What is e-leadership?
“E-leadership” or “digital leadership” refers to a process in which supervisors lead a team that works together virtually. In this process, they manage and communicate with team members via digital channels to achieve a predefined goal.
Closely related to e-leadership is the concept of virtual teams. Their members work
Virtual teams and e-leadership are forms of collaboration that, as a result of pandemic and increasing digitization, are becoming prevalent in more and more companies around the world.
How does e-leadership differ from traditional leadership?
In the past, you just walked around …
A characteristic of e-leadership is that teams do not work together in one place as they used to. Therefore, supervisors cannot simply oversee the team’s work by wandering from office to office (“management by walking around”, MBWA).
Toyota coined the term “genba kaizen” for this management approach. In this approach, supervisors go directly to the place where value is created, e.g., the production line or the sales floor, get to know the work processes and look for potential for improvement.
Leading employees by talking to them directly on site quickly became standard practice and is also an important part of the lean management philosophy: Managers are expected to spend 45 to 60 minutes a week on this.
… Today, “video telephoning” is the way to go.
Due to home office duties and digitalization, many employees have been working from home completely or temporarily since the pandemic at the latest. Some companies have even completely converted their operations to hybrid collaboration, where part of the workforce works in the office and another part in the home office (hybrid work).
Coordination between individual team members works primarily via video telephony tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom. They make it possible to exchange information digitally in a quick and uncomplicated manner, but they are not a solution for traditional employee management.
In order to lead teams that work together virtually, a different leadership approach is needed in addition to suitable electronic media. The “Digital Leadership” study by Personalwirtschaft, CLBO, DGFP and Groß & Cie confirms this.¹ In an online survey, 325 employees and managers rated the most important elements of e-leadership. More than 75 percent of respondents rated the “development of new leadership competencies” as very important or indispensable.
The following table compares the differences between e-leadership and traditional leadership.
Responsibility is based on the task, context and current role of the leader.
Responsibility is based on the leader’s position and the hierarchy.
Decision-making principles and the company process determine who decides.
The executive with the highest position within the hierarchy makes the decision.
Leaders distribute, prioritize, and monitor tasks together as a team.
Leaders delegate tasks, plan resources, and monitor progress.
Information is shared in real time and actively solicited from employees.
Information is shared in stages “top down” at regular intervals.
Focus is equally on employees and team. Collaboration and team results matter.
Goal setting and assessment
Focus is on individual goals, performance and incentives.
Processes help to learn from mistakes. Managers moderate and create the framework.
Mistakes and conflicts
Fixed rules serve to avoid mistakes and conflicts.
Existing structures and processes are questioned, employees are given more creative freedom.
The focus is on optimizing existing structures and processes.
Based on van Dick et al. (2016)¹
What makes a good digital leader?
Leading virtual teams is challenging because it requires a change in self-image as well as strong social skills. Due to the often purely digital communication, digital leaders have to build trust and professional relationships within a narrower framework and with limited resources. This requires a range of e-leadership competencies:
- Flexible and agile ways of working: Especially in the last few years, the possibilities for digital employee leadership have evolved significantly. This evolution also requires leaders to respond flexibly to new trends and insights. Agile working methods, in particular, have been around for a long time but continue to gain importance in the digital environment.
- Participative leadership style: Top-down management gives way to a participative approach in e-leadership. Leadership is no longer strictly along the hierarchy line, but rather depending on the situation. Digital leaders take on the role of coach and moderator. They encourage their employees to take responsibility for themselves and solve tasks jointly in project teams instead of delegating them within rigid structures.
- Technology and digital competence: A basic understanding of technology and ideally also a certain affinity for digital topics are important prerequisites for e-leadership. No other management approach relies so actively on technical tools. From video conferencing tools to ERP software for task management, smart digital solutions are the tools of modern management.
- Openness and proactivity: A digital leader is open to new methods and tools. They keep an eye on trends, react flexibly to new management approaches and implement ideas proactively. Employees can and should also actively contribute their own suggestions. It is particularly important to treat the wishes of one’s own team with respect.
- Active relationship management: Increased autonomous work in virtual teams poses the risk of isolation and “digital fatigue. Managers should therefore have a keen sense of the mood in the team – all the more so because communication is often limited to a screen. Careful team composition can ensure a positive group dynamic and prevent conflicts.
- Positive culture of error: Not all employees are equally disposed to new technologies and digital processes. For many, new workflows are initially unfamiliar and involve additional effort. Mistakes are bound to happen during the transition. However, a good digital leader emphasizes the opportunity to learn from them and make processes better. This encourages employees to embrace new things.
Recommendations for e-leadership
When it comes to e-leadership, there is a huge gap between aspiration and reality. Frank Kohl-Boas, HR manager at Google, agrees. In the results of the digital leadership study, he is particularly surprised that 75 percent of respondents rate their e-leadership qualities as at least good, but at the same time the topic of “e-leadership” is currently not an issue for almost half of the companies surveyed: [T]hen I start to wonder whether the full extent of the digital transformation is also perceived for leadership, ¹ he concludes.
