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Leading a virtual team… from your kitchen table

LEGO me… my lunchtime cover 🙂

I loved seeing tweets this week of signs and posters saying ‘daddy’s in a Skype call :)’ or ‘don’t come in – I’m in a meeting’… it gave expression to how much worlds are colliding just now. Whether you are a seasoned home worker or a newly (crisis) minted one, no one has experience of working from home during a global pandemic during lock down, without childcare and alongside every member of their household, pets included. And, with the worry of EVERYTHING THAT IS GOING ON, on their mind. ‘Business as usual’ this is not.

I have been working on ALT’s response (if you are looking for Learning Technology support, help is at hand) and also sharing my own (team’s) expertise to help, but this post is more about my open practice as a leader.

Openness comes under pressure when there is a crisis, but this crisis runs so deep, that much of our usual behaviours have given way to sharing our perspective, solutions and problems. Each day I get emails from fellow CEOs sharing useful information re employment or legal developments alongside personal updates. I hear from colleagues around the world who are at different stages of lock down, loss and recovery. I connect with colleagues closer to home, with suppliers and freelancers, paying bills and ensuring the essentials that keep us all going, and getting paid, are as safe as we can make them.
But we are now a few weeks into this proper madness, exhaustion and frustration are definitely more visible than they were at the start and as I wrote in my last post, there’s a lot to contend with when you are (suddenly) leading a virtual team in this time of crisis.

Finding balance between business as usual and no business at all

Like everyone else I work (and live) with people on a whole spectrum of responses to the situation, from those who are coping, keen on as much normality as possible, those who focus on specific priorities, adjust to new daily routines to being completely scared, unable to function, sick and tired of it all. Leading any effort in times when tempers run hotter than usual, when communication , particularly online, can easily lead to conflict is tough! Finding balance between business as usual and no business at all is harder than you think… so I try to continue to create different spaces for different types of interaction:

  • Regular team meetings: focus largely on business as usual, with a set agenda and ideally max 1 hour long and video on for all as standard;
  • Coffee/tea get together: no business at all, just focus on social/personal conversations and checking in with each other;
  • Individual one to one: start with ‘how are you’ and establish context before then moving onto discussing work and end by setting a small number of clear and achievable priorities – ideally 30 min and always video on;
  • Group chats: establish formal/informal ones as needed but be very clear which one is essential. Give options to join in others, but prioritise one.
  • Individual chats: be available as you can be to deal with anything really urgent or personal or just to be present.

Press pause and accept grey areas

In the current crisis things can move quickly from one simple issue to a whole chain of unsolvable problems. When you are surrounded by so much uncertainty most people’s instinct is to lock stuff down, to create certainty, to be clear what’s right or wrong. You want to do the same of course, be clear, make the right decision, communicate effectively and so forth. But most of the time you and I are going to make it up as we go along, doing our best just as anyone else leading people and organisations through this madness, to take the best decision we can in completely unprecedented circumstances. From policy officials to shop keepers everyone is making it up, trying their best – and constantly re-assessing. Sometimes virtual teams can move at too fast a pace, things get frantic and it’s good to remember that you can press pause, take a breath and consider things. You won’t always get it right (I know I don’t) but you can take time to think it through and accept freu areas. Acknowledge those explicitly. Make it clear if you are compromising. Articulate, to your colleagues, why you are taking a decision or why you are waiting/reflecting. I am often in online meetings and a decision is required and I don’t know the answer. In that case I say it don’t know, I will need to think about it, I’ll get back to you by (whenever the decision is required). Being a leader in uncertain times requires us to get comfortable with uncertainty.

Asking for help and setting an example

In times of crisis a show of strength and certainty often goes a long way. But months of complete mayhem?! You are going to need to ask for help more and more often. You are going to need to model that and no one will see those urgent calls at the kitchen table, those pacing walks on the balcony, those late night glasses of wine over spreadsheets. Communicating how you seek help and why is just as important as solving problems, maybe more so. It helps normalise and make visible a process that is much harder to translate into virtual teams, where office doors that are open or casual conversations in the corridor are harder to come by. It’s much harder to admit what you don’t know or find the right moment to ask a question when you are (newly) working from home and your dog, spouse or whole team is listening in. I had a meeting (an important one as they all are these days), this week which I brought to a conclusion saying I had to rush off. Someone asked where to and I replied to have my lunch, to eat a sandwich. Everyone laughed and suddenly started to bring their own lunch into camera view. We said bye to hurry to have a break. It’s not unprofessional to be a human being, hungry and in need of a break. It’s not unprofessional to need help. When you are in a crisis situation that is going to last weeks or months, there is no way you can keep going without adjusting, giving yourself and others time to recover, collect your energy, get some headspace. It feels good to be busy and productive, but setting an example of being like that all the time isn’t helpful for leading people or organisations. It creates an unrealistic expectation for everyone.