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  • Catherine Hodgson

LEADING A VIRTUAL TEAM




Before we knew it, we found ourselves at home, with Zoom, Teams or Skype as our new best friends and leading our team virtually. For some of us this may be an entirely new thing, finding our way, following our gut and doing our best to bring calm and confidence to our team. We never thought we would find ourselves in this position, but our staff are now looking to us to lead them through this challenging and uncertain time ahead.

I had been working virtually for 5 months of the year over the past two years, my team working at our head office in Cape Town, while I travelled extensively. However, I never thought that we would all be working virtually one day… how quickly things change and how amazingly resilient and flexible we are! Fortunately, with the foresight of my husband, we had coached our team at the office about working virtually for about 4 weeks before we actually went home (which was one week before the lockdown came into effect in South Africa). Luckily we had moved everything to the cloud, bought laptops and set up everyone with printers, as well as migrated any manual folders to virtual folders within two weeks. So, by the time lockdown came, we had already tested working from home and ironed out most gremlins.

The next thing was actually leading our team virtually and these are some of the things I have put in place which have proved to be successful so far. I hope that some of these tips may be useful to you and your team as you continue to navigate your journey ahead, not knowing how long it will last.

1. Build a new routine: We had to build a new routine around our day whilst working remotely. I put a structure in place with meetings at set times and then encouraged my staff to build their own routine within this – what time they wake up daily, working time, an exercise routine, time to clean their homes, spend time with their family and loved ones. Having a routine provides certainty around their lives during these uncertain times. Our brain likes certainty – it is a prediction machine and uses past experiences to predict the present and the future. However, during this unprecedented time which we have all never experienced before, our brain cannot draw on past experiences and it does not like ambiguity. If we bring routine into our days, we bring a certainty into these uncertain times which can help calm our reptilian brain and prevent us from going into a fight, fright or flight mode.

2. Daily morning meetings. We use an online video platform to hold a morning meeting every day, Monday to Friday at 9am. Everyone has to have their video turned on so that we can all connect and see how we are all doing. This meeting is structured as follows:

- We start with a mindful minute. Everyone goes onto mute and closes their eyes or looks downward. I ask them to settle into their chairs, sit upright, feet firmly on the floor, hands resting gently in their laps. Breathe in and out, focusing for the minute on their breathing to become present in the moment. I then go on mute and have the timer set for one minute. Once the alarm sounds, I ask everyone to breathe in again for one deep breath to the count of 4 and breathe out to the count of 4. Some days I read an inspirational quote before asking everyone to open their eyes and come back into the meeting. This resets everyone to be more present in the meeting and it is amazing how long one minute feels!

- On Mondays we do two rounds of check-ins, the rest of the week we do one round. On Mondays I ask everyone to check in with the following question: “How are you feeling today?” I am always filled with such gratitude as to how much people share with this question – some of my team members who don’t often speak very much are speaking so freely and openly. We have had tears, laughter, fear, anxiety, all expressed during this session. For your team, this is the time when you are building trust and allowing the space for people to be open and transparent. The second round is business related – “What would you like to share with everyone and what support do you need?” This question generates enough for everyone to share what is relevant as well as ask for support or further calls during the day with others. During this time, while one person is speaking, others are on mute but showing interest in the person talking – they are not to be checking their phone or doing their emails on another screen. There is also no time limit. One would think that some people would dominate the time, as they can do when in an in-person meeting, but we have found that everyone is respectful of each other’s time and they do not ramble on. Having a daily meeting is crucial to help people keep a work routine, maintain contact and feel supported.

- I have also used the chat section to ask everyone, after the mindful minute, to use one word to express how they are feeling today. Everyone does it at the same time and we can then see where people are at that time. By labelling their emotion or feeling, it helps people dampen their limbic system – it calms us down as we acknowledge it and then can set it aside. I do not then ask anyone to go into detail as this could make people’s feeling feel worse. Just acknowledging it is enough. This is great to do daily after the mindful minute, before you get down to business – and it does not take long to do.

- I asked for feedback, at our last meeting, on how everyone finds these morning meetings, wondering if they were necessary on a daily basis, or if they should be at a different time. Every single team member said that this is the thing they look forward to the most each day. It sets them up for the day, they love the connection and feel motivated to carry on with what needs to be done afterwards.

3. Buddy system. We assigned everyone a “buddy” before we went into lockdown. This buddy is a person who they have to check in with daily, each afternoon, to see if they are coping mentally and if they require any support. The buddy does not need to be someone they work with daily in their department, but there is a need for a connection, so most of them chose their own buddies. They need to visually “see” their buddy, so the check-in can be done on Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp video call or Facetime – just as long as they can see each other. They need to ask each other how they are doing, how they are feeling, if they want to discuss anything, bounce around any ideas or concerns and ask if their buddy requires support for anything. This is predominantly a mental health check-in to see if they are coping. If the buddy picks up anything they are concerned with, that they cannot deal with, then they are to let me know immediately so that I can be in contact with that person.

