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Tips for Leaders of Remote Teams in Times of Crisis

Our organizations are at a crossroads. One fork in the road returns us to the “old way of doing things” or as so many people have voiced “getting back to normal.” The other fork in the road allows us to leverage all that we have learned about our people, our processes, and our organizations.

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While the second fork may seem scary since it is uncharted, it’s the fork that will be chosen by organizations that thrive in the future. Those that choose to go back to their so-called “normal” are not learning, adapting and pivoting. They are falling behind and may not survive long term.

So, the question becomes how do we leverage what we are observing now to better support our remote workforce in the midst of this crisis? 

Times of crisis reveal the weaknesses of our people (that we probably already knew were there) and provide opportunities for new leaders and influencers to step up. There are those who floundered in their roles before the pandemic. The crisis has accentuated those weaknesses. Those who failed to engage in professional development and stopped learning are hindrances to the nimble strategies essential to moving forward. A spotlight is shone on those who have poor managerial skills as the ability to manage people takes on new and heightened importance.

People who are not good managing in the face-to-face environment are likely to be even less effective in the remote environment. They may have been able to camouflage or mitigate weaknesses to some extent, but it’s almost impossible to hide in the remote environment.

Employees of laissez-faire leaders suffer the most in the remote environment in times of crisis, because they’re left without direction and support.

Times of crisis provide exceptional opportunities, but the room for error is significantly smaller. This goes beyond an organization’s strategy to include its people. The new rules of engagement are not really new, but the basics have become even more important than ever.

In leveraging our observations, we offer these tips.

Be Consistently Visible
While there has always been a need for management to be visible, these times of crisis require even more visibility — and on a more regular basis. As the workforce is experiencing anxiety and uncertainty, leaders must be fully present and calm. Above all, this visibility must be authentic. Leaders must realize that everyone is watching. The workforce has a heightened awareness of inauthentic leaders now more than ever.

It’s easy for an overwhelmed workforce to assume if management is out of sight, there is no support. And with the physical isolation from the daily social interaction of peers, the workforce may experience reduced engagement and productivity.

Just as many are literally taking the temperature of employees arriving for work, leaders must also take the engagement and well-being temperature of the workforce in general.  This can’t be done without being highly visible. It’s essential to regularly check in with everyone, not just the favored few.

Listen Intentionally
A Harvard Business Review survey found that nearly half of the remote employees surveyed indicated the best managers engaged in both frequent and regular communication. This didn’t mean micromanaging – it meant listening and treating employees with dignity and respect. This includes asking about personal and professional well-being. 

It’s a grave error for leaders to assume silence means everything’s OK. It’s important to ask people how they are and what they need. And then leaders must carefully listen.

People are bombarded with updates on the news and social media and this may add to the anxiety and fear for some. If leaders are not talking and connecting with people, they have no idea what those fears are and how to address them. But asking without caring about the answer is worse than failing to ask at all. Leaders must ask because they want to know and then act on it. This requires connecting with people on an emotional level.

Prioritize Communication
It should not come as a surprise that communication is key during times of crisis.

If leaders are not communicating, rumors thrive, and the rumors tend to be more negative than the truth. This negativity is natural. Effective leaders, however, need to counteract this with calm, realistic, positive messages — not false promises.

Platitudes and pat phrases such as “everything will be OK” or “we’ll get through this” are meaningless. Employees need to know how they will get through this and what is required of them. While a positive outlook is necessary, it must come with specific actions.

Authentic leaders are deliberate and thoughtful in their communication. They lead by example and offer specifics about how that future state will be created. They demonstrate (and acknowledge) firsthand the reality of situations. When anxiety levels are already high, communication must be confident and honest.

Furthermore, they offer expectations for communication — that is, when, how often and how people can expect to hear from them. It’s critical for leaders to engage in regular communication so employees know when to anticipate a check-in. This provides some measure of comfort and avoids leaving people feeling they are adrift without a lifeline.  In times of crisis, it’s better to over communicate — a minimum of weekly check-ins are necessary.

While regular group check-ins are often necessary to coordinate work, one-on-ones should be included in the rotation. It’s also important to consider the impact of the method of communication. Engagement levels can be increased with individual communication, so the personal feel of video is recommended when available.

Build Relationships
With the lack of water cooler talk and hallway downloads, leaders must practice intentional small talk. Have a plan to have a virtual coffee clutch with an employee. Or, reach out to folks one day a week with a nonbusiness agenda. How are you?  Is everyone safe? Checking in on the whole person and learning about them engenders trust — we trust people we know and have shared experiences with. 

Without relational intimacy, a leader's words and actions are not always nor easily trusted. We tend to trust the middle and forgive those that we know better or well. We get a hall pass. This can be critical in a business environment where the difference between success and failure is such a fine line.

Deploy Complete Transparency
Every corporate culture handles errors and failure a little differently. In a remote world where information and opinions are formed from weekly flash reports, your friend at the office and from your one-on-one meetings, now is the time to embrace failure. This is a time of imperfection and an opportunity to be transparent about lessons learned around work that did not go as planned. 

This can only happen with open and honest communication. This further requires an environment of psychological safety. That is, leaders must be vulnerable and admit mistakes. Humans need to see and feel honesty to feel their leaders can be trusted.  Modeling openness about failure and mistakes allow others to do likewise. 

Being a part of the fix is a key means of being a part of the future. Be certain to talk about what is not working on morning huddle or your next town hall.

Establish Clear Goals
When managing newly remote workers in times of crisis, it’s important to establish clear goals. These might include determining hours when employees are expected to be working, how they can be reached and how their work will be evaluated. These are important for both those in need of a little prodding and those overworking.

There are often blurred lines between work and family when moving unexpectedly into the remote environment, so establishing goals are critical. These expectations also assist in holding employees accountable. Even in times of crisis, leaders must focus on productivity. There is a greater likelihood of achieving high productivity levels if specific goals are established so employees know what is expected of them.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Everyone’s situation is slightly different, so achieving balance when working remotely may look different for each employee. Expectations should address this uniqueness.

Patience and understanding are critical in managing remote teams during a crisis. Taking a moment to express appreciation goes a long way in boosting engagement and ultimately productivity.

While it’s easy to remember to share the negatives, sharing the positives gains importance. 

About the Author

Pat Buhler is a professor at Goldey-Beacom College and Chris Burkhard is the president of Placers.


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