At vChief, we are regularly asked how it is possible to have an effective chief of staff who works remotely from their executive. The question makes sense given the strong ties needed between an executive and her chief of staff, and given how often the chief of staff role involves working alongside a leader and within the environment of the company.
Virtual: When is it Right and When is it Wrong? Honestly, having a virtual chief of staff doesn’t always work. As there are several different “flavors” of chief of staff, certain types do not lend themselves well to virtual work. For instance, if your chief of staff acts as a surrogate, essentially a second version of the leader, or a shadow, the constant companion to the CEO who effectively makes things happen, it is unlikely that a virtual chief of staff will work in that setting. The only instance where this might work is if the entire organization is virtual and all meetings happen on video or conference calls.
Having a virtual chief of staff will also be challenging in situations where the rest of the team is all in one location where the chief of staff cannot be present regularly. The ability to affect team culture from afar, when everyone else is able to build in-person relationships, is truly limited. vChief has worked with some clients in these settings, but more often the chief of staff is tasked with leading a specific project than acting as a true right-hand partner to the CEO.
"...a virtual chief of staff works well when they are in more of an executor role, focused on planning and project management rather than on acting in place of the CEO."
Situations that lend themselves to having successful virtual chiefs of staff are environments where companies have several offices or where multiple team members work remotely. Also, a virtual chief of staff works well when they are in more of an executor role, focused on planning and project management rather than on acting in place of the CEO.
Why Hire a Virtual Chief of Staff vs. On-site? The answer to this lies in finding the right talent for the job. A recruiter may be able to find local talent to fill the role, but the best person might be in a different location and unable to relocate. This happens time and time again with C-level roles, and many companies are adapting to a competitive talent market by allowing people to work remotely. For example, at Teach for America, about 10% of the staff works from home offices, the leadership team is spread throughout regional offices across the country, and many team members, chiefs of staff included, are not in the same physical location as their manager. This model works for Teach for America because the culture has adapted to having people dispersed in this way.
Working Virtually with Others Much of a chief of staff's job is influencing others to achieve outcomes. Because they aren’t typically in a position of directly managing these people, they have to influence them using strong relationships. Strong relationships are hard to build remotely. Ideally, a virtual team member could spend time with the team in person for some period of time at the start of their tenure. Once relationships are established in person, virtual interactions are often easier and more fun. Setting up a regular cadence for meetings and check-ins can help bring structure. Using video calls can help people read visual cues that they wouldn't see over the phone. Platforms like Slack can help people ask quick questions when it isn't possible to just pop over to someone's desk.
Truthfully, in an ideal world, we'd never need to be virtual. But let's face it, in today's busy, global world, even when people technically share the same office, much of the time people are traveling to meetings and conferences, and end up completing the bulk of their work virtually. With the right environment, people, systems, and tools in place, a virtual chief of staff can work incredibly effectively.