Leading the Disbanded

Tips for strengthening team bonds while working in isolation.

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In response to the stay-at-home orders being issued across the country, many companies have been fortunate enough to continue their operations remotely. Although a good option to have, for many of these companies the rapid shift to a work from home model has been dramatic. However, that doesn’t mean it has to be traumatic. In these volatile and uncertain times we are all going to have to make uncomfortable and even unnerving changes in how we approach work. Some of those changes may be counter to our long-held beliefs about how to organize work, communicate with each other and maintain personal boundaries.

Far too often I have observed both new and seasoned mangers alike confuse leadership with dictatorship, particularly when under duress. Successfully transitioning your team to this new way of working will not come from laying down edicts or making tone-def demands to adhere to now antiquated remote work policies. Your team members are all dealing with different home situations, which means your ability to proactively and empathetically engage your teams on how to best adapt in a collaborative way will be critical to the survival of your team and your business.   

Set boundaries, not policies: This is no time for bureaucracy. As a leader you need to get a feel for what your people are dealing with both personally and professionally. From juggling young children now home from school to caring for elderly parents who have been moved out of nursing homes, daily routines have been completely upended. Reach out to each of your team members individually and ask about their specific circumstances. Try to craft boundaries around meetings, call times, and expectations that will allow them to find a manageable blend of their personal obligations and work responsibilities. As I wrote in a previous post, working at home with a 3-year-old does have its challenges, all of which require patience, flexibility, and a little empathy from the boss.

Try a new routine: The physical detachment of working remote (or what feels more like house arrest) can engender a sort of loss of belonging. One way to combat this is by establishing routines that foster team interaction. A commonly used routine in remote work is the daily team check-in, which can be particularly effective if you use video. The day we went remote at N.Y.U., our academic director established a daily half-hour video conference check-in every morning at 9 a.m. Her initial intent was to acclimate us to remote working. As the weeks progressed the meeting really transformed into a critical anchor for keeping us connected, focused, and in-tune with each other. We now work more as a team than we ever have before and connecting on video has given us some fun and insightful glimpses into the lighter side of our home lives. Web cams seem to be magnets for pets and kids in these times of isolation.           

Formalize the informal: A lot of office communication is informal and somewhat happenstance. These chance encounters can be as fleeting as a brief exchange during the morning rush up the elevator or as enduring as that weekly Thursday night happy hour, which I so desperately miss. Keeping these informal, yet powerful moments alive may require a little formality. Some teams have established virtual happy hours and pizza lunches via Zoom. Others have set standing check-in meetings. The idea is to encourage your team members to keep their informal connections active. As a personal example, I reached out to one of my colleagues who I share an office with (or at least I did back in the social era of humanity) to ask if he would like to set-up a regular meeting time. We have never had a formal standing meeting and our interactions were always causal. I often used to bounce ideas off him or get his take on new challenges. To keep this alive we decided to set a regular weekly half-hour Zoom meeting on Fridays just to stay in touch. There is no agenda and no expectations. We may have formalized it on our calendar, but we still keep it informal.

Be the coach they need: Everyone on your team is feeling some level of heightened anxiety. Whether it’s lack of physical contact with the outside world or too much physical contact with their isolation mates, the stress is real and growing. Add to that the uncertainty of keeping their jobs and being able to pay their bills and you have a recipe for serious emotional strain. As a leader you must understand that at times you will find yourself more in the role of coach than manager. Your team members will need someone to lean on, confide in, and empathize with. Be prepared for the fact that their home life challenges have now become more blended with work than ever before. As my three-year-old likes to remind me, “turn on your listening ears.”     

We are in unprecedented times and we are all adjusting to circumstances we never imagined. Social isolation is not natural and it is certainly not good for our mental health. However, it is the reality of our time and it is a reality we must all rapidly adapt to if we are to thrive in what has become the new, and hopefully temporary, normal. You and your team are, and will continue to be, a work in progress. Be patient and keep experimenting with new and innovative ways to maintain and even strengthen your team bonds.   

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