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Virtual Team Leadership in a Time of Pandemic

Leadership

In June, my workshop partner Andrea Buell and I facilitated a workshop for the Mile Hi Chapter’s North Professional Dev Workshop on "Virtual Team Leadership in a Time of Pandemic." For that workshop, we focused on the first few months of the pandemic, during which many of you were working from home while leading your teams. We want to share with you more about that workshop and the results from a related survey.

During the workshop, we discussed how leading a project team can be a challenge even in the best of times. During a pandemic, leading a team when everyone is working virtually from their homes magnifies those challenges. Questions arise: How do I keep team members engaged? How do I keep the team productive? How can I be a more resilient leader?  To help answer some of those questions, Andrea and I conducted research and solicited feedback. We examined how people were doing during those first few months and what changes, if any, they had experienced since team members had had the opportunity to work from home.

WFH Drawbacks and Benefits

To start, click here to view the survey with the responses.

While 16% of those surveyed stated that they had already worked from home and many (81%) felt that they were as productive WFH now as being in the office, the largest obstacle people found with WFH was the lack of in-person interactions (71%).

We all know the benefits of leading virtual teams:

  • To the Organization – decreased costs in operations, travel, and so on
  • To the Team and Project Leader – diversity of perspectives and ideas; leveraging talent from around the world; greater flexibility

But the challenges of leading during the pandemic has added stressors that we have not had before.

What's Not New:

  • To the Organization – technology infrastructure; uneven knowledge dissemination
  • To the Team and Project Leader – relaxed inhibitions; longer time to make decisions; increased difficulty in making decisions; feelings of isolation or exclusion; communicating without the benefit of nonverbal cues

What's New:

  • Society – concern about how the pandemic might reach the family; effects on the economy (both macro and micro if someone in the family has lost a job); racial inequality; politics

While we were used to dealing with the "Not New" challenges, the "New" challenges add another layer of complexity to the conversation, both for our own work and leading our teams.

Communication

If 90% of a PM's job is communication, how do we continue to break down the barriers when we can no longer interact with people we used to see daily? We have some suggestions:

  • Set team norms or agreements or revisit the ones you had when you were in the office.
  • Because people indicated in the survey that more of their time was being taken up with meetings, ensure that you are on top of your meeting effectiveness game:
    • Create a detailed agenda - and stick to it!
    • Provide brief recaps as you move through the meeting.
    • Ask open-ended questions and ensure everyone is getting their chance to speak.
      • If necessary, have one-on-ones with people who are not comfortable speaking.
    • Afterward, send a synopsis of the agenda with decisions and action items.
    • Follow up!

Resilience

Most of us are not on the overtaxed frontlines of the healthcare battle, but all of us can be first responders to the need for emotional support. The need exists in every industry and economic sector, among physically healthy people as well as those who are sick or whose loved ones are sick. There are needs in our families, extended families, congregations, and communities, as well as within our network of professional associations. Almost everyone needs connection to others and the opportunity to give and get support in the abnormal new normal of deep uncertainty and the fearful specter of a pandemic. From:  looms large. (See https://hbr.org/2020/04/to-take-care-of-others-start-by-taking-care-of-yourself.)

Given that it's more of a challenge to lead our teams during the pandemic, the workshop touched a lot on building resilience within ourselves. By creating that resilience first, we could then take care of our teams. From Johnson and Humble, this concept was a good segue into our section on Taking Care of the Leader (because if you aren't taking care of yourself, who is taking care of your team?)

 

Here are seven ways you can build your resilience:

  • Find compassion
  • Prioritize relationships
  • Take care of your body
  • Avoid negative outlets
  • Move towards your goals
  • Accept change
  • Change your perception of the situation

The item above about avoiding negative outlets generated a lot of comments from the attendees. Many stated that they had to watch the news to keep caught up on things; COVID was everywhere, from the news to Facebook to Twitter, and so on. Note that we are not advocating to hide under the covers or go completely dark. How you choose to avoid or decrease negative outlets is for you to decide. One way would be to commit to watching the local news one night and the national news the next.  How about putting a snooze on some of the news outlets on your feeds?

Given that we do not know how COVID will affect our jobs and society until we have a viable vaccine, working from home and leading our teams under more stress is here to stay. Here are the key takeaways from our workshop:

  • Focus on the technology, engagement, and trust that enable productivity
  • Build your virtual team effectiveness by building trust
  • Update your team norms or agreements to take into account the complexities of WFH
  • Concentrate on how to make your meetings more effective
  • Communicate – Communicate – Communicate
    • Check out your listening levels and when to use them
    • Ask curious questions
    • Reflect back
    • Reframe
  • Build your resilience
  • Don’t be a workaholic
  • Take care of yourself, physically and mentally.

Related Information

Here are some of our favorite resources when we were creating the workshop:

New articles to consider:

 

Pamela Wagner and Andrea Buell presented this PMI Mile Hi Workshop on June 13, 2020. To register for the next North Professional Development Workshop (NPDW), please review the calendar on pmimilehi.org. If you would like to speak at an upcoming NPDW workshop, please contact NPDWorkshops@pmimilehi.org

About the Authors

Andrea Buell is a Certified Co-Active coach and project management specialist who enables people and teams to bring significant results to their projects and themselves.  Currently working as a Product Development Manager at medical device company, Medtronic, in Boulder, Andrea continually uses her varied skills in coaching, facilitating, training, and project management. She focuses primarily on the planning and scheduling areas.

Pamela Wagner is a Sr. Project Manager for the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Safety division of Denver Health and is the principal for White Bark Blue Sky Consulting.

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