Leading Virtual Teams Through Uncertainty


You may have heard that “Nature abhors a vacuum.”

Perhaps you can better relate to the latest and most dramatic example of “Markets hate uncertainty.” If neither resonates with you, then take a minute to register your own discomfort as you face down the ambiguity of the next few months of sheltered existence in our new COVID-19 reality, and the range of unknowns when we emerge from it. Give your mind some free rein and it'll quickly conjure a dazzling array of worst case scenarios to replace those unknowns because it too abhors a vacuum.



As I write, a triple whammy of uncertainty is rattling most cages, even the gilded ones.

The COVID-19 virus is a threat to our health and health care, a threat to our agency and autonomy and a threat to our economic security. The latter descended on us with head-spinning speed closing businesses, putting people out of work, and roiling the stock market, which gave up four years of gains. The only remaining certainty today is a looming recession and high unemployment.


To blunt the impact of a rampaging virus, all work and school activities that heretofore took place at various institutions, converged in people's homes nearly overnight. Companies, ready or not, became near-100% virtual workplaces. When it comes to level of uncertainty, change and disruption, we are (as I keep hearing it said) in "uncharted waters." However, leaders have no choice but to chart this territory as they activate their business continuity plans or just take it one day at a time.


At a time like this, people at all levels look to their managers for a counterbalance - a "stabilizing force" that would mitigate uncertainty, give back a sense of confidence, and a semblance of control.

The leadership challenge today is to maintain energy, creativity and productivity of their suddenly decentralized virtual workforce and to mitigate disruption and uncertainty. Why is this important? Precisely because people cannot function optimally when they are unable to predict what will happen next.

When we're faced with a vacuum or lack of reliable information, we enter a sort of a cognitive protective crouch.

The longer the uncertainty, the more likely we are to fall victim to this reflex that suppresses our ability to think critically and objectively, to collaborate and find solutions. We can't afford to operate with such enormous blind spots as a society now, and certainly not as a leaders of teams.


In the following paragraphs I will provide some structure and grounding for Leading Virtual Teams in an uncertain time. The goal of this roadmap is to enable leaders to both "stabilize" (by establishing trust and discipline) and "mobilize" a virtual workforce, maintaining, contribution, productivity and creativity against some pretty significant odds.


Three Levers


Three important levers to stabilize and mobilize:


  • Validation & Direction - impacts trust, confidence and cohesiveness

  • Dependable mechanisms (or processes) as things change - impacts certainty (security)

  • Agency & Contribution - affords sense of control, speeds up decisions & responses


For each of these concepts, I will include context and examples to make this roadmap as practical as possible.



I. Build Confidence & Cohesiveness

Don’t ignore the elephant in the virtual room.

Leading a team in an environment of change and uncertainty is as much about conveying confidence as it is about forging a personal connection and validating people who feel threatened or vulnerable. (This does not need to devolve into whining or venting. In fact, those behaviors need to be reframed as they are, in themselves, viral.)


Try this...


Unify - Build Cohesiveness

“Before we begin, I want to acknowledge that we are all experiencing an unprecedented and quickly-evolving situation. It will take us all working together, combining our unique perspectives and strengths to solve the challenges that we, like all the other firms, are faced with and will continue to encounter…”


Validate - Restore Certainty

“Speaking of challenges, it is not lost on me that many of you face unique challenges and disruption at home with children, partners and even parents whose needs we must consider as we work from home. We are going to be supportive of one another, and do our best to find solutions as the situation continues to evolve. Please continue to make me/your team lead aware of any circumstances that require special consideration, so we can plan and mitigate the impact on you, on our teams and clients..."


Set Clear Priorities - Increase Confidence

"Today, we will discuss our most immediate priorities to ensure we are set up to deliver our best individually and as a team. I know that we may not get everything right and this will be an iterative process..."


Practical considerations...


  • During times of disruption people want to hear from: the "top of the house" and from their immediate manager - updates should come regularly from both levels.

  • Do not mistake silence for strength or avoid subjects important to people for fear of losing control or inability to provide all the answers. This creates a feeling of gaslighting, and lack of clarity - a vacuum where exchange of information or ideas ought to be taking place. "I don't yet know" is a good answer.

