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How to Lead a Remote Team in Crisis

It is more important to be real, direct, and human with your team members now than to toe the company line.

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It occurs to me that many managers, team leaders, and administrators have not only been thrust into remote team management for their first time ever in the past few months, but it is starting to occur to everyone that our teams are in crisis.

Indeed, how could they not be? Unemployment claims have skyrocketed. Companies are about to pull back hard on budgets and that means that even employed people are starting to fear for their jobs. Our colleagues in both the medical and remote education fields find themselves with a now-never-ending onslaught of work in a war zone.

More than ever before, leaders are going to be without the body language cues that they used to gauge how well the team is doing. Due to social distancing and mandatory work restriction orders, leaders cannot sail into the office with bagels on Fridays and hope that that will lift the spirits of a struggling team; same no-go for beer-stocked fridges, snacks, or bean bag chairs. Actually, ANYTHING physical is pointless right now.

So how do you lead teams when everyone on the team is experiencing crisis…remotely?

I have a simple, fast model for you. Here goes:

Use your standard all-team meeting time slot.

Changing the time or setting an “urgent” meeting ramps up too much stress. Don’t do it.

Make sure NO ONE ELSE but team members are present. This is not the time to impress the boss by inviting him or her; no visits from other teams either. Don’t worry about a few team members that don’t attend, believe me, what happens will get out to them. This rule of making sure no one but your direct reports are present is inviolate. Do not break it. It is the most important one to follow.

Rehearse your talking points.

Clear the agenda…delete at least 50% of what you “need” to cover. No, you don’t.

Speak first.

Thank your team for attending.

State “I am closing the door behind us” and “This is a private space only for us.” You will be amazed what verbalizing physical actions can do to to positively impact group behavior.

Acknowledge what the current events are; what we know. Be brief.

State: “I thought it would be important to reaffirm what we believe about ourselves and what we believe about ourselves as a team.

If you feel as though your team’s mission ties in to your company’s mission, fine. Say so. “We make masks so that our health care workers are safe.” or “As teachers, we agreed that our first priority was taking care of our students, nothing is more important than them. Quality, volume, and process are secondary now.

If you feel as though your team mission does NOT necessarily align with the current crisis, reaffirm your commitment to each other. TO EACH OTHER.

Give an example of when the team pulled together to help a member of the team: “Remember when Bob needed an extra week off due to the birth of little Joey? All of us gave an extra 4 hours that week and with that, Bob was able to focus on Joey and not worry about the big project due. We are that same team. We will be here for each other now and through this.

Take a short breath and let other members reaffirm that they can contribute X, Y, or Z to the team. ANY contribution is a good contribution. Cut naysayers off at the pass: this is not their day. “John, I’ll talk with you about where to get more resources right after this meeting.

After the meeting

You cannot control what is going to happen. Team members may get sick. Family members may die. Don’t verbally avoid that possibility. You can talk gently in 1:1s about what members would need if that happened. (“Sarah’s mother is very sick. If Sarah needs to be not at work for awhile, can you run her projects?” or “I understand your Mom is sick. If you need to be out, don’t worry. We can cover everything here.“) It is more important to be real, direct, and human with your team members now than to toe the company line.

When needed, revisit the team meeting vibe with individual members saying, “When we met as a team, we discussed our commitment to X. We agreed that we would help each other. Also, we acknowledged that not everyone will feel up to the job on every day. When that happens, we agreed to use the ghost emoji in Slack and that would signal that we could use some help. Can I post the emoji and then send over the first helper?

Three analogies come to mind about this leadership technique and they all work:

  • This is the digital version of Circling the Wagons.
  • Individual soldiers that reject a war or a battle will fight for their fellow soldier.
  • ‘Lashing to the mast’ signals that we will persevere through this together.

Stay safe leaders. This too, shall pass.

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