How to Be an Impactful Leader in a Virtual, COVID-19 World

There is no doubt COVID-19 has changed the way we work. More of us are working remotely from our homes and across time zones.

Even for companies and teams who work virtually on a daily basis, COVID-19 has added an extra layer of stress, whether it’s from children and partners also being home, relatives working on the front lines, or balancing the new role of having to be the primary care partner for family members who are at a higher risk of contracting the virus.

For many of us, this means having to adapt the way we lead our teams. For the time being, gone are the days of getting to know a coworker by walking down the street to grab coffee or gathering hundreds of salespeople at an off-site training seminar — because it’s just not safe.

Executives in the life sciences have unique concerns they must take into consideration, including how to: keep R&D strong, continue delivering life-saving therapies to those who need them, and provide HCPs with appropriate and relevant information, all while keeping their people safe.

Many of the virtual tactics you use with your employees can be adapted for use with your customers and business partners as well. It comes down to being agile and embracing creative solutions.

With offices in five different states and clients across the globe, leading virtually is not something new for me. The skills I’ve learned from these experiences can inform my approach to leadership during this pandemic and beyond it when managing teams that cannot work side-by-side each day.

Build mutual respect

Every good relationship is built on mutual trust, understanding, and respect. Whether in person or virtually, employees need to know that they are trusted, and that they can trust you. By putting your people first and treating them with respect and understanding, they will be there when you need them most.

What do I mean by that? Don’t send an email at 11 p.m. if it can wait until 8 a.m. the next morning. Show them you respect their time. They will learn to trust that if you do need them to work late or send them an email at 9 p.m., it’s because it’s really important.

An important key to building that mutual respect and understanding also means getting to know your employees on a more personal level, so you can tap into your emotional intelligence skills and understand what motivates and excites them.

Some of these interactions would occur naturally if you were in person when you’re walking into the common area to heat up your lunch or seeing family photos displayed on their desk. But you can recognize them in a virtual environment, too. Next time you’re on a video call with a team member, pay attention to what’s around them. Are they drinking from a coffee mug covered in their favorite football team’s logo? Is there a beautiful painting in the background behind them? Ask them about it.

The same goes for your clients, partners, and vendors. It’s not currently feasible to drop by your client’s office and take them to lunch to deepen your professional relationship. But you can still carve out time to deliberately have interactions with them. It just takes a little planning.

For example, with your employees or clients, schedule a quick 15-minute video chat over coffee, call them just to check in, and make a point to ask about their weekend plans or how their family is doing during the pandemic.

Communicate to motivate

Quickly learn to decipher what information should be a phone call, an email, or a video conference and who should be included. It’s easy to over-communicate, or under-communicate, when leading a virtual team.

After you get to know your team members and what motivates them, learn to communicate in a way that motivates them. Maybe it’s a once-a-week email, or maybe it’s a 15-minute biweekly video chat with the whole division just to give an update on how the business is doing. It could be a daily 10-minute mastermind call with team leaders to get them in the right frame of mind for the day.

Either way, learn what works best for each of the teams you lead and then act on it. You’re not going to get it right the first time, but the more you explore different ways to do it, the better you will become at it.

Essential employees

Many pharmaceutical executives are responsible for employees, such as bench scientists, who are considered essential and cannot work virtually, as they race to help the world fight COVID-19 by developing vaccines, testing devices, and other resources.

Efforts to keep your people safe and informed are paramount. To the best of your ability, provide them with the safest work environment possible, and communicate your efforts to them. Keep in contact with them, show your appreciation, and truly listen to any concerns they may bring up to you.

Think about ways that you can show extra support for them. Maybe it’s surprising them with a gift card for use at their favorite takeout spot or providing free lunch for those who are required to report to the office.

 Virtual connections

Become a LinkedIn pro and set aside time each week to make new connections, reconnect with current ones, and author a thought leader post or two. Just because you are not physically connecting with others doesn’t mean you can’t make an impact by tapping into virtual networking tools and groups.

Many conferences, such as eyeforpharma and BIO, are going virtual this year. Take advantage of their virtual offerings. Listen to their live sessions, leverage Twitter to join in on the virtual conversation, and use LinkedIn to virtually connect with panelists whose comments you find interesting.

Be an example for those around you to show that business, networking, and making connections don’t have to slow down during this time. 

Utilize technology to its fullest

Technology makes connecting with people across the globe a nonissue. Two things must be done to make it work well: You and your employees need access to the best tools possible, and they need to know how to use them to their fullest capabilities.

Leverage and trust your IT team’s expertise to guide you in selecting and maintaining the most cutting-edge technology that can make remote work as successful as possible. Once you have that technology, make sure all your employees have access to it. Aside from using it to connect people within your organization, these tools are critical to connect with those outside it as well.

Imagine a world where your KOLs are having video chats with HCPs from their home offices in order to teach them about telehealth or your new COVID-19 clinical trial.

Build culture

Just because you and your employees are not physically in the same location, it doesn’t mean you cannot still be face-to-face. Tap into the technology during virtual all-staff meetings to share good news or during your weekly one-on-one meetings.

In fact, video conferencing can be used to reinforce, build, and expand your company culture. Hold virtual after-work happy hours, trivia nights, lunch and learns, or other social events that foster a community feeling. Give the option for partners and kids to join in on some of the events. It will not only create a strong sense of community, but it will also allow you and your employees to get to know and respect each other on a more personal level.

Create time for ideation

Inspiration is found in a variety of places — not just in the four walls of an office. Encourage your teams to set aside time for ideation on their own as well as to come together to share ideas in a virtual space in which they are comfortable.

Tapping into those technological tools allows you to conduct creative workshops from anywhere, which means you can also include anyone in them. For example, bring in special guest hosts who otherwise wouldn’t be able to travel to your office location to lead an interactive seminar.

Some virtual video tools even allow you to create breakout rooms where participants can gather together to work on a project and then come back to the main chat to share their ideas with each other.

This could be done with external partners, too — don’t limit it to just your internal teams. Have a virtual brainstorm with your marketing agency, or host a virtual lunch and learn with one of your vendors or HCPs.

Best lesson

The biggest thing I’ve learned is that leading virtually is only limited by your own beliefs. By leveraging technology, trusting your people, and being thoughtful in your actions, you can be a great leader no matter where you or your employees physically are.

Bill McEllen in a partner at Fingerpaint, a full-service health and wellness marketing agency.