  • Speak with one voice. Regardless of your organization's size, messaging must be consistent. Create "talking points" team leads which they can make their own.

  • Give all levels a voice. Ensure the top of the house can keep a finger on the pulse. Collect feedback regularly in a quickly changing environment. If trust is an issue, use anonymous surveys (ie Survey Monkey) if you don't have in-house capability. Assign collection and synthesis responsibility to someone people trust - irrespective of level.

  • Recommendation for "virtual refuseniks" If your company or department to date has not embraced virtual work or “work from home," you've got a lot to do. Don't worry about your employees’ expectations of a future flexible working environment (now that they're getting a taste of forbidden fruit). Use your collective wisdom to develop effective and safe (speaking of business risk here) remote working protocols sustainable over a potentially protracted (months, not weeks) period of time.


II. Build Discipline into Processes & Practices


Working virtually doesn't meant you have to lose sight of people or the goal.


When we work virtually, we begin to lose what is sometimes called “common ground.” Think of it as losing sight of who’s doing what at any moment. This is felt most acutely by small co-located businesses and departments that enjoy a lot of interaction. In addition, there is less clarity on progress (where we are), what remains to be done, and the individual's contribution to the whole. When these factors come together, people (especially those new to virtual work) start to feel "unmoored," ignored, unappreciated, and unsure how to best contribute. While I am indeed describing "feelings," rest assured they manifest in reduction of productivity, dysfunction in communications and lower quality of work.


To stave off such problems, you need to create processes that serve as "guard rails" to help people maintain individual and collective discipline.

"Guard Rail" processes include:

  1. Meeting discipline, and

  2. Communication and collaboration practices and platforms


1. Meeting Discipline:


Meeting discipline (virtual or not) is about 3 key things:


  • Inclusive and Clear Agenda, Roles and Timing: to ready and guide all participants.

  • Individual Readiness & Responsibility: Set expectation for every participant regarding readiness to do their part and contribute to the end goals.

  • End Goal: Collective agreement on "What are we walking away with at the end?"


Other best practices:

  • Agenda topics and time keeping should be present whether you’re meeting virtually or in person.

  • A facilitator's role is to drive the group to accomplish what it set out to do in the time allowed, as well as to ensure there is clarity on: progress to date, issues to resolve, commitments and next steps.


Meeting Types and Cadence

If working virtually is new to your team, you want to keep your finger on the pulse until most glitches are uncovered and resolved. This may require meeting more frequently initially until you get into a groove. Here are a couple of meeting types to try out.


“Team Huddles” - a brief meeting (10-20 mins) to connect and align priorities and expectations, deadlines for the day or week. They can serve as brief coaching calls.

  • Initially, do them daily, early in the day if you’re new to virtual work. Helps people connect and kick off the day. You can move to two-three times per week later.

  • Decide on basic protocols: purpose, cadence, information capture, meeting platform, video* or audio, dress code

  • These can be led/facilitated by team members, not necessarily the manager. Facilitation responsibility can also be rotated among team members.


"All-Hands" - a weekly or bi-weekly meeting led by manager or team lead. Agenda should include a progress report, key decisions and goal setting for the following week.

  • Be Disciplined about capturing progress and commitments, goals and deliverables with names & dates. Notes can be assigned to junior staff and/ or role can be rotated.

  • Collect Agenda items from team in advance to create a feedback loop and give people a voice.

  • Continuously improve quality/frequency/length/content of meetings - get feedback from team on what's working/not working to ensure they are the most effective use of people's time.


Try this...


“I want ensure that we have the same (or better) flow of information and communication as we did before. To achieve this, during the first few “adjustment” weeks, we will meet more frequently.


We'll add 10-minute daily “Team Huddle” to check in, see what’s working, where are the snags or potential problems that can cause efficiency or quality issues.


Also, instead of bi-weekly, we’ll have a weekly all-hands meeting on Fridays. Your input is welcome as we transition to some new ways of working together."


Practical considerations...


* Video meetings: Opt for video whenever possible because visual cues are vital in virtual work. They become even more important if you don't expect to clamp eyes on your colleagues for an extended period of time.

  • Video reduces misinterpretations by providing immediate feedback (facial expressions and body language) on clarity, agreement, disagreement, etc. We can both register the feedback and course correct much more quickly than in written or voice communications.