In order to drive the digital transformation forward, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy provides managers with guidelines for e-leadership as part of the “Mittelstand-Digital” initiative.² They show the most important levers for reducing the discrepancy between reality and self-perception.
Drive digitalization proactively
Digital processes allow companies to act faster, more efficiently and more successfully on the market. What can be a real competitive advantage at the moment will develop into the standard over time. Then, at the latest, a lack of digitization will become a real stumbling block for the development of one’s own company.
A digitization strategy helps companies to systematically think about their own business processes. It is important to view the company as a networked whole and not to look for specific solutions for individual departments. Otherwise, there is a risk of a “mosaic” of island systems that do not harmonize sufficiently with each other.
Create acceptance for new digital processes. What has worked for years will probably continue to work, but the competition will find better solutions in the meantime. That’s why it’s important to get employees excited about new approaches and actively involve them in digitization efforts.
Transform hierarchy thinking into teamwork
E-leadership makes hierarchies flatter because work takes place in virtual teams. Who decides and is responsible for the outcome is based on the roles of the individual team members and the requirements of the project, rather than the traditional corporate hierarchy.
It is worthwhile to transfer this idea to the overall organization. Of course, this does not have to degenerate into anarchic conditions, but more pragmatism and flexibility helps companies remain competitive in crisis-ridden times.
Take advantage of the opportunities offered by new media
Never before have there been so many ways to exchange information digitally. These range from e-mails, text messages, chats and forums to video calls and webinars. The speed at which information and data are shared is also constantly increasing. The challenge is to keep track of all the tools and possibilities and to use them sensibly. The following tips will help:
- Always use communication openly and transparently. Avoid subtle influence and micropolitical tactics (e.g., via BCC e-mails).
- Express yourself clearly and concretely. Digital communication is often based on written content. Precise language is important here, otherwise there is a risk of follow-up questions or unnecessary duplication of effort.
- Quality over quantity. Even if you receive countless inquiries through a wide variety of channels, the following applies: An accurate and considered response is worth much more than a hasty reaction.
- Choose your addressees wisely. When communicating virtually, consider to whom a piece of information is relevant. If your employees are constantly inundated with messages in oversized groups or sit in online meetings to which they have nothing to contribute, motivation and productivity will drop.
- The Internet doesn’t forget. Pay attention to content and tone when communicating digitally. Avoid messages that can cause unnecessary conflict.
- Face-to-face communication remains important. Certain topics are not appropriate for phone or video calls. Keep your sense of which topics this is the case for and, if possible, prefer to schedule a face-to-face meeting for them.
Promote IT skills within the company
With increasing digitization, IT skills are becoming an important qualification in all areas of the company. Where an IT department or internal help desk used to be sufficient, employees now have to acquire the necessary skills themselves and prove them on a regular basis.
You can actively support this process. Inform employees about technical developments that are important for their work. Integrate digital topics into personnel development. Train managers in e-leadership.
Since the IT world in particular is very fast-moving, you should also encourage “learning by doing”. As experts for your tasks, employees often find good solution approaches through simple experimentation, which you can take up.
Harness the power of data
Big Data, AI, BI, Industry 4.0 – when it comes to enterprise data and smart networking, there are a lot of buzzwords circulating. Even though these trends play a major role and will certainly become even more important in the future, companies should first take care of basic enterprise data: Who is working on what right now? How much time are we investing in project X? What revenue did we generate last month?
Practical experience shows that many companies have trouble collecting and evaluating basic data. There are many reasons for this: lack of documentation or no documentation at all, unclear or inconsistent collection processes, data breaks and incompatible island systems are just a few of them. The best way to circumvent these problems is with a central software solution that maps all important business processes and is used by all departments. In this way, you can ensure that all important data is tracked uniformly within the framework of the processes and can be evaluated in an uncomplicated manner at a central location.
Software for e-leadership
More than other leadership approaches, e-leadership thrives on a good digital solution for your business processes. It must serve several purposes:
- Track: Business software is only as good as the data it tracks. The more and the more important information you maintain through the system, the more valuable it is to your business. From digital customer records to time tracking to a company wiki, employees can benefit in many ways.
- Inform: For your employees, enterprise software should be the one-stop shop to access information. Through it, you make customer addresses, process instructions, mail traffic and much more available online. Through a secure cloud connection, your employees have access anywhere, anytime.
- Execute: Good business software takes many routine tasks off your hands. Creating projects, distributing tasks or invoicing orders can be done quickly and easily with the right software. This saves you several hours of work per month and allows you to focus on more important activities.
- Analyze: Evaluate the data you collect with the business software directly online. This allows you to keep an eye on a wide range of key figures at all times: Employee utilization, project times, sales development and many other analyses are available to you as individual reports at the push of a button.
We recommend the teamspace business software to small and medium-sized service providers. It combines CRM system, time tracking, project management and finances in one software solution. With it, you digitally map all important business processes. As a cloud system, your employees can access it anywhere and at any time – in the office, home office or on the road. Microsoft Team Integration supports you in communicating within your virtual team. You can use it to plan meetings and document phone calls – ideal for time bookings or follow-up.
We will be happy to show you in a personal demo how the software works and how you can use it to professionally manage your virtual team.