Leadership is a crucial part of employee work motivation, but the importance of leadership should be emphasized in a virtual environment. Digitalization has influenced the work environment by creating the possibility for organizations to work more remotely. In March 2020 the World Health Organization categorized the coronavirus outbreak as a worldwide pandemic (WHO 2020). This led many organizations to continue work at home remotely which has greatly affected employees’ work motivation. According to a research conducted by Microsoft (2021) especially young employees are struggling to maintain work motivation when working remotely and leaders are out of touch with their teams.
Organizations’ competitive advantage and success are affected by employee motivation. Gitlab (2020) researched that almost one third of the employees that work remotely sees motivation as a challenge in the virtual environment. To sustain the same level of performance and employee motivation in a remote environment requires effective leadership. Leaders need to attempt gaining as well as adapting new skills to lead and motivate their employees virtually.
The brief theory behind motivation and e-leadership
Extrinsic and intrinsic factors influence simultaneously an individual’s motivation. Intrinsic motivation is more individual and personal. It can be defined as the desire of working because the work itself is rewarding. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation is more rewards-driven motivation (Kuvaas et al. 2017). Motivation is affected by leadership and the organization in which an employee works. Motivated employees are more committed and loyal towards the organization and perform better than unmotivated employees. They are also more creative and inventive, as well as attain goals quicker.
E-leadership is a multidimensional phenomenon. As a concept it refers to leadership that occurs through virtual platforms by using information communication and technology (ICT) (Contreras et al. 2020). The responsibilities and tasks for e-leaders are similar as with traditional leaders. The only difference is that the communication between a leader and an employee occurs in a virtual environment. E-leaders connect with their employees by using ICT (Snellman 2014). The number one key leadership skill for an e-leader is to create trust in the leader-employee relationship. Developing a trustworthy relationship is the foundation for an effective and motivated employee in any environment, especially in a virtual one. (Contreras et al. 2020.)
The competences of an e-leader
E-leadership requires multiple competences to manage an effective and motivated team. The importance of blending traditional leadership skills with the use of communication technology is crucial. Van Wart et al. (2019) introduced six competences of an e-leader that can be seen as the core competences for any leader that leads through virtual platforms. These six competences are: e- trustworthiness, e-communication skills, e-social skills, e-team building skills, e-technological skills and e-change management skills. These skills need to be present in e-leadership to be able to lead and motivate a remote team. (Van Wart et al. 2019.)
E-communication is a skill than an e-leaders needs to master in their work. Communicating regularly with the team and providing clear rules for communication influences the motivational level of employees in the virtual environment. Not leaving the employee in the dark is crucial, as it correlates straight with an employee’s performance and motivation. With efficient communication e-leaders are able to affect the commitment and performance of employees and create a positive working environment in which miscommunication is decreased to minimum. (Contreras et al. 2020; Van Wart et al. 2019.)
E-leaders need to understand and develop their technological skills. Knowing how to help and provide support with the technology is pivotal, as it will result with higher productivity within the team. E-leaders as well as traditional leaders are the operational coordinators of a team. For e-leaders the coordination is done virtually. The need to create an environment in which employees do not feel isolated is essential. Creating informal social interactions, face-to-face meetings with the team, providing more daily feedback is necessary in the virtual environment to be able to maintain and improve the performance and motivation of employees. (Contreras et al. 2020; Van Wart et al. 2019.) When e-leaders are able to use the given technology effectively it also improves their leadership. The positive effects of using technology are not only seen in employee performance, but in the workload of leaders.
Adopting e-skills in the virtual work environment
The main issue of e-leadership is how to adopt the six competences in real life and to maintain or even increase employee motivation in the remote work environment. The thesis “Leading and Motivating Employees in a Remote Work Environment” written by Tia-Tuulia Pitkänen (2021) researched the topic about how to effectively lead and motivate a remote team. She created recommendations for e-leaders about the topic. The recommendations were based on a qualitative survey research that was implemented in March 2021. The survey was answered by 49 individuals that work in different organizational positions. Nearly half (49 %) of the respondents were employees, 39 % of the respondents were in a leader or managerial position and the rest 12 % were trainee-level workers. The survey results provided key findings that had a significant impact on the employee motivation in the remote environment. These key factors were trust, communication and social interactions along with leadership. (Pitkänen 2021.)
Trust creates an environment that influences the performance and motivational levels of an employee. According to the study’s recommendations, e-leaders can create a trustworthy environment by discussing and determining expectations together with the employee. This allows employees to understand what is expected from them in their daily work which improves their motivation and performance, as well as decreases the need for micromanagement by the leader. The study by Pitkänen (2021) revealed that employees want to know what is expected from them as it helps to create structure to the daily work which correlates with motivation and performance levels. Leaders can improve their trustworthiness also by communicating regularly, being available for their employees and engaging the team in decision and goal making. Most importantly they provide feedback and follow-ups regularly for employees on their goals. The study showed that the threshold to ask for help from a leader or colleagues has increased which correlates with the efficiency of working and mutually affect motivation (Pitkänen 2021). Therefore, the leader availability as well as team availability and communication should be highlighted in the remote environment.
