6 steps to support your virtual team through change

If you’re new to leading a virtual team, with a dispersed team also new to telecommuting, you will need as many resources as possible to help you succeed in this new mode of being with your colleagues and coordinating work online. Leadership in times of crisis requires technical skills which must necessarily rest on a strong ability to create and maintain positive relations over a phone or computer. The tips in this post are also useful if you are gradually returning to the office, a moment which is also fraught with uncertainty.

You already know how to organize work, create effective business processes, assign roles and tasks. I will therefore focus on the soft skills, and in particular the coaching skills that are key to motivating and empowering colleagues through change, even more so when working under stress and at a distance.

In times of stress, as team leader you might be one of the few sources of encouragement for your colleagues, so don’t hesitate to be positive and supportive. At times you will also have to be decisive and provide direction amidst much uncertainty. To navigate these different leadership styles, you will find it useful to empower yourself with these easy and practical coaching skills in six steps.

1. Understand how people are affected by change

In the current pandemic crisis, working from home is not the only change that you and your team are experiencing. You might be dealing with multiple, concurrent and sometimes shocking changes, related to health, family, job security, working conditions, finances, social life, all compounded by an impossibility to predict how things will go in the near future and the fear of new disruptions arising.

As a team leader it’s important for you to acknowledge that the stress level in your team might be higher than usual and that each individual has different challenges and unique ways of coping with the changes they’re experiencing.

There are many models about change, and I find that William Bridges encapsulates this complex concept elegantly in what he calls “Transitions”, the three psychological stages that individuals go through as they experience change.

The first stage, “Endings” is when the change occurs, it’s the moment when we leave something behind, and it may cause feelings of shock, loss, anger, confusion or anxiety. The “Neutral Zone” is the second stage, a time of incertitude and chaos, when we’re not sure about how things may turn out, accompanied by feelings of discomfort, isolation, skepticism and feeling stuck. However it is also a fertile zone from which new ideas will eventually emerge. The last stage, “New Beginnings” occurs when people come to terms with the change and embrace the new possibilities that it offers.

During this pandemic we are all still in very midst of a difficult and fluctuating period. Most people are either at the “Endings” stage or at best, in the “Neutral Zone” in many areas of their life. This means that your colleagues could be experiencing anxiety, confusion and worry about the future.

Understanding how individuals experience change will enable you to understand your own reactions to change and exhibit empathy towards your team members as they navigate through change. This will also help everyone to become proactive in spite of the feelings of uncertainty.

2. Understand your role and the impact you can have

Now team leaders are not psychologists – and that shouldn’t be your role – but they can be compassionate human beings, which goes a long way to boosting morale. So make sure that you take into account the emotional state that your team members are experiencing as this has a direct impact on their well-being, engagement, performance and productivity. If you have a colleague in extreme distress, always refer them to a health professional.

If your team is small enough, take the time to check-in with each person in a one-to-one conversation. You will help them adapt to the new conditions by acknowledging that the recent changes at work may be uncomfortable. The simple fact of listening to people’s concerns is a powerful way of reducing their stress and building trust. When working online, it’s even more important to show your humanity and willingness to navigate through difficult times together with the team. If you’re leading a very large team, reserve a part of your online meetings to discuss how the change is affecting everyone.

With individuals, or in a group setting, use open-ended, solution-focused questions to guide your conversation. This will signal that you understand your colleagues, you acknowledge what they’re going through and you’re willing to explore solutions. A coaching approach opens up trust and reinforces motivation.

Your role at this stage is to open a space for dialogue and to listen carefully with mind and heart so that your colleagues feel heard. You will also seize this opportunity to understand their needs and find appropriate solutions as far as possible.

3. Avoid wasting time

Whether you’re talking with an individual, or to a group of people, you need not spend hours and hours on this. If you keep your conversations structured, as in the examples below, you will go directly to the core of the issues that need to be addressed. People get worn out when spending a long time just venting, they want to be heard but they also appreciate a shift in focus towards solutions. As a leader who uses coaching skills you will be able to achieve both a time for listening and time for defining actions.

In all cases, the time you invest in this process will pay off a hundred times in terms of the trust you generate with your colleagues, the impetus you can give to navigating change more serenely and the positive impact on team performance.

