Embrace, Support and Prepare: How to Lead Virtual Teams Through a Crisis

April 2020

Businesses have rapidly deployed technology solutions, such as collaboration tools and cloud computing, that enable their employees to work remotely and continue business operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, business leaders must be mindful of their employees’ larger needs as they face myriad challenges due to this crisis. Taking extra steps to support team members and strengthen communication during these sudden changes can have a significant impact on the success of virtual teams and the business alike.

Many organizations already had a remote work policy in place that listed specifications and best practices. But suddenly shifting so many employees to remote work amid a global public health emergency requires businesses to take additional measures that aid both their virtual teams and managers. Not only do supervisors need to establish processes for efficient workflow and consistent communication, they must ensure that remote workers feel safe, supported and valued as part of the organization’s shared mission.

While businesses scramble to protect supply chains, safeguard data and maintain resilience, they must support their people above all. Here are the considerations that should be on every business leader’s checklist to help manage a remote workforce through these challenging times.
 

Acknowledge and Support Employees’ Needs

When faced with a crisis, business leadership must ensure that employees are safe and secure as they adjust to their new conditions, in addition to maintaining a sense of teamwork and reinforcing that their efforts are appreciated. Providing this sense of support remotely can be challenging and entails more than just communicating the crisis plan, but it is necessary to help employees be engaged and productive.

As a well-known point of reference, Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs serves as a model to explain what motivates human behavior. Those are, in order of importance:  
  • physiological needs for health and survival (i.e., water, food, shelter, et al.)
  • safety and security
  • a sense of belonging
  • social needs and esteem
  • self-actualization

The health and safety of all employees is paramount. Human resources should ask staff to notify them about any health issues related to the novel coronavirus in their household. Providing information about available healthcare resources, including those related to stress and anxiety, can also help. Many people face ongoing concerns about their own welfare, as well as that of their families and loved ones. Remote workers may also face additional challenges at home, whether from a lack of childcare due to the closure of schools and daycares, or in looking after older family members who may be at greater risk of illness.

After confirming that those baseline needs for health and safety are satisfied, business leadership can foster a sense of community for staff—albeit remotely—and take steps to make them feel appreciated and valued. Supervisors should check in with employees consistently and be supportive, bearing in mind to do so with patience, understanding and empathy. In these challenging times, extra encouragement can help employees feel reassured that their efforts help the organization.
 

Be Transparent and Present with Staff

For those supervising virtual teams, it’s more important than ever to reinforce best practices for remote working and provide the necessary support to staff members. Employees should be reminded that, in general, all standard workplace policies and expectations remain in place. But more so than ever, adaptability and consistent communication are crucial to the success of a virtual team. Supervisors need to provide individual support while also demonstrating strategic change leadership for their team.
 
Provide Individual Support
Supervisors must lead their virtual team by example, because their actions set the standard. Those in management positions with direct reports should adopt the following practices:
  • Be Available: Make sure you are available to colleagues and those you supervise. You will be expected to work normal business hours, but if you will be away from your computer, make sure your team knows how to reach you.
  • Over-communicate: In the absence of face-to-face interaction, remember to keep the lines of communication open. Check in regularly, communicate frequently and aim to over-communicate rather than under-communicate. 
  • Maintain Connections: Choose to have calls and videoconferences rather than sending emails. This helps maintain a connection and avoid miscommunication due to a lack of non-verbal cues. Additionally, many topics are more effectively dealt with verbally than over email or chat.
  • Offer 1:1 Check-ins: Schedule regular 1:1 check-ins with supervisees to connect on goals and projects. This establishes dedicated time to answer any questions or address any challenges that individual team members may be experiencing.
 
Manage the Changes Strategically
Multi-tasking, distractions and working longer hours are common pitfalls for remote workers. Managers can help team members adapt to the changes and provide the structure needed to get work done, while also creating the space for work/life balance. 
  • Set a Schedule: Employees should set consistent routines and establish boundaries. They should communicate any flex needs ahead of time, when possible, so the team is aware if their colleagues will be unavailable.
  • Create a Dedicated Workspace: Encourage employees to set up a space that is specifically for work and nothing else. This helps limit distractions and improve productivity.
  • Send Agendas for Meetings: In remote meetings, it can be easy for team members to make assumptions or gloss over essential points. Having a clear agenda for each meeting, followed by documented and shared next steps, helps avoid miscommunication.
  • Be Visual: Using video is a powerful way to remain present and connected with your employees. You can also record video updates about the company on a regular basis. Technology like Microsoft Teams helps make this simple and convenient. (Note: Microsoft is offering a free license for Teams through January 2021 in response to the COVID-19 crisis.)
  • Avoid Multi-tasking: Request that employees avoid multi-tasking during conference calls and virtual meetings. Video conferences can help ensure that employees remain fully present and engaged.
  • Trust Your Employees: Managers should put trust in their employees and avoid the urge to micromanage small details during remote work. Otherwise, this can lead to resentment from employees.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Your employees need to hear from you. Set a predictable schedule for when you communicate updates, progress and public praise. There are numerous benefits of positive reinforcement, and this is even more important when the team is working remotely. Ensure that employees feel acknowledged and appreciated by celebrating their milestones and accomplishments.
When it comes to leading your team through crisis and change, communication and trust are key. As the organization develops its short-term business continuity strategy and prepares for the long-term implications of the crisis, remember to help lead your team through these changes.
 

Develop a Contingency Plan

As many businesses have rapidly pivoted to a remote work model out of necessity, they are still adjusting to this situation. Business leaders must also plan for the future. Facing widespread uncertainty, it’s important to prepare for multiple scenarios and consider what the business will do in the medium term and long term. For example, stay-at-home orders could remain in place for several weeks or several months, or they could be lifted in certain cities and regions but not in others, or they could even be lifted and then reintroduced subsequently.

Contingency plans will need to be flexible to adapt to varying circumstances but developing a plan now can help the organization determine necessary steps to react to various situations. In the event that teams must continue working remotely for an extended period, businesses face several crucial questions, including:
  • Has the business leveraged all technology solutions necessary to keep operations running, or are there gaps? And have these technology solutions introduced any cybersecurity issues?
  • How can you better train frontline supervisors to manage in a virtual environment?
  • How can the business maintain or reinvent its culture during firm-wide remote work?
  • In the absence of in-person interactions between co-workers, what can business leaders do to foster collaboration and innovation across teams, departments and functions?
  • How will you maintain your current workforce? Does the organization have the liquidity necessary to maintain payroll, and are there options available under the CARES Act stimulus?
  • How can you determine if there is enough work for the current workforce? Does it make sense to furlough or bring in contingent labor?

Eventually, staff will return to the workplace, so businesses must examine the necessary considerations in advance to determine what this could look like and how to resume standard operations. The temporary shift to firm-wide remote work will also produce a wealth of data about workflow and potential efficiencies, which organizations could use to guide decisions about future processes and needs. For now, the response to the current crisis serves as the ultimate stress test and adapting quickly to changes demonstrates the resilience of a business and its employees alike.

Embrace change and embrace your employees while preparing for all scenarios. Businesses that do this will have a much clearer path ahead.
 


CONTACT:

 
Greg Gratteau
Managing Director
 
Ric Opal
Principal and National GTM and Strategic Partnerships Leader, BDO Digital