Helaba, a commercial bank and organization which operates across multiple and increasingly interlinked locations, recognized the fact that effective Virtual Leadership is a significant success factor. With this in mind the following two fundamental questions are particularly significant: With which specific methods and techniques do managers need to be equipped to work effectively in the virtual world? Which specific communication skills do they need in order to build trust-based relationships with employees?

Mindful of the objective to support the managers, not only on a technical but also on organizational and cultural level, Black Gazelle Consulting implemented the ‘Virtual Leadership’ training project at Helaba in 2015. Karsten Bich, Head of Human Resources, explains: “We would like to increase the managers’ awareness of what it means for employees when they feel isolated and to equip them with methods and techniques to foster successful virtual teamwork and collaboration.”

In this training project, Helaba managers acquired the basic rules of engagement involved in virtual collaboration: How to participate actively in virtual meetings, how to ensure active participation by others, how to deal with time, technology or with online protocol, how to prepare for virtual meetings and how to schedule these meetings.

The relationship-related aspects played a critical role: how to build relationships over the telephone, how to convey appreciation and esteem and how to foster attentive listening. One team leader remarked “The work we did pertaining to the tone and the effect of the voice was particularly insightful. It was quite remarkable to realize that if you are aware of how to use your voice to maximum effect, you do not need much by way of media. Praise, joy, criticism and sincerity can most certainly be conveyed with the same effect as in a personal face-to-face meeting.”

The training was based on a combination of knowledge transfer and practical application. The participants found this to be very innovative and critical for successful outcomes. The concept to conduct Virtual Leadership workshops in the form of a virtual seminar, whilst simultaneously using the applicable technology media, was also praised highly. From the outset every participant sat at their own workplace with their own headset and participated in the workshop in a common virtual space, in which they could then immediately put the theory into practice. This allowed each participant to experience first-hand how and why a virtual meeting is effective, especially with regard to the interpersonal dynamics which play out in such discussions. A manager in Düsseldorf explained: “Previously we often experienced that it would become very quiet in the meeting room of a particular location or that participants in another meeting room are whispering amongst themselves. This can now be avoided altogether in that everyone participates from their own desk. Thus all find themselves in the same position and are treated equally.”

Over 140 managers were trained over a nine month-period by the Black Gazelle team and by Ghislaine Caulat personally. This triggered a number of process changes. Subsequent to the training, participants were much more appreciative of the technical instruments and technology “which was available in the bank all along, of which we were unaware or did not utilise”. The managers who underwent training were highly complementary about the systematic use of virtual simultaneous minutes, and as one Head of Department stated: “This allows all participants to see and work on all documents from their desk, which in turn enables them to actively participate in the meetings whilst also providing them with the opportunity to have their input reflected correctly.”

The training participants also valued the significant progress made with regard to the efficiency and effectiveness of teleconferences. In this regard one of the participants related the following: “I believe it is very important that teleconferences take place on a regular basis - even with a designated representative in the event that I am not available. As a result these do not take that long. Previously teleconferences often did not take place, thereafter we then had to cover a much longer period of time. Now we optimize the work time.

The management training has created the awareness that relationships in the virtual space are just as profound and powerful as face-to-face relationships. An example is the so-called virtual 'popcorn-time', which provides employees with the opportunity to informally meet in the virtual space to talk informally and to discuss matters of a personal nature - just as they would at a coffee vending machine or at the office canteen. This provides several advantages, such as increased team integration and an improved trust relationship between employees and management. Simultaneously a smooth and effective line of communication is facilitated, which is highly effective in supporting the employees and to increase the quality of work processes.

The use of virtual meetings through tele- and webconferences has thus become much more familiar and trusted. One Head of Department in Düsseldorf commented that: “Everything is much easier and more transparent; all comments are being taken into account and it is enjoyable”.  Helaba’s management have learnt how to create a sense of proximity and closeness in their remote and dispersed teams, which resulted in mutual understanding and increased collaboration. The net effect is that: “The spirit of belonging and the feeling of togetherness have increased whilst the distance has decreased.“