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Human Capital Management during COVID-19: Leading Virtual Teams in a Crisis

This pandemic is fundamentally changing the way teams operate and communicate. To be effective in a crisis environment, team leaders require different skills to maintain worker engagement and productivity in a remote setting, make decisions quickly, and communicate effectively.

In fact, working from home is the new reality for many US workers and may lead to wider adoption of virtual teams following COVID-19. Prior to this crisis, remote workers were a growing but still limited part of the workforce. Only about 3.4 percent of employees in the US worked primarily from home in 2018.1 The scale and scope of the current situation, with organizations of thousands of employees transitioning to virtual teams in a very short time, are unprecedented.

Research by The Conference Board has identified 12 behaviors of highly engaging leaders.2 As we strive to keep employees engaged during the COVID-19 crisis and afterward into the recovery phase, these 12 behaviors are good reminders of how best to lead virtual teams.

Leaders can provide a strong sense of meaning and direction by:

  1. Reinforcing the organization’s vision. Reminding employees of the compelling vision and values of the organization may be especially important during challenging and stressful times.Some organizations are working to increase morale through storytelling, by sharing how continued persistence and sustained efforts are helping customers, communities, and their fellow employees.

Mary Lee Hannell, CHRO of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, emphasized the importance of storytelling in a recent webcast through this example: “Frontline workers out in the aviation world needed hand sanitizer stations… Our maintenance areas actually built those stations so that every employee had access to hand sanitizers during the workday. Simple things like that, they did to support one another without being asked. We are trying to tell those stories as they come up each and every day.”3

  1. Communicating with transparency to bring people along. Communicate with urgency; employees have questions and need reassurance quickly. Messages should be uplifting but should also acknowledge the challenges and stressors that workers are facing.4 Employees appreciate transparency, knowing that information may shift and change as time goes by. Some leaders are finding new and creative ways to communicate, using video messages and instant messaging applications for real-time updates and rapid responses.

Members of the Strategic HR Business Partners Council are investing in communication and collaboration tools and providing technology training to all employees so teams can collaborate more effectively. Some organizations are even using this time to establish a technological transformation.

  1. Setting a clear direction for what’s ahead. With many teams working remotely and business conditions changing rapidly, setting direction and guidance becomes more critical, even as work becomes more challenging to navigate. It is important to share information frequently and ensure clarity of roles and priorities. A 3M factory in Aberdeen, South Dakota, was able to double its production of respirator masks by quickly transitioning to this new priority and ensuring workers were on board.5 Ralph Lauren and others are also redirecting resources and funding to produce masks and other necessary items, helping workers prioritize what is important in the moment.6

On its website “re:Work,” Google publicly shares best practices and research, including ideas from the famous Project Oxygen, which studied the importance of managers and critical managerial traits. Communicating a clear vision and strategy is one of the attributes that make highly effective Google managers.

Leaders can build a high-performance environment in a time of crisis by:

  1. Creating a virtual team contract to maintain work standards and boundaries. While individuals are faced with unpredictable situations in their personal lives, having a sense of control and certainty at work is important. Team leaders can help provide this by creating a virtual team contract that sets clear boundaries and guidelines and shares new metrics of success. Working on a virtual contract as a team will set expectations for all team members and help them stay focused on goals. The following factors should be considered when creating a virtual contract:
    • Communication preferences (e.g., email, text, phone call)
    • Team operating norms to align on tools to use and processes to follow
    • Clear expectations through project plans, goals, metrics, and meeting agendas7

Facebook recently developed a toolkit on working remotely. Originally designed for employees, this toolkit was also made available to the public. One of the tips involves clarifying needs and preferences, such as sharing preferred working hours and communication channels with team members.

  1. Maintaining a sense of urgency around the things that matter most. One hallmark of a strong crisis leader is the ability to adapt and prioritize. Some policies and practices may need to be deemphasized at this time (for example, performance conversations and long-term goal setting may take a back seat to more pressing needs), while other, more immediate needs may come to the forefront.

Members of Strategic Workforce Planning Councils shared that their organizations started with a focus on short-term activities and reacting to the impact of COVID-19 on the labor markets and the shifts in economy and demand. Many have shifted to virtual work almost entirely, and as normalcy returns, discussions around understanding the broader implications for the business are taking place.

