Together Apart: Teaming through a Time of Social Distancing

March 19, 2020
Subscribe to Our Newsletter     

“The quality of strength lined with tenderness is an unbeatable combination.”

This quote from Maya Angelou elegantly expresses what is needed from leaders now. We’ve never been here before—as people and as organizations. In this scary and uncertain place, strong and empathetic leadership is called for. This means that a leader must continue showing the way, changing that way if necessary, and focusing or refocusing the team in the proper direction. Such strength, in a context of personal and group attunement, bonds people together like the quarantined Italians singing from their balconies.

To an unprecedented degree, leaders are trying to create that sense of direction and support over video and phone conferences. Thus, in a time of social distancing and virtual working, leaders must answer: how do I maintain a collectivist, focused culture in the teams I lead?

Four team dimensions—what, how, who, and why—are useful for addressing this question.

What: In terms of the team’s goals and shared agenda, the most basic and foundational thing a leader can do is acknowledge that we are in uncharted territory that requires a new normal. Pretending that we can keep operating in the same way, except virtually, will be counterproductive. What should leaders do?

  • Distinguish between “controllables” and “uncontrollables” and focus on the former. The speed and uncertainty of current events can lead to learned helplessness, where people feel they have no power to influence events. Counter this by encouraging the team to focus on what they can influence, no matter how small. This will give team members a focus and will stimulate empowerment.
  • Conduct scenario planning. In times of uncertainty like these, leaders can help teams distinguish between what is possible (worse-case scenario) and what is probable (a more likely result). Collectively planning for different future scenarios can give the team a sense of certainty and preparedness.

How: This dimension relates to the processes that the team can leverage to stay connected and get work done. Technology is the most obvious and fundamental shift with regard to team working. Once you have figured out how Zoom/Google Hangouts/Skype works, what’s next? Focus on creating virtual intimacy and empathy. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. How should leaders accomplish this?

  • We know from research that teams tend to get to tasks quicker when meeting virtually than in person. This can leach strength from the shared relationship among members. Counter this by building time at the start and the end of the meeting to foster virtual closeness. Check in with each other at the start of the meeting; ask where are people at, how are they feeling? End the meeting by checking in again—where did we get, and how are people feeling?
  • Make time for each other. Avoid overfilling the meeting agenda or trying to rush a list of items in a short space of time. This can create a mechanical or transactional feel for team members and reduce engagement and alignment.
  • Create inclusive rituals. Virtual meetings can encourage passivity and one-way communication. Mute yourself to allow other team members to talk and resist jumping into long silences that may occur as people decide whether to speak. Ensure everyone is involved by setting up some simple ground rules or virtual etiquette. Use interactive features such as polling, if available, to encourage participation.
  • Create engaging ways for team members to connect outside of scheduled meetings. Our own team has just set up a WhatsApp group to stay connected and check in with each other using short messages, emojis, clips—very little business or work-related stuff. Slack offers a similar environment while Basecamp is a more project-focused platform that includes the kind of social interactivity that is important in these times.

Who: This relates to the personalities and relationships of the individuals on the team. Creating a supportive team environment, whether virtual or in person, includes sharing personal stories and being open about emotions. This helps create an environment of psychological safety where trust is built and bonds are formed. As a leader in today’s virtual working environment, you can:

  • Share your own story, the highs and lows you are experiencing as a result of the crisis, and strategies you have found helpful to maintain perspective.
  • Encourage others to discuss what their stress response is, how it plays out, and what they need from the team to feel grounded. Talking about this can also help people separate truth from “mind fiction,” the type of thinking that can add stress from worrying about things that aren’t actually happening.
  • Empathize with colleagues, their families, and their home situations. The ability to see things from other perspectives and walk in their shoes is important. Tough decisions need to be made both now and in the coming months, and your empathy can be invaluable.

Why: This final dimension relates to the fundamental purpose of the team. The role they play as a group—in society, with customers, with those deeper in the organization—will typically provide anchorage and be the glue that sticks the team together when everything else feels unstable. Now more than ever, leaders need to step in and lead with purpose. What can they do?

  • Listen to your teams. At this time, when the fulfilment of basic needs is shaky and when colleagues may be laid off, tune in to the temperature of the team.
  • Be purpose driven in your leadership. Clearly articulate the why to your teams. Let your values shine through and lead the way. Be honest about communicating the ways in which events are shaping you as a leader and where you need their help.
  • Encourage the connection between what the team is facing and the broader ecosystem. What can the team do to connect with the wider community? How can we leverage what we are good at to help those who are suffering and more vulnerable?

As unprecedented events in the world trigger both the worst and the best of human behavior, it is good to keep returning to the question we began with: How do leaders maintain a collectivist, focused culture in the teams they lead? Leadership that expresses “strength lined with tenderness” will motivate and focus teams during these and other turbulent times. Some teams will emerge far stronger from this “in vivo” experiment in team development. They will have demonstrated support and focus, increased candor, speed, and a spirit of community.

Orla Leonard is a senior partner in RHR International’s London office and the head of the Team Effectiveness practice. She is known as an energetic, creative, and solutions-focused leader as well as a highly effective executive coach.
Julie A. Wolf is a senior partner at RHR International and a leader in the firm’s Board and CEO Services practice. For two decades, Julie has advised companies across diverse industries and is equally as comfortable with Fortune 50 as with founder-led and private companies