Leading teams remotely has always had a unique set of challenges. Research suggests leaders must focus on when and how to bring people together – going after meaningful, quality interactions over high quantity, less significant ones. Establishing how teams operate (through guidelines and etiquette) normalises people’s expectations, allowing remote boundaries and unspoken rules to be set. Leaders must bring their best human qualities to the virtual table; spending time understanding individual working styles and needs. Such demands draw on a leader’s patience, empathy, and curiosity to build trust away from presenteeism to a focus on measuring outcomes.

Leading in times of crisis

What do you need to do differently if you are leading remotely in times of crisis? How do you lead and motivate when it’s not just your business that’s dealing in ambiguity, but also your community, government, and society at large?

A good place to start is with a quick check-in on the language that is circulating around the virtual coffee-machine (or the chat that happens before a Zoom or Teams call formally kicks off). Are people talking the language of crisis – or are they talking about managing uncertain change?

Arguably, we have been living in the VUCA world for many decades now – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are nothing new. While we might not always learn from the mistakes of the past, in the VUCA world we still tend to have multiple examples and parallels to draw on and compare with our current reality.

While VUCA change might be difficult, crisis often defies parallels and challenges our norms. It breaks habits, interferes with traditions, and takes away the sense of control we believe we have over our own destiny. When the online watercooler talk turns to talk about crisis, leaders need to step up their game to a whole new level.

Leading in unchartered and remote waters

When individuals in your team express genuine fear, or feel out of control, not only are you likely to be in unchartered water, you may also feel you have little idea about where you are sailing the ship to, and what conditions lie ahead. Like a group of explorers expecting to find the edge of the flat world, finding only endless sea, is incomprehensible – threatening your real and imagined future. The ability to anticipate ‘what might be’ simply falls away.

Does the global corona-virus pandemic constitute a true crisis? That’s for you perhaps to decide. As a populous we are certainly familiar with dealing with deadly infectious diseases – think Ebola, MERS, and SARS. Has COVID-19 and the fall-out thereafter, surpassed what you would have considered a ‘likely event’? Does the fact that it happened so quickly and had such far-reaching consequences, leave you considering what else might be around the corner, ready to take you down?

As covid-19 has shown us, when people start talking the language of crisis, we are all in it together.

So, how can leaders lead remotely in times of crisis?

Don’t pretend the problem doesn’t exist

It’s not uncommon for leaders to want to soldier on in times of crisis. In many ways, the characteristics of being calm, stoic, and strong are necessary to build resilience for long-term disruption. A calm, confident leader in crisis is more likely to settle a team than disrupt it – particularly for those who react more sensitively to change. In a crisis, however, there is no space for sweeping the problem under the carpet, pretending it doesn’t exist or won’t impact you. In addition to this, people talk among themselves and do a great job of creating their own narrative. If as a leader you choose not to step up to the microphone, you will create a vacuum that will be filled with other people’s voices, either way.

The best remote leaders will be using that quality airtime with their team to acknowledge what is happening, allowing people to talk about it openly (if that is their preference) or to talk about it more personally if that person is less comfortable in a group discussion. Which raises the question of adapting to individual needs…?

Don’t adopt the same approach for everyone

If you go through an airport in today’s current environment it’s easy to identify people reacting differently to the global pandemic. Some people are extremely nervous about the situation – they might be in a state of heightened anxiety, cautious, pessimistic, worried, even frightened. At the other end of the scale, there will be those who seem incredibly laid back. Perhaps they behave casually, bending the rules, indifferent to others’ concerns. They appear to be just getting on with things much as if nothing has happened. Then there will be people who sit between those two extremes, optimistic for things to come, perhaps concerned for their health and wellbeing. The point is people are different. You cannot hope to have one strategy or one way of handling people’s response to a crisis – particularly if you can’t physically sit down with them and gauge their reactions in real-time.

People’s emotional reactions will be different, complex, and nuanced. Your leadership reactions need to at least be open to the idea that one fixed way of dealing with everyone is unlikely to work. So instead…

Talk publicly

Allow people to speak out there and then, but also encourage private conversation. Be prepared for some people to need more time to talk. Find ways to allow remote connection – over video calls, but also perhaps over voice calls, text and email. Look for non-verbal signals over video as much as what is said. Is someone always looking down and away? Is a normally chatty individual remaining silent? Are people’s emotions readable upon close inspection? Some people may want to talk but feel nervous or exposed in doing so. If you haven’t already tried, get to know the spouses, close colleagues, or other family members of your first line team. Give them an avenue to reach out to you if they are at all worried.

