How to Lead Your (Suddenly Virtual) Team through a Crisis
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Leadership Apr 10, 2020

How to Lead Your (Suddenly Virtual) Team through a Crisis

It’s going to require a shift in management style—and a healthy dose of overcommunication.

Team conducts zoom meeting

Riley Mann

Based on insights from

Jeff Hyman

The coronavirus has drastically changed the way our workforce operates. With more than half the world’s population under stay-at-home orders, many leaders are finding their once-close teams dispersed and working virtually.

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Leading a newly virtual team is a tall order for any leader; doing so during a time of crisis is more challenging still. Leaders will need to temporarily adjust their management style, says Jeff Hyman, an adjunct lecturer of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School.

“With your team now dispersed, to deal with uncertain and fast-changing market conditions, you’ll need to shift your style to more of a command-and-control from a consensus-building approach,” he says.

Hyman, who is also chief talent officer of the firm Recruit Rockstars Executive Search, understands the quirks of leading a virtual team firsthand. He founded the weight-management company Retrofit and led its entirely distributed staff of 70 employees for five years. The experience gave him a unique perspective on what can help employees stay in the loop and on track at a time when much around them is changing.

Here are his four tips for leading your now-virtual team through the uncertainty ahead.

Articulate What Your Organization Is Trying to Do

The first goal of any leader should be articulating as clearly as possible the challenges your organization faces, what you are trying to accomplish, and how you intend to navigate the crisis.

For some companies, this may mean pivoting toward a new product or service in response to the pandemic: producing a new diagnostic test, for instance, or redeploying resources to make masks. For many companies, however, the aim is simply to extend their runway and not run out of cash.

“It might be about taking the 90 days of cash we have in the bank and finding a way to make it last six or twelve months,” Hyman says. “Or redesigning our business under the assumption that our revenue is going to be cut in half in the next 12 months.”

This is a good time to initiate a discussion with your team around the different projects the company is working on and how they should be re-prioritized.

“Don’t assume that your entire staff knows that your company’s priorities aren’t the same as a month ago,” Hyman says. “They’re probably not. Some team members will be working on something that didn’t even exist two weeks ago; others may need to stop something mid-project. In all these cases, you’ll find you need to tell everyone very clearly which projects the organization is—and isn’t—going to be spending time on right now.”

This is where a command-and-control leadership style comes in handy.

“This too will pass and the consensus-building style many of us have developed will make sense again. But leaders need to understand that, right now for so many businesses, it’s about one thing, which is fending off an imminent threat and living to fight another day,” says Hyman.

Overcommunicate

Successfully explaining your organization’s new path forward to virtual teams—some of whom may be in different time zones or working at off-hours in order to accommodate caregiving responsibilities—will almost certainly require leaders to carefully communicate. Or more specifically, to overcommunicate.

“In the past, you might have gotten everyone around a table and talked so that everyone generally knew what was going on,” Hyman says, “but that’s exceptionally hard to do now that you’re distributed.”

In his own experience leading a remote team, Hyman had to teach himself how to overcommunicate.

“Overcommunication doesn’t mean opening up this fire hose with a lot of noise, copying everyone on every single email and inviting everyone to every single Zoom meeting. We found at Retrofit that when we did that, everyone sat around reading email all day just trying to keep up with the information flow.”

Instead, your overcommunication efforts should focus on being exceptionally clear on the most mission-critical items you have identified.

“Leaders need to understand that, right now for so many businesses, it’s about one thing, which is fending off an imminent threat and living to fight another day.”

— Jeff Hyman

“What’s most important is the signal that cuts through that noise,” Hyman says.

He suggests setting ground rules around which channels should be used for low- versus high-urgency information. For example, email is good for low-urgency items that can be handled asynchronously, while text or chat apps work well for higher-urgency items that need more immediate follow-up. Calls or video meetings are a good medium for items that require conversation or clarification.

“This relieves your team of the expectation that people are reading email all day, every day,” Hyman says, “because doing that can make it really hard to get things done.”

Know When to Micromanage and When to Entrust to Your Team

During this extraordinary time, there will be functions critical to the business that you will have to micromanage because, without your attention, there might not be a business to lead. At the same time, there are going to be some functions that you absolutely need to trust your team to execute on their own.

For example, under regular circumstances, a CEO would not spend time thinking about cash collections or accounts receivable. They have a CFO whose team handles that function. But if, say, half your revenue vanishes overnight, or your early stage company is not yet profitable, or the venture capital deal you had lined up falls through, cashflow takes on a new urgency.

So, micromanaging might include working with your accounts-receivable team to determine whether to negotiate creative, flexible deals that still keep cash flowing into your business, especially at a time when many of your suppliers may want to wait on paying you.

“Cash is the oxygen of your business,” Hyman says. “If you’ve only got six- or three-months’ cash on hand, you may need to be way in the weeds on cash collections if your company is going to live to fight another day. You may require daily reviews with your accounts-receivable team to understand when you can expect payments from customers.”

Just as you will have new roll-up-your-sleeves tasks, other projects may not demand much of your attention at all. That product that you had intended to launch next year, and on which you still want to keep moving forward, can be delegated to trusted team members.

“It’s very tempting in times of uncertainty to find this false sense of certainty by trying to micromanage everything,” Hyman says. “But you can’t micromanage virtual teams. So you have to trust that you’ve hired well. They may get things done almost the way that you would have done it. You have to be okay with that. It’s much more important right now to get the few things right and get them right enough versus getting them perfect.”

Be clear with your team about who has responsibility for these new projects, as well as on how (or if) you would like to be involved in any decisions.

“You can let them know, ‘I’m letting you run it. Keep me posted. Let me know what you need from me,’” he says.

Make Sure Your Team Is (Physically) Set Up for Success

At a time when everyone is making significant adjustments to their daily lives, it is critical that you make sure your team is physically and mentally prepared to work remotely. This means ensuring your team has the tools they need to do their job as well as possible given their particular circumstances.

Senior leaders should have a conversation with every single team member as soon as possible, he says.

“It’s crucial to ensure that everyone has a workspace set up,” Hyman says. “Many of us might be lucky enough to have a little office at home, but I guarantee that some of your team, if for example they live in a studio apartment, their ‘home office’ is sitting on their bed. That’s not how you can get work done.”

Hyman recommends having each team member send a photo of their workspace. Then task those who need to establish a workspace with ordering a cheap desk and a comfortable chair from Ikea or Amazon. This means that, even if your team members do not have a home office, they can at least set up a makeshift workspace that will bring a sense of normalcy as well as a feeling of separation between their work and their personal life.

“You need that mental separation,” Hyman says. “We found that unless you did that, people would just overwork, nonstop, because everything blended together. Plus, right now a lot of people are fearful of losing their jobs, so they’re going to work extra hard to be visible and to make sure they’re delivering. Nobody can keep that up for very long.”

Featured Faculty

Adjunct Lecturer of Innovation & Entrepreneurship from 2017-2020

About the Writer
Fred Schmalz is the business and art editor of Kellogg Insight.
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