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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 mo