Some of us can still remember that leaders would be told to “walk the floor” and “read the room”, to be present and to be seen and to be available to our staff. Wise counsel in the workplace. But how do SME bosses display emotional intelligence in a virtual world?

Emotional intelligence – even more important in these uncertain times

2020 forced many businesses and their leaders to challenge assumptions and deal with the different, uncertain and complex situation of a COVID world. While many businesses cut through years of resistance to “working from home” and quickly made the technology move from physical to virtual workplaces. It is clear that our ways or working and our ways of engaging are still evolving in this new world.

The need for emotionally intelligent bosses that generate trust, provide leadership and embody empathy has become more important in this time of change and uncertainty.

Working from home has been good for some of our colleagues - with increased flexibility, relief from the time and money wasted by commuting while providing freedom from the distractions of the office.

For others it has been a challenge with the loss of the boundaries that separate work and home, the dilution of identity for those that define themselves by ‘where they work’ and the unexpected internet, domestic and space challenges of working from home.

Working virtual has also brought the stress of home-based interruptions and the loss of the chance to ‘decompress’ between work and home.

Our technology enabled virtual world may be more productive but if we are not careful can deprive our staff of the emotional and interpersonal connection that makes teams and their members more effective, as also gone for now are those enlightening spontaneous ‘corridor or kitchen conversation’ moments. So just how do you get the best from your team during these times?

Emotional intelligence in the virtual workplace

Complexity and change in uncertain times is affecting the way that we do business and also challenging our organisations, staff and leadership. The need to demonstrate emotional intelligence is amplified in the virtual world when the COVID crisis demands fresh thinking, adaptability, flexibility and resilience.

While we are technologically more connected, we risk becoming socially more excluded, impacting productivity and psychological wellbeing of staff.

Emotionally intelligent bosses provide clarity of purpose, with humility but without ego getting in the way. They create the psychological safety that it is ok not to have all the answers, particularly during uncertain times and bring empathy to make people feel that they are understood, valued, respected and needed.

With today’s technology we can now talk to a computer, but what people want is to be listened to by their leader. The virtual workplace demands stronger listening skills with active listening that reflects empathy and delivers insight to generate trust and support.

It starts with being available, authentic and making an even greater effort to connect with staff who may be feeling uncertain, isolated or undervalued.

Emotionally intelligent bosses create and honour clear expectations with their employees, spend more time listening than talking and take a genuine interest in their people. Many businesses have also been financially challenged and have had to make the tough decisions to reduce staff.

Bosses that have communicated clearly, demonstrated integrity and been honest, respectful and empathetic have generated trust throughout a business – a precious currency in an uncertain world.

The leaders that have been ambiguous, been seen to lack courage or integrity have eroded trust and the legacy of their poor leadership will persist for many years, delaying recovery and growth.

The move to virtual working has disrupted recruitment, on boarding and team building in many businesses and emotionally intelligent leaders recognise the need to spend extra time and effort to build a sense of connection and belonging for both the new starters and our current teams. Take the time to connect with staff, be available and accessible.

Emotionally intelligent bosses respect the boundaries are blurring, but still respect the boundaries. While the blurring of lines between our homes and our work has provided rich humour on YouTube and the phrase of 2020 is likely to be “you’re on mute!”, emotionally intelligent leaders respect the lines between home and work, are courteous in the demands they put on their colleagues and recognise that virtual working has given us a window into the personal lives of our staff that many never sought - and which should not be taken for granted.

By John Harte, managing partner of Integrity Governance and advisory member of Chairman’s Network