4. Acknowledge people’s experience of change

It’s important for your colleagues to express how they feel about the change they’re going through as this contributes to decreasing the stress level, or at least to providing a temporary moment of relief so that a glimpse of new perspectives can emerge. It can help people transition from an “Endings” phase of feeling the shock of change, to a “Neutral Zone” from which to observe the situation and perhaps perceive some positive aspects, however small. Or it may speed up the transition to “New beginnings” if you’re already near that stage.

An effective coaching approach at this stage is to “ask rather than tell“. To invite people to reflect and express their views, rather than giving them tons of unsolicited (even if well-meaning) advice. Asking open-ended questions that invite reflection is a key coaching skill that opens up new perspectives.

Here are is a sequence of questions that demonstrate that you’re attentive to your team’s experience in times of change, while staying focused on the key issues around the changing work conditions.

  • How are you experiencing the new work arrangements?
  • What’s the most difficult aspect?
  • What are you worried about at this moment?
  • What are the positive aspects of this new way of working?

Another coaching skill that you can apply now is to listen carefully. That requires you to still your mind and focus entirely on the person who is speaking. You will be surprised to what extent people can actually feel when you are listening to them attentively (and also when you’re not!), and how much they appreciate it.

5. Discuss their needs and explore solutions

The next step is to understand the needs in the team and explore solutions that can be brought. So now you’re moving from a moment for expressing feelings or venting, to a time for looking at the practical aspects that will make the situation easier to manage.

Be prepared to discover all sorts of needs that have to be met. A lot of it depends on how successfully your company has deployed virtual work and return the physical office. These may be personal needs such as time off to take care of a family member. Or they might relate to technology, hardware, software and training. Your colleagues might need more information or transparency. They might need new work processes or simply your support to deal with other departments.

Open the discussion to focused on current needs, not what might have been or what may be necessary one day in the future. It will give team members the opportunity to express their immediate needs and you will gain invaluable information on adjustments you might have to make. Start simply by asking:

What do you need right now ?

Briefly discuss the needs and immediately categorize them into 3 groups depending on whether they can be met or not.

  1. Yes, it’s possible (decide the next steps)
  2. No, it’s not possible (explain why)
  3. Don’t know (decide who will look into it)

As a leader who coaches, empower your team members to be involved in taking the next steps. It’s a great opportunity to delegate and get the team to take ownership of the solutions.

To make sure that you’ve covered everything, at the end of this part of the conversation give your team the last word by asking an important question that might unveil additional concerns.

  • In what other ways can I support you?

6. Reality check – determine how to work together in spite of all the uncertainty

At this point you have:

  • visibly recognized that your team are going through difficult times of change
  • created a space for dialogue and listened to their concerns
  • understood your team’s needs, made a list of what items can be fulfilled and decided on next steps.

The last step is to reinforce your colleagues’ coping capabilities to face change and uncertainty.

An important aspect of having a coaching approach is to leverage strengths rather than amplify weaknesses. A very useful strategy comes to us from Appreciative Inquiry, a positive process model for achieving individual or group change. The idea is to look to the past to discover, or re-discover situations in which a person or a team used strengths to overcome a difficult situation and then model those strengths for the present challenge.

I believe that human beings are actually very adaptable and proficient at handling change. Every person’s life is punctuated by change. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes wanted, most of the time unexpected, we’ve been handling change since the day we were born, and we’re probably much better at managing it than we think.

Use your talent as a leader who coaches to ask open-ended questions that will look for strengths in the face of change. Here are some examples:

  • What other situations of change have you experienced?
  • How did you handle the change?
  • What professional skills did you have to use?
  • What personal qualities did use?
  • How could you use your skills and qualities today, in the current situation?

The people you are talking with will come up with all sorts of coping methods they have used, from technical competences, to meditation practice or sports, to focus groups and other work methodologies, to personal qualities such as resilience and courage.

Of course you would be perfectly capable of rolling out a long list of advice and tips on how to live in times of change and uncertainty, but by using a coaching “ask rather than tell” approach, you will inspire others to identify their own strengths, to reconnect with what has already worked for them.

You will also show that you believe in their ability to find their own solutions, and really there’s no better way to empower others at a time when they most need to muster up all the strength they can.

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