Collaborative leadership: an inclusive way to manage virtual teams

Learn how taking a collaborative leadership approach may increase the output and engagement of distributed teams.

Author: Alex Samur17th March 2022Illustration by Abbey Lossing

Before March 2020, work may have meant joining your colleagues in a building from 9 to 5, a dedicated space for each functional group and the execs on the top floor. Collaboration meant a whiteboard and conversation dominated by the most assertive voices. Making a decision meant calling a meeting with the leadership team.

In a post-pandemic world, hybrid work has become the norm. Globally, 58% of knowledge workers are working in hybrid arrangements. And while there are many benefits of remote collaboration, leading remote or hybrid teams while maintaining teamwork, communication and productivity is no easy feat. 

In fact, employee perception of leadership transparency has been weakened. In fact, 81% of executives say their company’s leadership is transparent about sharing new developments that affect the company, while only 58% of employees agree. And even before the pandemic irrevocably changed how and where we work, a third of millennials already expected the CEO role to lose relevance in the next decade, signalling that a majority of the millennial generation is not comfortable with top-down leadership roles.

And as workforces become increasingly distributed, more companies are ditching hierarchical leadership models – which have rewarded presenteeism and tenure over agility and flexibility or command-and-control leadership over collaboration – in favour of collaborative models with greater transparency.

What is collaborative team leadership?

Collaborative team leadership is a management practice that aims to bring managers, executives and staff out of silos to work together. In collaborative workplaces, information is shared organically and everyone takes responsibility for the whole. It sits in contrast to traditional top-down organisational models where a small group of executives control the flow of information.

Collaborative leaders, according to Harvard Business Review, regularly seek out a diversity of opinions and ideas among teammates to build strategies and solve problems. As a result, employees are more engaged, feel trusted and are more likely to take ownership of their work.

Through collaborative leadership, managers and executives can create an inclusive environment that energises teams, releases creativity, and cultivates a work culture that is both productive and joyful. 

How to implement collaboration in virtual settings 

While making the decision to move beyond the command-and-control approach is an important first step, it takes effort and planning to change established ways of working, especially for those managing remote teams who may be in different time zones. Here are some strategies that have worked for organisations as they transition to more hybrid workplaces. 

1. Create clarity and purpose  

Managers should see their function to create clarity for their employees. Here are some tactics to create clarity and purpose: 

  • Show each team member how their contribution ladders up to organisational goals. 
  • Establish team norms and agreements to regulate how the team works together. For example, here at Slack, we created a roadmap for the future of work so our Digital HQ runs smoothly.
  • Provide a clear overview around roles and reporting. 
  • For those in different time zones, create clarity around working hours and meeting times. 

Source: Future Forum 

2.   Keep communication lines open

Remote work has created new management and leadership challenges, especially around transparency and the exchange of ideas. As teams adopt communication platforms to connect across time and place, it’s more important than ever to set the right tone in those spaces and foster open, inclusive and supportive workplace communication. Open communication can cultivate transparency and help all members of a team feel like they contribute important knowledge and skills to a project. 

For larger teams spread across multiple time zones, it may feel harder to connect with everyone. Square solves this through public Slack channels. For example, there’s a dedicated channel called  #jackama, where CEO Jack Dorsey answers his team’s questions, ranging from the future of Square to global operations. Meanwhile, software company Autodesk has a #help channel containing answers to questions that people in a variety of roles often need to reference.   

3.  Build partnership skills

Despite good intentions, the reason efforts to foster teamwork often fail is due, in part, to a lack of partnership skills, says Gervase Bushe, a professor of leadership and organisational development at Simon Fraser University.

While it might sound touchy-feely, a key part of developing partnership skills within teams involves acknowledging that everybody’s experience will be different. However, all experiences are still valid. If the boss wants to be in partnership with employees, she can’t use her power to make an employee’s experience undiscussable, wrong or uncomfortable to bring up. Otherwise, that partnership goes out the window.


4.   Don’t waste time

“Part of the challenge with collaboration is that it’s messy, it’s complex and therefore can be very time-consuming,” says Michael Lee, co-instructor of a collaborative leadership program at Harvard. But you don’t need to overhaul your whole organisational structure to adopt even a few collaborative leadership techniques, Lee says.

Both managers and employees will be less likely to embrace collaboration in the workplace if they feel it adds additional tasks—and time—to their busy schedules. Instead, Lee advises looking at the big picture and considering how they can automate workflows and processes so the team can focus on collaborative tasks. 

It could be as simple as reducing time spent switching context or labouring over redundant processes. For example, mobile and internet provider Belong have tied all their processes into Slack, which has freed their engineers of tedious admin so they can dedicate their time to adding value. 


5.   Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability

Showing vulnerability is not always easy, but it’s essential for building trust and strengthening teamwork. Research has found that when managers are open and vulnerable, their teams are more willing to go above and beyond. There are a number of ways you can be more open with your colleagues, including:

  • Share more information about yourself and what you’re feeling (including world events). Encourage the same of your employees. 
  • Show genuine interest in team members beyond what they do at work. 
  • Demonstrate that you’re comfortable talking about emotions and interpersonal challenges. 
  • Recognise employees’ emotions and acknowledge your own.   

Source: Catalyst Survey 

True collaboration must involve a managerial willingness to set aside ego, and listen to and incorporate others’ ideas and accept that your idea may not always be the best one. Managers can do this by encouraging team members, regardless of title or seniority, to share their perspectives, help identify problems and develop solutions. 


Pave the way for forward-thinking businesses with collaborative leadership

Ultimately, in a digital-first world, there’s a need for businesses to break down hierarchies in favour of a more collaborative approach, especially at the C-suite level. As workplaces continue to evolve beyond a physical office toward a Digital HQ, companies need to switch their focus to leadership practices that are less directive, inspiring people to engage in new and different ways, both in how  they work and interact with each other.

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