Leading teams remotely has been a key part of the curriculum at many Online MBA programs for many years, but the coronavirus pandemic has given the subject fresh relevance at a time when many senior working professionals are managing teams remotely using various forms of technology.
“This leadership skill has probably become most important over the past three years. During the pandemic, leaders either learned to lead remotely or they failed, so the relevance of leading teams remotely has gained in prominence,” says Gianluca Carnabuci, professor of organizational behavior at ESMT Berlin in Germany.
Even as the pandemic recedes, it’s clear that remote work is not going away, prompting many workplaces to provide training for their managers in leading teams from a distance.
“Companies have recognized the importance of leading teams remotely and realized that many executives who were very successful in leading in a face-to-face environment are not necessarily effective in a virtual environment,” says Carnabuci. “Therefore, they have invested heavily in upskilling their managers in order to fill this gap.”
Managing teams of people remotely
For students at business school, an Online MBA program can help improve their ability to manage teams of people remotely. Business schools offer specific training on remote leadership. ESMT, for one, gives participants the conceptual toolkit they need in order to understand how virtual work differs from traditional work and how virtual leadership differs from traditional leadership.
“As this is an Online MBA program, we complement that conceptual learning with very practical virtual leadership exercises,” Carnabuci says. “By the end of the program, our students have learned a great deal in terms of how to be more effective in managing remote teams.”
The experience of being a learner in an Online MBA program will expose participants to content and experiences that are related to successful remote leadership, according to Elizabeth Luckman, clinical assistant professor of business administration, who teaches in the iMBA program at the Gies College of Business in Illinois, US.
“They will learn vital skills including managing their own time and attention when working remotely, learning methods of engaging people through Zoom meetings and classes, and meaningfully connecting with diverse individuals around the world,” she says.
Research about how people communicate and make decisions when they are not co-located has been around for a long time. However, the concept of remote teams and leading those teams has evolved as the nature of work has changed, with business schools at the forefront of this research.
That has driven greater interest in remote leadership as a learning theme. “This shift to remote work, where many people can do their jobs entirely from a computer - regardless of where they are located - has completely upended many of the assumptions around office work,” says Luckman. “All of these things have led to deeper interest not just in what it means to lead a remote team, but what the role of a leader is in that environment.”
The role of mental health in the workplace
More than anything else, the pandemic has amplified our need to understand well-being and the role of mental health in the workplace, she says. “Mental health at work and how leaders can facilitate the well-being of their team members and employees has been of interest for a long time - but more as a niche topic.”
The pandemic has brought this issue front and center, she adds. “And it has challenged me to not only explore what role leaders need to play in supporting well-being at work so that we can have these discussions in class; it has challenged me to practice this as an educator.”
In addition, Luckman says the experiences over the last few years have changed the types of leadership skills that students want to develop. Participants are ever more interested in how to create diverse and inclusive environments, and how to engage with and connect to remote teams.
“The other thing I hear is a request not just to learn the content, but to learn a way to put these ideas into practice,” she says. “It seems that learners are no longer satisfied with espousing great leadership - they really want to go into work and create impact through their leadership.”
A permanent shift in working practices
Mary Beth Furst is the interim assistant dean for Online MBA programs and associate clinical professor in marketing at the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business in the US. In her experience, the most sought-after skills focus on transformational leadership.
“Virtual and flexible workspaces require a leader who can motivate teammates to enthusiastically contribute, communicate clearly and authentically, and empathize with team members juggling new challenges created by work-from-home arrangements,” she says.
At Maryland Smith, many courses provide opportunities for students to work in teams to research, design, analyze, write, and present on various topics. These experiences provide real-world applications where students test and prove their ability to manage teams remotely.
Demand for such content and experiences looks set to only grow in the coming years, as the pandemic drives what is likely to be a permanent shift in working practices. Furst says: “With more employers deciding to forego in-person work in favor of continuing more flexible work-from-home arrangements, leading and working in remote teams is here to stay for the foreseeable future.”