  • Visual stimulation gives people the necessary emotional charge that helps with engagement and energy and to combat loneliness (the latter is a real problem).

However: keep in mind that while it seems like everyone is affected similarly by the need to work from home, this is not true. An office environment affords employees similar benefits, even if some have offices and others have cubicles or shared desks. This changes dramatically when the work moves into the home, where there may be children being home-schooled; or cramped quarters of a small apartment with all occupants on conference calls; or a multi-generational home with little privacy and few if any work-place alternatives. Check in with your team members regarding their ability to participate with fewest distractions/interruptions. If video meetings are not be possible for all members all of the time, every effort should be made for visual contact if not every day, then at least a few days per week.



2. Communication & Collaboration Practices: Tactical and Practical


Here, we are setting up some discipline and guard rails for a faster interaction and flow of communication, not to bog down the process with rules (unless they're regulatory or risk mitigating). I recommend a focusing on two categories here:


Tactical

  • Platforms/sofware: guidelines on what communication, collaboration, document storage and other platforms to use.

  • Access: ensure access to necessary platforms from home.

  • Equipment: provide or purchase required equipment (asap) to make each person as productive as possible*


Practical: practices that are Vital when Virtual

  • Rules for the road: reducing miscommunication and ambiguity

  • Record keeping: ensure that records of communications internally and externally are maintained

  • Security: think through how security processes you follow in the office translate to the home (especially if you follow ISO 9000 or other standards).


Communication Platforms, Access, Equipment

Try this...


“It is more important than ever that we agree on consistent communication tools and practices internally and externally (with clients). Going forward, we will (continue to) use the following communications platforms..."


  • Meetings (including huddles): will take place on _______. We will use video.*

  • Formal internal communication should take place using ____________

  • Communications with clients must take place exclusively using____________

  • For internal collaboration please use_________ platform (record/don't record sessions)

  • For document storage, please use ________________

  • If you have access issues, notify______________

  • Project management platform**______________________


*Whether its an additional screen or a headset or a faster internet connection, buy it. This will not only help people be more productive, but send a signal that you've embraced this new reality, and help people make their own shift faster.


**If you don't have collaboration or project/team management software, there are many excellent online vendors, depending on what you need to keep you on track.



Communication Practices that are Vital when you're Virtual


Try this ....


“Since we run a significantly higher risk of creating miscommunication, uncertainty and delay simply by not being at the same place at the same time, we need to agree on some behaviors and practices that would work for us going forward. I will start, but these will be your rules, so I fully expect this list to grow..."


Rules for the Road:

  • Better a dumb question than a dumb mistake. Make full use of "clarifying questions."

  • If you see something, say something. If you see an issue that others don’t, “Speak up!”

  • Silence is not an answer: phone silence is disorienting, especially when an issue or a question was raised. Respond or give an indication when you will.

  • Meeting Discipline (this is a rich topic): Do not interrupt. Active listening habits when remote (another article). Facilitating remotely. Validation. Decision discipline, etc.

  • Respect the process & time: what to take offline

  • What else?


III. Build Agency & Contribution


"Millenials and Gen-Z...are searching the hardest for good management, puprose and growth in their jobs."*

And, given where we are today, people are very willing to step up and need to contribute. So take "yes" for an answer and take them up on it. Remember, our goal: to create agency, which yields energy, productivity and creativity, and to do it intentionally. How? By pushing the boundaries of your normal routines and expectations of your team. I'm not suggesting you build and execute a development plan (although any crisis situation requires you give some thought to succession planning).


I recommend you find a way to do three things:

  1. Tap into aptitude for virtual collaboration & technology your talent pool undoubtedly has to optimize what may be a long-term virtual working environment.

  2. Transfer some Leadership responsibility immediately.

  3. Risk Tolerance: make room for new ideas and tolerate initial mistakes.



1. Virtual Collaboration Platforms


Here are a few areas that are vital when virtual, where many companies do not have solutions in place. Consider channeling the energy of your more tech-savvy team members to find and recommend solutions to support the work and team when working virtually.



