Coronavirus 101: How to manage a team effectively over a screen

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As the Coronavirus continues to affect more and more people across the globe, companies have been forced to enter into a new reality – employees working remotely and business being done virtually. In the Bay Area and Seattle-area, companies such as LinkedIn and Microsoft, are asking employees to work from home and others, such as Facebook and Amazon are shutting down their offices completely. Conferences are being canceled, offices are being shut down and domestic and international travel is being suspended.

To navigate this situation and to encourage a calm, rational approach, we need to recognize how fear, anxiety, and fatigue can escalate when people don’t feel engaged. The truth is that to be successful, virtually leading a company comes with a new set of challenges. Trust in their leadership is critical, so being seen as the person who they can trust to navigate through these uncertain times is essential. Understanding how people respond to the crisis, being overwhelmed by stress that can turn to fear, it is during these times that leaders need to step up and communicate a way forward with clarity, compassion and open communication.

Here are 3 steps leaders can take to navigate their employees, and their companies, through these uncertain times.

What you wear sets the tone….at least from the waist up

Just because the office is closed doesn’t mean how you appear changes. In fact, your personal appearance matters even more. Employees follow leaders who exude the values they believe in. Calm, confident, compassionate and in control. A leader’s style is read instantly and unconsciously as markers of trust, capability, professionalism, and success. The confidence that exudes with the right look is, arguably, even more, important than the message they are delivering – setting the tone for your employees to be engaged with all their senses, whether they know it or not.

When a leader hasn’t taken the time to appear professional on-screen, it’s likely their team will unconsciously sense that their leader isn’t in control of the situation. What you see is what they experience. How you come across matters (which means keeping your camera settings so that you always have a view of how you appear to others.) Set up your video so everyone can see you clearly.

The story that happens behind you is important

This is an opportunity to give insights into your personal world with vulnerability and authenticity. How many of us find it refreshing to see your boss’s child run into view? It’s relatable and it’s the reality of working from home. All too often we get on a video call and we are instantly hit with negative reactions. Someone may have backlighting that makes you want to look away or lighting so dim your eyes strain to find their face. Someone may only have half of their face in view that you unconsciously look below to screen to find the rest of them. Others have so much “stuff” behind them that you start to focus on the clutter and not the conversation at hand.

So, take a look at what’s on your bookshelves and desk – do you have pictures of your family, adventures, and life outside of the office? Are they clean and well organized with simple decor that exudes a calming effect? How about your desk chair – does the back of the chair overwhelm you so that we see more of the brown leather high back that your body?

Hit the topic of the Coronavirus head-on, early and with compassion

Instead of assuming you know what people are thinking, take the time to find out and create a safe space for open dialogue.

Encourage your team to step into another person’s shoes, understand their point of view, and discover how empathy creates the highest level of trust that we can experience together. One definition of trust is “feeling safe when vulnerable.” You have to understand the feelings people have in a crisis. And you have to acknowledge to them that “this is indeed frightening.” You have to acknowledge that what is happening is a cause for anxiety.

A successful leader is someone who deeply cares about every person on their team so lead the conversation with vulnerability and commitment. They need to know that things will be ok and that they have a company and a leader that cares more about their personal lives than the company’s bottom line. Leaders avoid addressing emotional commitment directly because it’s hard to know what people are feeling, and especially difficult to manage emotions at the scale of hundreds or thousands of people. Speak to their emotions, their fears, nerves and concerns. “How are you doing?” “How are you handling all of what’s happening around the world?”

Focusing on how this crisis is affecting their personal lives first and finding ways to support them in their jobs will inspire them to stay connected, committed and empowered. Proactively call on individuals who may not always speak up so that the team can fully collaborate. (Asking questions directly to them not only keeps people from multi-tasking and tuning out but keeps them engaged and ensures that you are hearing from everyone – even those that are shy on the camera.) In the end, hitting these topics head-on will also allow everyone to get back to business faster.

People need to believe in your leadership, they need to know that things will be ok and that they have a company, and a leader, who truly cares about them. They have to see consistency in your actions and messaging, your deep commitment to your employees, steadfast loyalty to the core values, your courage to make the tough calls and your vulnerability to share who you are.

Janel Dyan is an Executive Brand Strategist and author of Story. Style. Brand.: Why Corporate Results Are a Matter of Personal Style.