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Five Tips for Leading a Virtual Team During a Time of Crisis

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For many businesses, their normal day-to-day reality has been based in a traditional office setting. So, with the move to social distancing, it’s hard for many workers to quickly adapt to a new way of remote working. This includes managers and leaders who face the challenge of not only making sure core business objectives are met in times of increased uncertainty, but also ensuring their teams stay cohesive and engaged during a stressful time.   

As the HR leader of a large group of employees across EMEA, I’ve worked with virtual teams for many years. I wanted to share what I have learned for people who find themselves leading teams that suddenly became virtual during these challenging times:  

1.      Define the new rules of engagement

Working virtually may not be new to all companies – certainly at Microsoft, it has been a part of our culture for years. However, the challenges we all face during this pandemic present a lot of uncharted territory for everyone. For example, many people are now juggling working from home with childcare, as an increasing number of schools have shut. With social distancing measures, team members – particularly those living alone – may feel cut off from the world and lonely.

  • Talk with your team members, and check in with them to see how they are doing. Don’t assume you understand their new reality. Ask questions and listen.
  • Be accommodating when you can in terms of how they perform their role, and encourage everyone to prioritize ruthlessly – focusing on the activities that bring the most value back to the business in these times. And, regardless, always convey empathy.
  • Encourage transparency and open communication among your team. This is an area where managers can really lead from the front. If your work day has to adapt for childcare needs, and you have to deviate from a normal 9-5 type schedule, let your team know your adjusted hours. Be clear that you don’t expect immediate responses if you’re sending email very early in the day or late in the evening.  

2.      Keep the human connection

For any team to be effective, there has to be trust and genuine human connection. For teams now working remotely, this is even more important.

One big – but simple – thing leaders can do is to encourage the use of video for calls, whether it’s one-on-one or a group call. Again, lead from the front. You don’t even need to ask people to turn their videos on. People will follow suit. This is something I want to be better at myself because with video, you can make eye contact and see people’s expressions, which will not only help you communicate better, it will make you feel more connected as a team. The ability to see people will help you better gauge what’s not being said. As an additional benefit, it will ensure people are actively listing and taking part.

For one-on-ones and team calls, lead each discussion by asking people how they are doing, or asking what’s on their minds, work related or not – rather than just diving into the standard agenda. Depending on the size of your team, you may want to set up a separate time at the beginning and/or the end of the week just as a ‘general check-in.’

“Tech isn’t the worry, the loss of social interaction is the worry,” -- Lynda Gratton of London Business School, quoted in the Financial Times

Leaders have a real opportunity to open up dialogue and strengthen their team’s connection by showing their own vulnerability. For example, if you’re worried about the well-being of a friend or family member, don’t be afraid to say so. If you’re feeling lower-energy because you miss the buzz of the office and seeing everyone each day, it’s okay to express this. It will encourage others to share their feelings and will ultimately help build a team that’s more trusting and tighter-knit.

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