As stated, communication is one of the biggest influencers in virtual environment that affects employee motivation and leadership due to which it should be highlighted greatly. Lack of any communication decreases social interactions and increases the possibility for miscommunication and errors. It also causes leaders to be uncertain of how their team is doing. Pitkänen (2021) revealed in her study that the lack of communication is considerably affecting leaders to maintain an effective, innovative, and collaborative team as well as leadership has become more time consuming compared to traditional leadership.
Acquiring new skills establishes opportunities for future leaders to become more creative and innovative, thereby increasing motivation.
E-leaders should create spontaneous social interactions weekly for their employees to increase their safety, social and esteem needs, otherwise these needs will not be fulfilled which means that an employee’s motivational levels will decrease or be nonexistent. According to the study by Pitkänen (2021) 69 % respondents felt that a lack of social interactions affects their motivation and performance. Due to this, leaders should arrange spontaneous or scheduled meetings a few times a week to discuss either work-related or non-work-related matters with colleagues. It would be important to decrease the formality of the meeting and create a similar environment that office coffee breaks create. E-leaders can also improve communication by creating guidelines for the team. Pitkänen (2021) recommended that these guidelines could include for example the agreement of using cameras during meetings to add non-verbal clues, specifying a list of communication tools for different purposes and other guidelines to make the communication as transparent as possible in the remote environment. For an employee having a communication guideline tool would help them to get support faster for an issue that might be urgent. Increased social interactions and efficient communication correlate straight with motivation. It allows leaders to connect with their employees better and improve the trust between a leader and an employee.
Future of leadership and the beginning of e-leadership
E-leadership requires a lot from the leader, creating new structures to possibly old office habits and ways, providing adequate equipment for employees from the basics such as ergonomics to communicating regularly and providing feedback through virtual channels. However, when a leader is able to operate the six competences of an e-leader introduced by Van Wart et al (2019), leading a remote team becomes an advantage. Without these skills, virtual leadership is unattainable because the leader does not have the ability to create and maintain motivation in the work environment. When these skills are combined with trust, social interactions and regular communications, future e-leaders not only maintain employee motivation but are able to increase it.
E-leadership is the leadership of the future. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the transition of several industries to the era of digitalization, and this meant for managers to learn and implement new skills in a new virtual work environment. While it may be tricky at first, acquiring new skills establishes new opportunities for future leaders to become more creative and innovative through which they can increase the motivation of their team in remote environments.
Contreras, F., Baykal, E. & Abid, G. 2020. E-Leadership and Teleworking in Times of COVID-19 and Beyond: What We Know and Where Do We Go. Frontiers in Psychology 11, (590271).
Gitlab. 2020. The Remote Work Report by Gitlab: The Future of Work is Remote. Read on 30.05.2021 https://page.gitlab.com/rs/194-VVC-221/images/the-remote-work-report-by-gitlab.pdf
Kuvaas, B., Buch, R., Weibel, A., Dysvik, A. & Nerstad C. 2017. Do intrinsic and extrinsic motivation relate differently to employee outcomes? Journal of Economic Psychology 61. 244-258
Microsoft, 2021. The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready. 2021 Work Trend Index: Annual Report. Published 22.03.2021. Read on 30.05.2021. https://ms-worklab.azureedge.net/files/reports/hybridWork/pdf/2021_Microsoft_WTI_Report_March.pdf
Pitkänen, T-T. 2021. Leading and Motivating Employees in a Remote Work Environment. Bachelor’s thesis. Tampere University of Applied Sciences. https://www.theseus.fi/handle/10024/498570
Snellman, C. 2014. Virtual teams: opportunities and challenges for e-leaders. Procedia, social and behavioral sciences, 110, 1251–1261.
Van Wart, M., Roman, A., Wang, XH. & Liu, H. 2019. Operationalizing the definition of e-leadership: identifying the elements of e-leadership. International Review of Administrative Sciences, 85 (1), 80-97.
WHO. 2020. Listings of WHO’s response to COVID-19. [statement]. Released on 29.06.2020. Updated on 28.12.2020. Read on 30.05.2021 https://www.who.int/news/item/29-06-2020-covidtimeline
Tia-Tuulia Pitkänen, graduate of the BBA programme in International Business at TAMK, majors in HRM and Leadership as well as in Marketing. She is a young graduate who is interested and passionate about leadership, particularly leadership styles that will be required in the future working environments.
Shaidul Kazi, PhD has over fifteen years’ teaching experience in cross-cultural management and International Business-related courses. His PhD dissertation topic was “Managerial Decision-Making Behaviour and Impact of Culture. He is a multicultural intelligence expert and senior lecturer in the degree program of International Business, at the Tampere University of Applied Sciences (TAMK). Alongside, teaching he regularly writes newspaper article and involved to EU funded projects.