Originally published on LinkedIn
Last week you were managing a traditional team, the kind where everyone works together in the same building. Today you’re managing a virtual team. This is no time for feel-good bullshit, so here’s the hard truth: this is going to be very, very tough. The more you recognize that, the harder you’ll work to prepare for what’s ahead.
Even under ideal circumstances, leading a virtual team is more complex than leading a traditional team (Berry, 2011). Under these circumstances—where some employees are being asked to work from home for the first time in their lives (Rein, 2020) in the midst of a global pandemic—you should be prepared for that complexity to be cranked up to 11.
Most of the telecommuting best practices articles you’ll find online aren’t going to help you much because they’re written for managers who have the luxury of carefully planning their virtual team implementation. You don’t have that luxury. Here are some tips for your new reality.
If You’re Still in the Office
If you haven’t been sent home yet, there are a few things you can do now to make your life easier later:
- If your work PC needs software updates, get them done now while you have access to the company network and I.T. resources. (The last thing you need is to be forced into an update next week while you’re in the middle of a team meeting.)
- Take your laptop, VPN tokens, etc. home every night and ask your employees to do the same. If and when the order comes in to begin telecommuting, this will save everyone a final trip into the office to pick up their stuff.
- If you have vital information written down in notebooks, sticky notes, etc. take those home, too. If that’s not practical, take pictures of the most crucial pages with your phone.
- Make a hard copy cheat sheet of contact information for important people and services (i.e., your boss, all your employees, key customers, etc.) so you’ll be able to reach them even if you can’t get your email program working. Use your phone to take a picture of the cheat sheet as a backup in case you lose the paper copy. Make sure your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) contact info is on that sheet.
- Test your equipment at home. Make sure your work PC can connect to your home network and that you can access your email, VPN, shared drives, etc. Ask your employees to do the same. If there are going to be problems, it’s better to work them out now.
- Not comfortable with Skype, Teams, Zoom, WebEX, or whatever your company uses for web conferencing? Tough. It’s time to get comfortable. This technology is going to be crucial to holding your team together in the coming weeks (Saatçi et al, 2019), so it’s now your job to get skilled at using it. Search YouTube for the name of your webconferencing software + “tutorial” to get started. If your company blocks YouTube, look up the videos on your phone. Do a test run with a few employees if you have time.
Now That You’re Working From Home
Here are three principles to keep in mind: be cool, be caring, and be connected.
It’s not just viruses that are contagious. So are emotions. Emotional contagion isn’t psychobabble. It’s very real and very powerful (Gump & Kulik, 1997). It can and does have an impact on your team’s behavior and performance (Barsade, 2002). As a leader, you’re probably the most contagious member of your team (Johnson, 2008). Your employees pick up on your mood and it impacts their performance (Visser et al., 2013). This effect is probably magnified during this crisis. After all, we typically look to our leaders when things go sideways. When a leader freaks out, followers are more likely to freak out, too. When a leader stays calm, followers are more likely to stay calm.
One of the best things you can do for your employees is to be cool. If you stay calm and collected, you can help your employees remain calm and collected, too.
Here are some tips for that:
- We’re less able to regulate our emotions when we don’t get enough sleep (Gruber & Cassoff, 2014), so get some shut eye.
- If you’re religious or spiritual, pray. Personal prayer provides a buffer against depletion of your emotional resources (Friese & Wänke, 2014). Mindfulness meditation also works (Hülsheger et al., 2013).
- Slow breathing, with longer exhalations than inhalations, activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which can relieve stress (Pal & Velkumary, 2004). It’s not called “getting some breathing room” for nothing.
- Our feelings influence our behaviors, but it also works the other way around. If you’re not feeling calm, act calm. Your brain “observes” your behavior and draws the conclusion that you must be calm. I know this sounds like woo, but it’s a well-researched phenomenon (Bem, 1972).
When we’re stressed out, it helps to have someone to talk to. Here are a few examples of what your employees might be dealing with in addition to normal work stress:
- The local schools and daycares are closed, so Ayra is trying to take care of her three kids while trying to get her work done. Oh, and she’s down to one roll of toilet paper.
- Bill and his wife Sara are both working from home for the first time. Their “home office” is a cleared off space on their dining room table. When they’re both online at the same time, their internet connection is overloaded and slows down to a crawl.