  • Virtual Productivity Platforms - project team collaboration, project management, tracking reporting, etc. eg., Asana, LiquidPlanner,Trello, Podio, Basecamp, Evernote. Some of these are pretty "heavy" - functionality-rich, others lighter where the learning curve isn't as steep. It's a great challenge and contribution to find something that will work for your team.

  • Collaboration & Enagement - think instant messaging capability with conversation threads and groups, e.g., Slack. For engagement, I would increase the use of surveys (e.g., SurveyMonkey) to keep my finger on the pulse of one or multiple departments. It's a good time to track how people are coping with the change, with the work and ask for input (anonymously helps). You may find that one group will do better than another, and that presents an opportunity as well.

  • Social - Work-based Facebook groups are popping up to share experiences, coping advice, bewilderment, photos, or just to blow off some steam. It's great way to close the distance between colleagues, but requires the sure hand of an Administrator. By the way, managers could join too (hint, hint). Other social platforms and ways of connecting may be even better. But you'll have to ask your resident experts.


2. Transfer of Leadership Responsibility


Use this crisis as an opportunity to flush out and test out your future leaders.

As I said before, there's no need for a talent development strategy. You can accomplish more with some very simple role changes. Here are a few I've had very good success with.


  • Meeting Agenda and Facilitation role: When you give someone ongoing responsibility for developing a solid Agenda and facilitating the meeting process, they very quickly discover it's not as easy as it looks. To pull together and pull off a well run meeting requires intelligence, strength of character, E.Q. and persistence (just to name a few). Once your Meeting lead gets comfortable in his new role, ask him to teach it to someone else.

  • Groupthink Guru: This is a role assigned to one team-member who will watch for signs of groupthink and challenge the group to expand beyond the current, potentially limiting set of views or solutions.

  • Plus One: This is the simplest and may be the most powerful; and it works well virtually. Invite a (junior) "plus one" to the next important meeting. Whether they actively participate or not is your call. However, they will get exposure, and you will broaden their perspective and your own, especially when you ask them to apply the information they learned. You can find this and similar "BEANs" (Behavior Enablers, Artifacts and Nudges) in my article Proximity matters.

  • Flip the Script: Hand over the reins to someone junior on a challenge or "tap" them to take the lead on any process or technical issue, and require that they provide a well supported recommendation. There are too many possibilities to list, but these should give you the idea.


3. Risk Tolerance


Deep breaths. Remember our purpose here is to lead virtual, and by definition, decentralized teams through uncertainty. For this to work we need to enhance their individual ability to respond quickly, think deeply, make good decisions and maintain initiative and judgement, in today's environment no less! Depending your company, this may mean creating a shift in the culture (at least the part within your control.) And that just doesn't happen without a few bruises.


Let's look at this through the lens of Dr. Carol Dweck (Stanford Professor and Researcher) and her Fixed vs. Growth Mindset model and apply it to workplace behaviors.


Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset Behaviors in leaders and organizations

Fixed mindset leaders have difficulty changing course. Here's what keeps them rigidly confined and how they affect the work culture.


  • Leaders hold a binary view of people: some people are superior and some inferior

  • Focus strongly on personal reputation and legacy: do not admit failure

  • Do not tolerate others' failure: respond with anger, blame or need to save face

  • Punishing failure leads to fear among employees

  • Fear creates a fixed or survival mindset among employees: results in groupthink, poor decision making and low innovation

Growth Mindset places high value on growth - being better than you were before. While it's optimal when Growth Mindset exists at the very top, some of the shifts can be done at a work-unit level (without waiting for top leadership to adapt), by:


  • Asking more than telling

  • Conveying that you value progress and resilience and not instant genius

  • Presenting opportunities to people to develop new skills

  • Giving feedback that does not put people in a defensive crouch

  • Encouraging mentorships, coaching relationships, new and different approaches.


If you step back and take another look at the frameworks, recommendations, practices, illustrations and explanations in this paper, you will see that they are all nudges toward developing a growth mindset culture (though that was not my original goal).

The truth is, we have a rate of change in the environment that is unsustainable for any system (company, team, family, even individuals) that is not regenerative. The only way to ensure it is, is to adopt new behaviors, give people new opportunities, lead with trust vs suspicion and do your best to give your employees what they need and want:


leadership, good management, challenge, purpose and growth.


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