Dispersed Teams and Distressed Times How to manage your team with compassion during a crisis

When we work from home, our idiosyncrasies are often laid bare. There is nowhere to hide from that nagging voice telling us we should be doing something else – research, networking, long-term projects– anything other than doing the dishes or barking into the wilderness on Twitter. If you’re the type of leader who likes to be described as “conscientious”, “productive” and “efficient”, managing a team from home during the coronavirus pandemic could test both your self-image and your reputation.

It’s normal for people to feel overwhelmed by change, regardless of how carefully it’s planned. This is the underlying reason why 70 percent of organizational change initiatives fail.

As therapist and writer Lori Gottlieb wisely points out, change and loss travel together.

You have options to help your team adjust to the loss of business as usual. Many are common sense – be clear and consistent regarding expectations, streamline communication, but give employees options and choices to engage in their work, etc.. Some options, however, will require a new approach.

1. Avoid role-based assumptions – student, client, millennial, boomer. etc. Not every millennial prefers text communication or lives at home and not every boomer is opposed to new technology or financially secure.

Here’s an example: A former colleague of mine is an instructional designer at a college that offers trade programs. Most faculty were entirely unfamiliar with online learning platforms when in-person classes were cancelled in March. Within a week, the automotive services technician instructors moved course material online, created and uploaded video tutorials and organized exam criteria. A group that had resisted change embraced it. And they actually enjoyed it.

2. Think small. George Loewenstein, a behavioural economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University advises “people need to be given productive activities while they wait out uncertainty“. Otherwise, fear sets in, followed by paralysis. What daily operational needs need to be taken care of? How can your team take care of those needs and still feel like they’re being productive?

Even a small task is better than none at all, and your team will be able to maintain a sense of contribution.

3. Focus on facts. When speaking with an overwhelmed colleague, ask blanket questions that draw out facts. “What do you need?” is often the best way to start. As people formulate answers, you’ll get a sense of their priorities, expectations and perceived reality. And they will too. Facts focus on reality, taking our attention away from catastrophic and dramatic thinking.

Attention Filter

From all the facts in the world, our attention focuses on those that are the most dramatic.

4. Listen. We are dealing with a mass casualty incident. People are grieving. If you have the fortitude, try to see people as they are, feel as they feel. Active listening could help. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it entails hearing what the other person is saying and reflecting it back to them. That’s it. You might think it sounds phony, but it’s one of the best communications tools available, used in everything from hostage negotiations to psychotherapy.

5. Document as much as you can. Log daily communiqués. Write down your observations about team dynamics. Track the work that is completed in a central location. Note how it is being produced and how your priorities shift. There’s a good chance this won’t be the last pandemic we’ll face. Use the data to understand how your firm functions in a crisis, and what it reveals about your future capacity.

6. Follow through and follow up. Many of our vulnerabilities are being tested and brought to the surface. Your team needs to know that it’s acceptable to express that vulnerability and trust that they won’t be taken advantage of. It will take time to digest all of this uncertainty; keeping your word, referring back to something your colleague has said or checking in are small ways to show you care.

Almost everyone is managing unanticipated adjustments to their home lives, their job security and their financial well being, not to mention their health. Most will fit somewhere on the continuum between well-adjusted and equipped and falling apart at any given time in the next few months.

Espoused organizational values will be under a microscope for the next few months. Will your behaviour match your words? Your job as a leader is to make sense of what’s happening and to make good decisions that keep your firm healthy – financially, culturally and physically.