- Walter is a news junkie who gets anxious about world events on a good day. Being home with a cable news station constantly on in the background during a global pandemic hasn’t made things better, to say the least.
- Tyrell is having a hard time thinking about anything other than his mom, who is in her 80s and has heart disease and COPD. Every five minutes, he has to fight the overwhelming urge to jump in his car and drive the three states to her house.
You’re not a psychotherapist and you shouldn’t play one at work. You can, however, be an empathetic listener. For some of your employees, you might be the only person around they feel comfortable talking to right now.
- If you notice that one of your employees seems unusually distracted, stressed out, or upset, ask them if they’d like to talk. If they don’t want to, don’t push them, as that could make things worse (Gray et al., 2019).
- Give your employee your full attention. Don’t try to multi-task and don’t compose responses in your head. Listen carefully and allow them to finish what they have to say without interruption.
- Paraphrase what you just heard your employee say in your own words. This demonstrates that you’ve been listening and invites them to clarify or expand on what they’ve shared (Miller, 2019).
- Ask how you can help. Does the employee just want to be heard, or do they want advice or coaching?
If your employee is dealing with problems that you can’t help with, refer them to your company’s employee assistance program (EAP). (You do you have that contact info handy, right?) If your company doesn’t have an EAP, recommend they seek mental health help through other resources, such as their insurance company or a referral by their primary care physician. If the situation is urgent, refer them to a crisis hotline or, in case of emergency, to 911.
You have more influence than you think. Research shows that employees whose managers talk to them about seeking help for mental health problems are more likely to get the help they need (Dimoff & Kelloway, 2019).
When everyone worked together in the same physical space, a bunch of important social things just happened spontaneously. People bumped into each other on the way to the coffee machine and chatted about a project. They talked about their weekend while waiting for a meeting to start. Whether you realized it or not, this is how most communication happened in your office. It just happened.
Now all that stuff is not just happening. You’ve got to make it happen. In a virtual team, you’ve got to be a lot more intentional about communication than you were in the office (Seshadri & Elangovan, 2019).
If you already hold weekly meetings with your team, keep having them. If you don’t hold weekly team meetings, start having them. Holding regular meetings is absolutely essential. And, as a leader, it’s up to you to make sure those meetings happen and that they’re effective. In addition to a weekly meeting, consider holding a short daily AM check-in just to keep people connected.
Here are a few more tips:
- If you’re already meeting regularly, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Just continue to hold your meetings, except using web-conferencing instead of face-to-face. As much as possible, maintain the same agenda you use in face-to-face meetings to encourage a sense of “business as usual.”
- Log in to your web-conferencing software or teleconference call at least five minutes before the scheduled meeting. This will give you time to deal with any technical issues before everyone else arrives.
- In a face-to-face meeting, people naturally make small talk at the beginning of the meeting. We rarely acknowledge how important these moments of connection are for building team rapport, but they really are. Build some time into your agenda at the beginning of the meeting. Ask how everyone is doing. Encourage “water cooler” talk.
- If your team is new to virtual meetings, spend some time creating ground rules (Berente & Howison, 2019). For example, you might want to agree that multi-tasking is not allowed or that participants will use their webcams to create a stronger sense of connection.
Remember that these aren’t ideal circumstances, so don’t hold people to unrealistic standards of professionalism during your calls. You’re going to hear kids and pets in the background. If you’re videoconferencing, people aren’t necessarily going to be wearing work clothes. Don’t make a big deal out of this. If you do, your employees are going to withdraw further to avoid embarrassment.
Aside from regularly-scheduled meetings, make it a point to contact each of your employees every day. You can use the phone, Skype, email, text—whatever form of communication you’re both comfortable with. Use this opportunity to share a kind word, a thank you, or even a joke. Staying in touch every day will also help relieve the sense of isolation that some of your employees may be feeling.
I’ll make this quick because I know you have work to do.
- This is going to be hard. Prepare hard.
- If you’re still in the office, take time to prepare now and encourage your employees to do the same.
- Your emotions are contagious, so be cool.
- Your employees are dealing with some hard stuff. Be caring by being a good listener.
- You’ve got to stay in touch through meetings and one-on-ones. Be connected.
Be cool. Be caring. Be connected.
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