The COVID-19 coronavirus has caused a slowly growing trend
from the past decade to become a sudden, unchosen reality for millions. Not all
jobs and tasks can make the shift to remote work—think retail workers, many
manufacturing jobs, or engineers and scientists who work in big labs.
But for jobs that mostly require working via computers,
phones, and similar common technologies, resistance to working from home was
quickly swept aside in the past two weeks out of necessity.
Such were the findings of a new survey conducted by the Institute
for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), which asked participants about the percentage
of their organizations’ workforces that were already working remotely before the
COVID-19 outbreak and what percent is doing so today.
The numbers are striking. Some degree of remote work was
already common at most organizations prior to COVID-19—only 8% of respondents
said they had zero such employees (a number that has now dropped to 0%, which
is likely not literally true, but close).
The biggest shift was in the respondents whose organizations
had a relatively low (between 1-24%) number of people working remotely prior to
the outbreak. That group was 74% of respondents before COVID-19 and is only 11%
now. Such organizations have increased the number of people working remotely to
varying degrees, with the largest number of respondents (36%) now having a
large majority of employees working remotely.
The percentage of respondents who indicated that over half
of their employees currently work remotely has swelled from a meager 8% to a
significant 73%. And amongst those, the number reporting that their
organizations have gone completely to remote work has quadrupled from 4% to
Given the interconnectedness of work today, organizations
with more remote workers have more virtual teams, and with them more virtual
leaders. While managing a virtual team is standard practice for some, for many this
is completely new—and there are some challenges to doing it well.
How do you maintain productivity, engagement, and morale of
employees who are struggling with this new way of working? What about those who
are more experienced but suddenly need to collaborate with those who are new to
Our survey found that a lack of technology (e.g., Slack,
Teams, Zoom, WebEx, etc.) is not the major challenge, with only 17% of survey
respondents saying it was a top-three concern. Rather, a lack of experience
with those technologies on the part of leaders is a significant challenge
(45%), topped only by a lack of training on best practices in effectively
leading virtual teams/remote workers.
of training was foreshadowed by research i4cp conducted on virtual
leadership prior to COVID-19. In that study, only 29% of survey respondents
indicated they thought leaders in their organization were effective at leading
virtual teams / remote workers.
Training designed and delivered specifically for virtual
leaders was found to be a next practice, not commonly done but used by 4.5X
times more high-performance organizations than lower-performers. The top skills
needed more often by virtual leaders than traditional leaders? Digital fluency,
facilitating collaboration, cultural agility, and helping others build strong
networks topped the list of skills we surveyed. (See the i4cp infographic: 7
Critical Skills for your Virtual Leader Training.)
Our virtual leadership research discovered additional
best and next practices beyond providing focused training for virtual
leaders. One is not appropriate right now: hosting one or more in-person events
for remote workers to get together for team building, collaboration, etc.
Definitely a great idea, just not during this COVID-19 time period.
But the other top practices can and should be pursued by
virtual leaders, including holding non-business virtual meetings (celebrations,
virtual coffee/happy hours, etc.), modelling the best use of communication
software, and setting virtual team operating agreements (i.e., a set of
behavioral norms that the virtual team agrees to abide by).
The peak of the COVID-19 pandemic will come and go, and only
time will tell how much of the surge of remote work and the need for virtual
teams and virtual leaders will continue. It is a safe bet that at least some of
the increase will live on, so it is time well-spent now to focus on virtual
leadership best and next practices.
the full survey results —due
to the current global health and productivity crisis affecting everyone, i4cp
is making all related ongoing research publicly available.
We also encourage you to visit i4cp.com/coronavirus for other
employer resources including discussion forums, next practices, useful
resources, and more.