘zoom-fatigue’ cropped up. How exhausting and repetitive people are finding their lives when spending day after day in video conferencing calls.

If some leaders question the ability to use zoom to lead, and others are effusive about its benefits, perhaps it makes sense to start with a quick reminder about what the difference is between leadership and management as this may provide some insight into the divergent responses.


Leadership vs. management

The root of the word ‘manage’ is “manus,” which means ‘to handle.’

A good manager provides the necessary ‘hand,’ guiding others. They handle things – budgets, forecasts, schedules etc. Their eyes are on today.

The root of the word ‘lead’ is “lædere”, which means ‘one who leads, or ‘to go, guide, or travel’.

It implies moving towards a new destination. A leader’s eyes are on tomorrow as well as on today.  Leading is about going somewhere – about guiding people on a journey.

Both management and leadership are necessary for organisations to function but in a VUCA world, we believe management is not enough.  Managers cannot take their eyes off the present, and they have to deliver results today, but uncertain times require something more: and that is leadership.


What does this mean for leading on zoom?

With management being about producing today’s results, this lends itself well to focused topic-related video calls in a way that is more conducive to the task of planning and organising, ensuring delivery and reporting on activities.

With leadership being about producing today’s results AND building an organisation that adapts, grows, and produces on-going results over time, we believe this lends itself less well to structured agenda-oriented video calls.

If leading well requires the ability to engage others in a shared organisational vision, the skills to encourage people to change, the knowledge about how to build the team’s capacity to work in adaptive way, and the ability to recognise and reward achievements and behaviours along the way then the skills – or leadership muscles – that this entails MUST include communicating and influencing well.

And, if research and recent neuro-science findings are correct, communicating and influencing is mostly done through our emotional and physical connection with others.

One could say that the quality of work that any one does follows from their ability to listen deeply to what is being asked, engage in conversations to clarify the intended results and then continuously converse as the project unfolds until everyone involved is satisfied.

We speak and listen and respond to others on more of a biological (or energetic) level than on an intellectual, rational, logical basis.

And, fundamental to being an effective communicator (or influencer) is first and foremost understanding AND accepting that no-one listens or engages with us until they feel an emotional biological connection with us – until the ‘click’ happens.

As a leader communicating with your team on zoom, until your team members feel that connection, that ‘click’, with you in their heart and their gut that goes beyond hearing the words and language you use, you will not be able to lead them.

Accepting this fact is vital to our understanding of how leadership works.


How do you make leadership connections virtually?

All the data currently emerging from lockdown points in the direction that no matter how useful virtual collaboration tools have been over the past few months in assisting businesses with their move to remote working, there is still a central human need for people to be in person with each other.

To have the person we are leading and working with to be physically in the same room as us – not just so we can make sure that we are being understood, that agreed actions will be taken – but for our own health, our own wholeness.

We feel whole when we sense the presence, when we energetically feel the resonance of another person – whether we like them or not. Studies have shown the impact of social isolation on the human brain is the same as a war veteran experiencing PTSD.*

And this need only increases as time passes.


What about the time factor?

Where there is experience of having worked together in person before lockdown, where that emotional and personal connection has already been set up and exists between people, anecdotal evidence shows that this is much more likely to stand a leader in good stead when it comes to leading on zoom.

However, as time ticks on, does that connection diminish or strengthen the longer people are only able to connect virtually?

There is little discourse or feedback available out there that points to a trend in either direction. In our experience, we believe it depends on two things:

  1. the strength of intent that the people involved choose to hold about maintaining the quality of their relationship connection, and
  2. what has happened between them, what the quality of dialogue has been and the events that have happened at work during the intervening period since their last in-person meetings.


How do you lead new hires?

Several JMA clients have expanded their businesses and hired remotely during lockdown. They are asking their leaders to make decisions about who will be a good fit for their teams and for their organisations without ever having met them in person before. How easy – or difficult – is it to lead then without that primary embodied experience?

For global multi-cultural companies, this is not a new phenomenon, many have been recruiting people via virtual technology for years. We have also witnessed the rise over the last 20 years of matrix teams set up to work together on projects dispersed across borders and geographies, many of which have achieved success in their endeavours.

In our conversations with clients we find that there are typically frequent communication challenges between people who are working together virtually that are often easily resolved when they meet in person and spend time together in the same meeting room and share the same space.


Nevertheless, the virtual world is here to stay, so what do you do if you need to lead on zoom?

Find out about your people. Get to know them (if you don’t already). Find out about their family, their interests, what their partner, kids and pets are called.

Share the same for you. This way you have connection, something in common.

Why does this help? Because this small talk is what you’d do at work, what you’d find out about. You need to remember to do this when working virtually.

Say “hello” to the dog – or the child – when it appears on camera. This will make people feel remembered and included, and this builds connection.

Encourage people to talk about how they feel, what matters to them – this will help you work out what’s going on for them when you log on and see them. Build up a databank of knowledge about their tone of voice as this help you realise what’s going on for them when you connect.

In essence, spend time with your team-members just passing the time of day!

Then when you interact via zoom:

  1. Work out whether it’s management time or leadership time. Ask yourself, “what is the purpose of this call?”

2. Be clear about what you want the outcome from the conversation to be

3. Consider how you need to show up in the conversation in order for you to have the best chance of achieving that outcome

4. Get centred, present and connected before the call

5. Speak and listen from your centre during the call – imagine that you are connecting with the person as if they were in the room with you

6. Extend your energy out to meet with them with your imagination, with your intention – before and during the call

7. Ask for feedback. Leading well is knowing what is too little and what is too much in how you are with your team – ask them,” what can I do differently to lead and connect with you better?”


Remember, you can still also pick up the phone spontaneously and check in with your team instead of relying on scheduled calls; and (if neither of you are in vulnerable categories) you can also now meet them for a socially distanced conversation – which will be a chance to renew (or initiate) the connection between you.


Towards the future?

This year, virtual connections have gone en masse cheaply and quickly in response to business (and personal) needs which arose almost overnight across the globe. Leading virtually looks set to stay.

Some organisations are investing in new technologies (such as augmented realities and holograms) which although costly right now will become more viable if the demand continues on a large enough scale for ways to help us feel more connected when we’re not geographically close.

Where these new technologies take us is unfolding as we write – so watch this space. Office work will not be the same as before, our future working world will include more virtual working for many of us.

Who know, there may even be Holodeck** tech for leaders to use in the future.


If you’re interested in learning more about how to lead via virtual tools and what it means for you then call us on + 44 1604 340990 or reach out to us via info@jmaleadership.com. We can’t wait to hear from you.


*David Rock, Your Brain at Work, 2009

**The Holodeck is a fictional device from the television franchise Star Trek. It is a stage where participants may engage with different virtual reality environments.