Virtual Leadership: How to accelerate innovation in a virtual world

Our new reality requires that leaders adapt and excel in a virtual workspace. Leading virtually can be challenging, and it is common for a leader’s focus to shift toward tasks and survival while shelving innovation and engagement. In a highly competitive and ruthless business landscape, company survival depends on adaptability, growth and outpacing the competition through innovation.

Business models should exist to serve clients and employees through a variety of virtual channels. To gain traction in this unstable business landscape, leaders that excel in virtual leadership will have the ability to foster and cultivate innovation.

Improving your virtual leadership effectiveness will facilitate an improvement in your ability to engage the workforce and ultimately spark innovation. By applying these easy steps, together, you and your team will stay on track to exceed goals and outpace the competition. 

Build trust through empathy. Innovation lies in your people, and people determine the potential of your organization. Ask questions and listen more than you talk. The answers you need lie within the people on your organization’s front lines. Trust is required to inspire your team to a place of creative abrasion, where innovation lies. Touch a heart before asking for a hand. The pressure to perform has never been more essential, nor has it ever been quite so challenging. Praise, encourage support and brainstorm as a team.

Utilize the breakout rooms and the chat functions in your virtual environment to promote sub-conversations that will feed into the larger conversation. Call on people that have not spoken, notice them, acknowledge them and, as difficult as it may be in a virtual meeting, do your best not to interrupt. Task-oriented leaders tend to enjoy knocking out the checklist; however, do not be so task-oriented that you forget the necessity for personal connectivity. 

Your job as a virtual leader is to create an environment that sparks engagement. Do this with your tone, mood, smile and ability to be inclusive of people, ideas and insights. Your team is a mirror; if you are thinking to yourself—I do not want to have another zoom call today—your employees can sense that, and they will follow your lead of being disengaged. If you want to open up the floor for brainstorming or feedback about customer issues, being mechanical will not net answers you are seeking.

Create a culture of communication. An organization’s problems and failures provide the most incredible opportunities for innovation. It is not uncommon for issues to be driven underground, not reported or resolved simply because the leader did not foster a culture of communication. Train and enable your team to be problem see-ers and problem solvers. How you see problems and failures will determine your ability to experience innovation. How you see God will determine your ability as a leader to experience supernatural innovation. It is vital for you as a virtual leader to foster a workplace environment that celebrates successes and failures.

Use a variety of communication methods. Research tells us that the average consumer regularly uses nearly four social media platforms, and 76 percent of consumers are on YouTube. Just as there is no disaggregate in the consumer buying experience, there is no disaggregate in the employee communication experience. Meaning, your employees expect you to reach them and communicate with them where and how they are most susceptible to receive information and communication.

Simply put, there is no one silver bullet approach to communicating with your team. Connect with your employees through email, text, virtual team meetings, virtual one-on-one sessions, video, conference calls, direct messages and more. Do not rely on just one medium or touchpoint to communicate with your employees, but on multiple sources with multiple styles. 

Albert Mehrabian, professor of psychology at the University of California, deduced that communication is only seven percent what you say, and the remainder is how you say it. If body language and tone make up for 93 percent of the conversation, and you are only communicating on email or phone, you are not likely being heard.

My mentor, Kari French, used to say, “Over-communicate to make up for the complexity of structure.” If you think you are communicating adequately today as a virtual leader, you need to amplify that by 10. Remember to follow up after a meeting with a brief and concise email, auto-call or video detailing expectations and project assignments.

When you succeed at communication, you will likely see more problems than before. This is where the opportunities to innovate exist. An organization with fluid communication across all levels can adapt and innovate more quickly than an organization that buries issues and failures. Whether you choose to deal with them or not, they still exist. Even though it may take more effort to connect with your team virtually, it is essential to forget about what you want, focus on what you have and allow God to provide you with what you need. When you do this, you'll experience supernatural innovation.   

Innovation lies in simplicity. Complexity crushes innovation. As you move from in-person into a virtual workplace, processes can quickly become more complex. You have to be intentional about keeping it simple to foster an environment of innovation. You also need to be able to set expectations and measure performance effectively. Virtual leaders can fall into wanting to micro-manage employees in the absence of measurements, creating a company bogged down with too much bureaucracy and unnecessary controls. 

Companies do not drift into simplicity. In the Bible, Moses came down from the mountain with ten commandments, which evolved into hundreds, if not thousands, of laws. Fast forward to Jesus in the temple. He’s righteously angry, flipping tables. By erroneous rules and laws, the people had turned something intended for good into something completely different. Complexity and misguided structure can make a simple task laborious and difficult. Virtual leaders frequently create more policies, rules and processes to control the work, but in reality, it slows down the machine and crushes the innovative spirit of an organization. 

When Jesus was asked which was the most important commandment, He said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–39). Breathing is to life like profits are to a business; while breathing is not the purpose for living, it is essential for life. Just as profits are not the purpose the business exists, they are essential for the organization to survive. It is healthy to make a profit, but not at the expense of destroying innovation.  Why step over a dollar to pick up a dime?

Set expectations and rely on your measurements. Measuring performance is critical, but not for the reasons you may think. Effective measurement will support the employees, provide purpose for their jobs by reinforcing alignment to the mission, help measure organizational slack and free up the leader to work on complex problems to stay ahead of the competition. Helping your team know the goals and expectations will help them feel empowered with the freedom to succeed.

Having the proper measurements will free up the virtual leader to inspect what they expect, move the dial on performance and, most importantly, recognize, reward and celebrate successful outcomes. As a leader, you should identify when targets are out of reach and quickly redirect and coach when a teammate is not progressing toward the goal. Simplicity helps keep the company agile and the machine operating at peak performance.  

While the vehicle in which you do your job has evolved, virtual leadership has never been more critical than it is today. By implementing these steps you will outpace your competition, adapt quickly to consumer demands, retain and engage top talent, reduce overhead expenses, increase profits and remain relevant in the marketplace.


This article was extracted from Issue 4 (Winter 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.



This article was written by Krystal Parker



Krystal Parker is a former executive for a Fortune 200 publicly traded oil and gas company. She offers over 20 years of organizational management experience leading hundreds of union, non-union, and contract employees. Parker is an emerging author of business innovation and the president of the US Christian Chamber of Commerce.


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