  1. Seeking feedback and empowering individuals and teams. When working in a shared office, it is easy to stop by a cubicle or gather as a team to provide feedback and ideas, but this becomes more challenging in a remote environment. To successfully lead and support team members virtually, leaders must be available and proactive in seeking feedback, sharing ideas, and empowering employees to support customers and communities. Consider engaging in constant communications for feedback and support by:
    • Adopting an open-door policy through regular one-on-ones
    • Providing real-time feedback to establish trust and allow for open, honest dialogue and problem solving
    • Seeking input from all team members to ensure an inclusive environment
    • Recognizing team members for their contributions and accomplishments8

Shopify shared four effective methods its teams use to manage remote work, finding that the most successful remote teams operate with full transparency. Having regular feedback sessions is vital to ensure quality work. Other methods include using collaboration systems, setting up communication tools, and minimizing meetings.9

Leaders can bring out collective brilliance during a crisis by:

  1. Maintaining trust and integrity through a focus on well-being. A focus on health and safety during the pandemic is critical as employees struggle with the multitude of changes, both professional and personal. To maintain the trust of team members, a leader must first care for basic needs, according to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Ensure that workers have the resources they need to be effective and productive, starting with health and safety. Physical, mental, and financial health are important considerations that should not be overlooked.

Our report on “Support for Well-being and Mental Health” provides recommendations for how organizations and individual leaders can support their own health and that of their teams. For example, leaders can start a well-being conversation with a few simple questions, such as “How have you been lately?” and actively listening to the response while reserving judgment.10

  1. Inspiring innovation through new tools and technologies. Teams may not be able to function and collaborate as usual in a virtual environment. To prioritize productivity of virtual teams, team leaders should check to see whether every team member is aware of the organization’s available communication and collaboration tools and consider individual or team tech training to ensure everyone is comfortable using them. If the necessary tools are not already in place at the organization level, team leaders should consider adopting the following tools:
    • Communication platforms (e.g., Yammer, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts)
    • Online scheduling tools (e.g., Doodle, Calendly)
    • Project management tools (e.g., Asana, Basecamp, Trello, Jira)
    • Performance and engagement tools (e.g., Trakstar, SAP SuccessFactors)11
  1. Fostering collaboration by encouraging employees to be themselves. While some may be actively looking for ways to connect virtually during these times of social distancing and self-quarantine, many others are feeling a sense of disconnect and loneliness without the usual social interactions outside home. Informal “watercooler” conversations have a powerful impact on team dynamics, and creating opportunities to virtually replicate these interactions can have positive effects on the team. In fact, working from home may provide an opportunity for employees to bring their “whole selves” to work in new ways, as they integrate work and life as needed. (On a cautionary note, working from home should not mean available at all hours. While workers may be encouraged to blend work and life during this time, they should be encouraged to shut down and take time for themselves as well.)

    To replicate the office interactions virtually, team leaders should consider facilitating the following practices:
    • Using videoconferencing to replicate in-person meetings and make up for lack of body language
    • Scheduling more frequent informal calls to create casual conversation
    • Finding ways to connect outside regular meetings (e.g., virtual book club)
    • Using emojis, gifs, and jokes to infuse humor and appropriately connect with team members12

Microsoft shared a blog titled “2 weeks in: what we’ve learned about remote work.” Teams at Microsoft found that even in the midst of the pandemic, it’s still critical to keep everyone connected by looking for creative ways to have fun team moments virtually.

Leaders can unlock the full potential of their employees by:

  1. Using this time to personalize relationships and experiences. Remember that this crisis will affect workers differently. For example, some workers will appreciate staying busy and having tasks to complete, while others may need more time for themselves or their families. Some workers may appreciate frequent check-ins with the team and social interaction, while others may want to be left alone to complete their tasks. Tailor messaging and support to individual needs. To support individuals, team leaders should consider:
    • Checking in with workers on a more frequent basis to help provide what is needed in the moment
    • Implementing open “office hours” for team members to connect as needed via an open conference line
    • Building/maintaining personal relationships with team members by asking questions about life outside work
  1. Continuing to provide rewards and recognition. It is important to continue to reward and recognize employees as they struggle to maintain normalcy. Take the time to recognize employees who are going above and beyond for customers or other team members to keep motivation and an ownership spirit strong. Recognition can come in the form of care packages delivered to homes, donations to charities, or video messages of thanks.13

