Leading a remote team through a crisis

Update (February 24, 2022): I originally wrote this post in January 2021 after the insurrection at the US capital. As I write this update, the biggest crisis is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but that certainly isn’t the only crisis that a US team might be facing, especially a team that cares deeply about DEI.

You may not be able to directly impact any of the ongoing crises. But you as a manager have the ability to help work be a place that makes things better for your team today, not worse. Keep your eye on what you have agency over, and exercise that agency with compassion.

I’ll be real with you: this post is very unlikely to help you navigate our current state of unrest and ongoing domestic terrorism in the US. My hope is that – assuming we all get through this moment – it will help you make enough sense of it to feel a little readier for the next crisis to hit your team, whether it’s brought on by external circumstances, internal conflicts, or anything in between.

I’m assuming you’re reading this blog as a manager (or aspiring manager) of a mission-driven team. You care about the work your team does on a level that isn’t just about being able to pay your rent. It matters to you that the work gets done – you care about the “effective” in “effective and equitable” – and so for you, it isn’t simply a matter of saying “work can pause while the world burns.” (If you are in a place where work can pause while the word burns, for goodness’ sake, pause it.) These are a few things I’ve learned from leading remote teams through difficult moments over the last few years; obviously none of those difficult situations were quite what we’re facing now, but I’m willing to bet that the lessons will continue to apply.

Crisis situations demand a focus point.

When something at work feels like an emergency, our instincts tell us to try to fix everything at once. We then fail to fix anything.

When there’s an emergency outside of work, maybe that captures all of our attention, and it becomes difficult to refocus on what we were there to do in the first place. Maybe we focus all our attention on work because that’s where we can exercise a little bit of control, but we end up focusing on things that don’t move our team forward.

In any event, the greatest gift you can give your team is a clear point of focus. What is the number one most important thing each person does? What changes about that when there’s a truly urgent situation? How can a team member know what’s most important for them to focus on, as quickly as a crew member of the Enterprise knows where to go when a red alert is called on Star Trek? How can you, the manager, help someone prioritize quickly in the event that some work needs to get dropped?

Review your work-emergency kit.

It’s likely that there are some foreseeable categories of crisis, and for those you can make specific incident response plans. These kinds of plans aren’t just for ops teams at big tech companies: system outages, family emergencies, power failures – these are things for which you can assemble a virtual emergency kit for your team to pull from when the time comes.

My work-emergency kits have included sample email language for rescheduling meetings or sharing a system outage; responsibility charts (ideally a full RACI or MOCHA chart) for who does what communication and who needs to approve lists or emails; report templates for lists of people I’m likely to need to email or call in case of an issue; and the EAP phone number if my workplace offers phone counseling as part of an Employee Assistance Plan.

You’re going to have to talk about it.

Dealing with all of this remotely adds another layer of effort: most of the time, you won’t be able to just look around the room and gauge how people are feeling. You won’t be able to intuit that folks are being affected by the situation at hand. You have to assume that at least some people are, and proactively make space for people to come to you if they need help prioritizing or can’t make their focus work that day.

You have to name that it makes sense for them to need you for this, and that that’s what you’re there for. Otherwise, people will hold back on asking for help for fear of looking unprofessional or wasting your time, and that’s a quick recipe for folks to spiral out into fear or anxiety before you realize what’s happening. By the time you see that they aren’t okay, they (and the work) may need a lot more effort to re-center.

It’s okay to not be ready. It’s not okay to be silent.

Many of us are navigating this particular set of circumstances for the first time. We’re inventing protocols and responses as the need arises. It’s expected and okay to not have all the answers, as long as you’re keeping lines of communication open and taking your staff seriously when they tell you they’re struggling. Be clear that you know that there are challenges, name the challenges you expect, and be open to understanding that others are likely facing difficulties you hadn’t even considered.

This is hard. It’s chaotic. But despite everything, I still put my faith in the power of a focused plan and empathy for the team. Let’s see what good we can do, friends.

If you need more concrete manager actions to take right now, read the unfortunately evergreen Managering in Terrible Times by Lara Hogan.

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