Don’t force everyone into the same conversation. Some people don’t want or need to talk about a crisis over and over again. Keep your key messages the same for people, allowing more personal conversations to digress to those things that matter most to individuals.

Don’t spin or get stuck only in the present

Unsurprisingly, when crisis hits people tend to keep their heads down, focus on what’s in front of them and keep a firm grip on things they can control. Those etiquette rules you have for allowing your team to just get on with things as they work remotely may well be seized upon with great intent!

It’s human nature to want to get on with meaningful work (and thank goodness, because some have little choice other than to have their heads down and their sleeves rolled up). But it is exactly at these times of intense pressure and focus that people need to manage the present while being mindful of the future. Staying adaptable in a crisis is critical because things often move quickly. Where there is no headspace to consider, anticipate, or simply comprehend, there is little space for understanding, creativity, and innovation. Think about how you might bring innovation into your team discussions, over technology – posing challenges, complex puzzles, or problems to solve, all relevant to your current reality. And with that in mind…

Make room for scenario planning

One of the problems of true crisis is that it creates an ambiguous, hard to predict future, leaving people to worry over things they simply don’t know. What will happen to the company? Will my job be safe? Can I protect my family and return to working in an office? What will working from home do to my mental health or my relationships?

While you might not scenario plan the state of the nation, or the government’s future tax regime, you can allow people an ‘in’ to discussing the company’s future – it’s products and how they might need to change, its service model, employee skills and competencies, or changes to long-term ways of working.

Scenario planning gives people a voice and the chance to consider different strategic possibilities. You don’t have to be a strategist to be in this conversation. It doesn’t matter if these scenarios come to pass. What matters is that people can bounce ideas off of one another (storing these ideas in shared areas or other collaboration apps). Allowing people to consider ‘what if’s’ and ‘maybes’ is a way of allowing people to process information premortem – if you like, to imagine the worst possible scenario and thoughtfully consider their emotional reaction to it.

This is not just an exercise in itself. Planning for possibility means if those things do come to pass, people will be mentally better equipped to process the experience and potentially take steps to mitigate its impacts.

We urge you not to fall into the trap of thinking that strategic scenario planning is for the leaders at the top of the organisation. Chances are, in a true crisis, everyone’s voice will be important (just think of our front line and key workers today). At some stage, someone may well ask your team what they think. Starting these conversations now, may well just be the thing that enables the organisation to build early resistance and immunity to the thing that may otherwise overwhelm it.

Consider the skills and traits you need and how to craft them remotely

In times of crisis, we often end up ‘turning our hand’ to things that might not naturally sit with us. For those who find themselves out of work, you may even consider re-training or taking on something completely different to make ends meet. 

As a leader, there is every chance that you will need members of your team to step outside of their natural comfort zone, taking on additional work, related work, or even something completely new.

Spend quality time considering what might need to change – what skills might need to be enhanced, what competencies built upon. Perhaps your team will need to adapt to new technology demands – such as the accelerated use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) or Virtual Reality (VR). Perhaps your reliance on data and insight will suddenly skyrocket, as you are less able to engage with customers face to face. Whatever the demand, it’s worth thinking about how you can retrain or develop your team remotely. Is there a piece of e-learning that would benefit the team? Could the team learn together using VR? Will it be important to bring a data scientist into your team to understand new insights?

It’s worth remembering of course that people have different preferred learning styles. Online training may not work for everyone. Perhaps a member of your team prefers learning one-on-one, on-the-job? How will you blend your approach to take these differences into consideration?

Remember your own health, wellbeing, and personal development

The vast majority of leaders don’t emerge out of a box (or an MBA) with an innate sense of what to do in a crisis! Dealing with change is often a learned response, even if people know the textbook answers. As a leader, how will you tune in to your own thoughts and emotions about the crisis? How will you overcome or make peace with your anxieties, questions, and concerns? Now might be a good time to start some mindful career journaling.

Journaling is fundamentally a form of self-care that works by getting you to write down and reflect on your experience – analysing the thoughts and feelings that arise as a result. It goes beyond writing action lists of putting together programme plans. Journaling can be private or shared, but at its core, it allows you the headspace to process your experience and make sense of what’s going on. This is a cost-effective, powerful way for anyone to manage their health and wellbeing during a time of crisis.

While tackling crisis, all thoughts of personal development may simply slip out of your conscious thought. While understandable it’s worth bringing it back up the agenda for you and your team. What different personal qualities will you need as a leader? If you need to build resilience for the long-haul, how will you do that? If you need to become less rigid in your approach to work, being more flexible and adaptable, how will you let go of habits that prevent this? If you need to tune into other people with greater sensitivity, how will you hone your Emotional Intelligence or EQ?