At a US-based global technology company, leaders remind and encourage employees to send e-cards to show their appreciation for one another. At other companies, senior leaders have chosen to call employees personally or provide uplifting messages and support. In fact, Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, gave his personal phone number to 10,000 employees to reach out with any concerns.14

  1. Driving personal development in a virtual environment. According to the 2018 Global Leadership Forecast, leaders felt less prepared to lead virtual teams than to meet many other leadership challenges, including leading with adaptability, inspiration, and empathy.15 Most employees find virtual communication less productive than in-person interaction, and nearly half admit to feeling confused and overwhelmed by collaboration technology.16 Indeed, there’s a reason why organizations like Aetna, Best Buy, and Yahoo all experimented with virtual teams in years past before asking team members to return to the office.17 With this in mind, leaders must provide learning opportunities so that employees can remain effective in a virtual environment and continue to develop new skills, even while adjusting to the recent changes. Maintaining critical skills and learning new ones should remain a priority to keep teams engaged and effective.

At Netflixconstant feedback and continued learning is a major part of a culture in which employees are encouraged to give one another constructive feedback. Ongoing feedback, rather than a onetime annual review, provides employees with opportunities for learning and improvement.

 

1 Gad Levanon, Frank Steemers, and Elizabeth Crofoot, “If Staying Home Comes to Stay: The Rise of Telework and the Decline of City Centers,” Economy, Strategy & Finance Blog, The Conference Board, April 15, 2020.

2 Rebecca Ray, Patrick Hyland, David Dye, Joseph Kaplan, and Adam Pressman, DNA of Engagement: How Organizations Build and Sustain Highly Engaging Leaders, The Conference Board, March 2016.

3 “Human Capital Watch: Human Capital Professionals Responses to COVID-19,” The Conference Board webcast, aired April 15, 2020.

4 Gemma D’Auria and Aaron De Smet, “Leadership in a Crisis: Responding to the Coronavirus Outbreak and Future Challenges,” McKinsey & Company, March 2020.

5 Bryan Gruley and Rick Clough, “How 3M Plans to Make More Than a Billion Masks By End of Year,” Bloomberg Businessweek, March 25, 2020.

6 Erik Maza, “Ralph Lauren Donates $10 Million to Coronavirus Relief Efforts,” Town & Country, March 26, 2020.

7 Keith Ferrazzi, “Get Your Virtual Team Off to a Fast Start,” Talent Management Blog, The Conference Board, May 12, 2014.

8 Pat French and Susan Stewart, How Teleworking Works Best: Organizational Shifts Ahead, The Conference Board, February 2014.

9 Gal Dubinski, “How to Work Remotely: Four Tips to Help Your Team Succeed,” Shopify Partner Hub, March 18, 2020.

10 Marion Devine and Robin Erickson, Human Capital Management during COVID-19: Support for Well-being and Mental Health, The Conference Board, April 2020.

11 Ferrazzi, “Get Your Virtual Team Off to a Fast Start.”

12 Jason Wingard, “Leading Remote Workers: The Coronavirus’ Impact on Effective Management,” Forbes, March 13, 2020.

13 Erin Nelson, “8 Ways to Recognize Your Remote Employees (and Support Your Community) during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Fond, March 24, 2020.

14 Kevin Stankiewicz, “CEO Gives Cellphone Number to All 10,000 of His Employees to Call with Coronavirus Concerns,” CNBC, April 14, 2020.

15 Evan Sinar et al., Global Leadership Forecast 2018, The Conference Board, DDI, and EY, January 2018.

16 Keith Ferrazzi, “Getting Virtual Teams Right,” Harvard Business Review, December 2014.

17 Alana Semuels, “The Coronavirus Is Making Us See That It's Hard to Make Remote Work Actually Work,” Time, March 13, 2020.

AUTHORS

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Amy Lui Abel, PhD

Vice President, Human Capital Research
The Conference Board

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Amanda Popiela

Researcher, Human Capital
The Conference Board

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