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Lessons in Leading Virtually Amid Uncertainty

​The pandemic tested the best of leaders in their skill to lead virtually,

inspire, and have a vision even in the face of uncertainty.

"The greatest challenge… was keeping the teams together, keeping them enthused, keeping them focused, and also reflecting a sense of calm regardless of what was happening," said Amar Raj Singh, chairman & managing director of Gamma Pizzakraft, which runs food outlets.

Another big challenge for leaders was to show their vulnerability. "To be able to come in front of people and say 'Look, I don't have an answer to that question'," said Sashi Kumar, managing director of Indeed India, an online jobs website. This wasn't easy, he said, because the traditional concept of a leader is one who has all the answers.

Still, CEOs and MDs strived to have authentic communication with employees on what was happening, sharing the business plan not just for the next five years, but for the immediate future. "That was an incredibly hard thing to do for everyone, but something that a lot of organizations did well," said Rohit Kapoor, CEO, India & South Asia, OYO, an online hotels booking site.

Kapoor and other CEOs shared their experiences of leading amid the uncertainty thrown up by Covid-19, at the recent annual SHRM India conference and exposition.

Leaders said they dialed up their communication with employees, holding town halls more frequently, and even having one-on-one calls.

Instead of making endless presentations on the town halls, Alexander Reisch, managing director of tobacco products-trading firm IPM India, said he switched to answering employees' questions. "Being very honest and truthful, and spending a lot of time on Q&As with people has gone a long way" in building trust, said Reisch.

The channels of communication were also tested.

Town halls, for instance, are not effective in bringing out specific issues that employees may be facing, said Amar Raj Singh. "People do not talk in each other's presence in our culture," he said. "We need to graduate to systems of one-on-one sessions."

OYO's Kapoor said he held long phone calls with his top 50 leaders, talking about their families and reassuring them that if they needed to take time off, it was ok. "We hit a point where everybody had some Zoom fatigue," said Kapoor.

Mindset Shifts for Leadership

The new workplace calls for new styles of leading.

"Leadership will have to move from command and control mode, into a coach and mentor mode," said Kishore Jayaraman, president of car-maker Rolls-Royce, India & South Asia. Instead of commanding that this or that be done, Jayaraman said that leaders will need to set goals and leave it to their team members to be almost like entrepreneurs to accomplish those goals.

The pandemic has also taught leaders to be more empathetic towards employees and their personal issues and challenges.  "I have learnt what it takes to think about the world from someone else's perspective," said Ahmed Mazhari, president of Microsoft Asia.

At Gamma Pizzakraft, managers were asked to have agenda less interactions with staff  "to say: how are you feeling, how are things?" said Amar Raj Singh. This was to let them know that leaders care for more than just profit, he said.

Leaders also have to be smart collaborators.

"If you belong to the old school where you need to do everything yourself, the speed will get compromised," said Pratik Kumar, CEO of Wipro Infrastructure Engineering, an industrial engineering firm. Speed was key in responding to the pandemic, he said. 

"Mindset of collaboration is required," said Kumar. This includes  seamless communication and being generous in sharing credit with people who you collaborate with, he said.

Technology to the Rescue

After the pandemic forced organizations to shut down offices and be more virtual, leaders took to technologies like fish to water.

"I didn't know much about video conferencing going into the Covid pandemic in March, and today I go to meetings on Microsoft Teams, Zoom," said Jayaraman. "I could almost call myself an expert in all of this."

Organizations rolled out a series of initiatives for communication and collaboration using online tools, and held 'fun' activities like virtual drink sessions.

"We used Zoom and other related platforms for two things — one is disneyfication, and other is labortainment," said Raj Singh.

Tech also helped intensify the connection with customers and suppliers, something which CEOs said they will maintain even after the pandemic is over.

"We did one webinar a day with different cohorts of partners. That was fantastic," said Kapoor of OYO. "That I don't want to lose."

As technology becomes pervasive, the next challenge for leaders is to make sense of the various digitalization efforts in the organization.

"Digital by itself can be overwhelming," said Jayant Paleti, co-founder of Darwinbox, an HR tech-solutions provider.

"Unless there is a strong transformation map that can stitch together all of this digital influx that we're seeing, it will stop making sense," said Paleti.

Concerns that Remain

While organizations have reported high productivity even in the virtual workplace, leaders remain concerned about how to better engage employees, and keep them connected and motivated.

The physical office provided a great place for informal connections and coffee station chatter, which is important for culture building, said

Kapoor of OYO. "I don't think we've been able to replicate that social milieu in the digital world," he said.

Integrating employees who have been hired virtually, into the company culture is another cause of concern.

Existing employees have a shared context, as they may have worked together in the past. "How do you enable these micro-interactions for the guys that have joined the company newly? That is something that I constantly worry about," said Paleti.

Leaders also noted that in a fully digital workplace it becomes harder to assess if someone going through mental stress.

"In office, five people will notice it, take the person out and say: Hey it looks like there's something wrong with you. Whats happening? Can we chat?," said Kapoor. That's hard to replicate in a digital setup, he said.

Leaders agreed that the office still remains relevant especially for brainstorming and breakthrough of ideas, many of which happen when employees talk by accident.

Innovation "is not something which you can script on a Zoom meeting," said Kumar.


​An organization run by AI is not a futuristic concept. Such technology is already a part of many workplaces and will continue to shape the labor market and HR. Here's how employers and employees can successfully manage generative AI and other AI-powered systems.