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Leadership, trust and managing a virtual workforce in the times of COVID-19

The adage by author and public speaker Brian Tracy that "the true test of leadership is how well you function in a crisis" holds true for many leaders and organizations. Leaders have a special role in turbulent times. Exceptional leadership is an essential survival component for contemporary organizations. The current business environment characterized by unprecedented changes and challenges demands great flexibility and adaptability from organizations.

To remain competitive and sustainable leaders have to lead from the front and inspire and empower their teams. Crises bring along numerous uncertainties among employees and it is the responsibility of leaders to reassure employees and instill trust in the relationship. Trust is a central and critical commodity in crisis management and business leadership. It is an antecedent of employee motivation, efficacy and performance. Leadership on the other hand also functions as an antecedent of trust; involving employees in decision making directly affects their trust in their leader.

Novel crises are recurring events in human history and defining moments for businesses of all sizes. Time pressures demanding swift leadership decision making characterize most. Without doubt, the outbreak of the global pandemic of coronavirus (COVID-19) has brought about considerable challenges demanding leaders to act- and act quickly.

With the current situation of COVID-19 requiring social distancing and governments imposing national lockdowns, many organizations are suddenly faced with new realities and have to adapt their operations to ensure continuity of business operations. The COVID-19 pandemic has spawned an overnight need for many organizations to operate in virtual spaces and many have been found wanting. Virtual operations are not a new phenomenon especially in the 21st century. Globalization accompanied by advancements in technology has enabled organizations to conduct business across geographic spaces. In fact, business executives believe the future of business is virtual.

To make the most of virtual operations, businesses have to understand and embrace the complexities of such operations, such as challenges of adapting to new technologies, leading/managing virtual teams, and maintaining/instilling trust. Virtual operations are made possible by exceptional developments and diffusions in collaborative technologies. As such, the process of adaption involves understanding technology structures, which include restrictiveness, sophistication and comprehensiveness of its features as well as the general intent of the technology regarding the values and goals of the organization. Values and goals may range from simple reporting purposes to sophisticated decision-making processes. It is of utmost importance for leaders to provide support to employees' through the adaption process. Training staff on simple configurations and dashboards would ensure smooth transition from traditional to virtual operations.

During times of crisis, the most critical issue is to reduce disruptions and try to stabilize operations. Virtual operations require leaders who are able to keep their fingers on the pulse of emerging issues. Central issues in leading/managing a virtual workforce include challenges of developing behavioral norms, few discussion opportunities, and lack of trust. Leadership during these times may prove to be the deciding factor between success and failure of virtual teams and the organizations as a whole.

Clearly, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a lot of uncertainties and imposed a situation where leaders have to step-up and weather the storm. For many, this includes adopting new styles of leadership suitable for managing a remote workforce whilst maintaining trust with employees. Leaders have to be authentic and display unwavering honesty to maintain trust with employees. Today information is readily available at our fingertips. Employees need to get accurate information from leaders rather than the grapevine. Only when employees trust in their leaders will change be brought about. The question then remains; How do leaders maintain a balance in managing a virtual workforce, instilling trust and getting the most from employees during times of crisis?

1. Prepare contingency plans - Leaders should keep their fingers on the pulse of issues and ensure that they are prepared for uncertainties. They need to detect early signs of crisis and devise strategies to mitigate any possible risks. Anticipating and responding quickly demonstrates dynamic and rapid leadership and shows great ability and resilience of a leaders.

2. Take responsibility and accountability - Taking responsibility means leading from the front. It is perceived as a sign of capability and instils confidence in employees about their leader. When faced with a crisis, leaders have a lot of decisions to make and, showing initiative demonstrates confidence and reassures employees.

3. Build support - Building support ensures that employees do not feel isolated or left behind. Leaders have to provide support and guidance. Support may include training employees for virtual operations and ensuring that they have the tools of trade necessary to function during the crisis. Building support also involves delegating responsibility to employees. Authentic leaders know how to put their ego aside, empower and develop employees. Employees perceive delegation as a sign of trust in their abilities and usefulness. Leaders who do not build support risk increasing anxiety levels and decreasing commitment among employees.

4. Communicate - Communication is key not just during times of crises, but in all business operations. Leading in turbulent times and managing virtual workforces requires frequent communication from leaders and among employees. Communication increases a sense of belonging to employees in different physical spaces and ensures that employees make informed decisions. Frequent communication is also a sign of accessibility. Leaders have to be visible and accessible and during trying times. Moreover, communication facilitates collaboration as leaders may not know all the answers and rely on the ideas of their employees.

The current crisis facing organizations is no different from other crises of the past. Leaders have to overcome their own fears and guide their employees through the challenges to emerge out of the situation with little disruption. Managing a remote workforce during times of crisis can pose serious challenges to the culture, performance and goals of an organization. It is therefore of vital importance that leaders uphold and stay true to the culture and goals of their organizations. The type of leadership is central to the success of virtual operations and surviving crisis.

Dr Trevor Mtetwa is an Organisational behaviour and human resources management lecturer at UKZN's Graduate School of Business and Leadership (GSB&L). His research explores transformation within human resource from the fourth Industrial perspective.