4. Keep up standards: We need to ensure that our own standards and standards of our company do not decline during this time. Although we are working from home, this does not mean that corners need to be cut or standards dropped. As leaders, we do not need to accept below par standards, but we also need to be empathetic to what people are going through, reminding our team of our standards and offering support.

5. Having down time: I’ve encouraged my team to ensure they have down time built into their day. It’s important that we look after ourselves mentally and physically and take some down time. When we are feeling threatened, because we are feeling overwhelmed, we shut down

and cannot be creative or collaborative. We need to shift to short periods of peak performance, where we are engaged, motivated and highly focused. However, in these times of uncertainty, we cannot work for long periods of time, so we need some downtime in-between (and much more frequently than we would have needed it under normal circumstances). Listening to our bodies and state of mind is very important during this time, and as leaders, we need to be aware of what our team is going through.

6. Communicating widely and frequently: Now is the time for you as a team leader to openly and frequently communicate with your staff. However, I’ve also stressed the importance of my team communicating frequently with each other, with our customers, our suppliers etc. We need to continue strengthening and building these relationships during this time, so that when things are “open for business again”, those relationships are stronger than ever and we have not been forgotten. For each team member, it’s also important, for their own mental health, to be communicating openly and frequently with their friends and family outside of their household. We, as leaders, should be reminding them of this and encouraging it.

We have a team WhatsApp group that we use extensively. Everyone can share articles, work related issues that are needed for everyone to see, relevant photos, etc. We tend to post jokes in the afternoon (when people are feeling the afternoon slump) and each evening I post a meditation and an inspirational quote. Everyone is enjoying the meditations, and some of the inspirational quotes I read after our mindful minute in the morning. Besides this team WhatsApp group, we have also created an IT WhatsApp group for any IT related issues with our IT support guys on the group to assist everyone; a Health WhatsApp Group for any articles and videos relating to Covid-19 and health. These WhatsApp groups help with the ongoing open communication throughout this period.

7. Physical Health: We had started offering Pilates classes for our team at our office each Monday and Wednesday afternoon, where we had an instructor come in and run classes on the top floor of our offices. Before lockdown, we tested doing these classes virtually using Zoom and have carried on with these classes during the lockdown. Each Monday and Wednesday at the same time, 5pm, we hold virtual Pilates classes which are completely optional, but now also open to household members as well. We have now seen almost the whole team join these classes, exercising together and another way to connect through the week – a great way to keep connected through exercise!

8. Social connection – Virtual “Stoep”: In South Africa, a “stoep” is an Afrikaans word for porch, verandah or doorstep. Every Friday at our office, our team goes for drinks on the “stoep” at a local wine bar down the road from our office. We sit outside and have drinks together. Now, on Friday afternoons at 5pm, we honor our ritual and we have virtual stoep, with videos on, and all partners and family members (or household members) are invited to join us. Everyone shows what drink or cocktail they have concocted and we have a great time connecting, sharing stories and just laughing! A great way to end the week, connect socially and get to know our staff member’s partners, kids and pets!

9. Keep your Rituals: As companies we all have rituals, be they awards that we give, recognizing people for long term service, ringing a bell when someone has achieved something exciting and worth noting, having a “Moet and Plonk” meeting once a month, as we do, where we go through our “wins” as well as our “flops” and how we can learn from them. Ensure that during these lockdown times, we continue with these rituals which keep us all connected, in our routine and to have something to look forward to.

As leaders, we may feel frustrated that things may be taking longer than normal to do – both by ourselves and our team members. When people are in a “threat” situation, their vision tends to narrow into more of a tunnel vision, rather than being able to see things strategically, creatively and collaboratively. This is because our prefrontal cortex shuts down under threat and our limbic system takes over. We need to be cognizant of this, of what our staff or team members are going through and realize that some days, they are just not going to be as creative or innovative as we would like them to be. It’s therefore important, as leaders, that we bring certainty, calm and openness to the meetings in order for people to work as efficiently as possible.

We also need to ensure that we are inclusive, that nobody feels left out or regards themselves as being an outsider. Social threat and pain is felt as much as physical pain; so if a person feels that they are being left out of a decision, being excluded from a meeting, etc, they will feel this as real pain and it will be more difficult to engage with this person. Inclusivity during this time is paramount to productivity.

Leading a team virtually has been less difficult than I thought it would be. However, it takes effort from you as a leader to ensure that all team members are feeling supported, have enough to do to feel as though they have a purpose, and to feel safe. Being open, transparent and honest are key to building and maintaining trust with your team. Having a routine to one’s day, keeping rituals that everyone enjoys and having points of connection beyond just work, are key to keeping your team energized and motivated. Who knows, maybe some of these new ways will be the new future that we will adopt going forward….why would any of us want to sit in traffic going to work again and are we more productive and happier working more flexibly? These are some of the things we will need to ponder over when this passes…and it will.

I love this quote by Rumi:

“Try not to resist the changes that come your way,

Instead, let life live through you.

And do not worry that your life is turning upside down.

How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”

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