Check-Up Clinic: Tips for Virtual Teams

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8 Tips for Nonprofit Leaders to Better Support Virtual Teams

by Maryann Kerr

The charitable sector has long faced a challenge with turnover, toxic cultures, and a vast leadership gap. There are a variety of data points that inform this point of view including surveys from AFP and Gallup. As someone who works in the sector with 34 years of experience, I have seen this, experienced it and been a sounding board for others as they expressed their own pain, frustration, and trauma.

In 2019, I conducted a six-month research project looking into the topic of culture and organizational health in the sector. Countless books have been written about the impact of workplace stress on our health including Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Dying for a Paycheck. Pre-pandemic, movements like #HumansFirst and #DisruptHR and others promoted a kinder, gentler workplace that embraced employees as critical stakeholders who deserved to be treated well. The basic theory was to put the human back into human resources.

For those on the front lines of this pandemic, outside of the healthcare system, such as organizations that operate shelters for women and children escaping violence, provide homes for the homeless, address food insecurity, and assist children and youth in a multitude of ways, the consideration of how to do this work while maintaining a commitment to your values and the health of your organization and staff is daunting. It is also necessary. It is, in fact, the most basic rule of lifesaving, to save yourself first.

My natural disposition, like many who work in the organizational health field, is one of optimism and hopefulness. I’ve noticed that many in this field have a tendency towards coaching and are among an organization’s loudest cheerleaders. Many organizational health consultants will tell you to look for what your staff and organization are doing right and celebrate those moments.

I fully agree and what is incredibly apparent as we navigate these troubled times is that if you were not paying attention to the health of your organization before COVID-19, chances are you are feeling it now. Likely, the issues that plagued you when everyone came into the workplace are simply exacerbated in this new work from home environment. Despite this, I set out to find good news stories and examples of great remote work experiences in the social profit sector.

Here are just a few of the things I heard:

“I’m grateful to still be working, but honestly, the micromanagement is even worse now. I feel crushed by the weight of it and don’t know how to help my staff.”

“My organization has not made any effort to accommodate for the impact of the stress on our productivity. We are expected to be more creative. Come up with new solutions and frankly I’m just hanging on to my sanity. I live alone so everyone thinks it should be easier for me because I don’t have kids. The truth is, it isn’t easier, it’s simply different.”

“My boss freaks out if she hears children in the background. Or the dog. She was unreasonable when we worked in the same office and worse now. She has no patience at all.”

“Our CEO is great. LOL. He listens and asks how we are feeling. But you can hear the impatience in his voice. You can see that he isn’t really listening. He sees this as just one more thing to get through so he can get us back to doing our jobs. Which, I’ll add, is exactly what we are all trying to do.”

“I’ve heard many experiences where employees need to track hours, meetings are scheduled during lunch hours (when you have kids to feed) and so on. There seems to be no real understanding of what is happening in our homes.”

“The idea that we are working from home is false. We are surviving and, in my case, feeling guilty that I’m employed and many of my coworkers are not.”

I received only one good news story, third hand, about a company that held a webinar with 2000 employees where the CEO appeared on the screen in his pajamas. His message: I understand this is not business as usual.

I interviewed, posted on social media, and tried to find great examples of organizations successfully managing this work from home environment. It isn’t looking good. Even for organizations whose workforce traditionally worked mostly from home, everything has changed. So, what can you do? The consistent response to this question from successful leaders in the public, private and charitable sector is this:

  1. In discussion with your team, modify your expectations on timelines, productivity and all the metrics you traditionally track. Nothing is as it was. The stress of this experience takes a toll and must be factored into what you can expect your team(s) to achieve.
  2. Prioritize and share work in a way you may not have before. Effective meetings are more important than ever. Try daily check ins using the Japanese practice of Chorei to ensure you are keeping the most important priorities front and center and sharing workloads and supporting each other in real time.
  3. Be patient and considerate of the specific challenges of your team. This is both a collective and unique experience for each of us. Some will be home alone and lonely. Others may be desperate for a moment of peace. Still others may be caring for elderly family members or a combination of all three.
  4. Do you have Rules of Engagement? This is a set of practices that guided your approach to working together before the pandemic. How do these need to be adjusted? What does it look like now to work as a team from remote locations?
  5. Speak up and don’t skip the hard stuff. This moment in history asks each of us to dig deep and develop our own innate ability to lead. You do not need to hold a position of leadership to act. Speaking up, on your own behalf, and on behalf of others, is an act of leadership. If you have a concern or question, it is likely shared by others. If there is difficult news like layoffs and salary decreases, face them head on in an open and transparent way.
  6. Get to know each other on a whole new level. Whether you use Patrick Lencioni’s Personal Histories Exercise or the Clifton Strengths Finder or any number of other team building activities available online and adaptable to a video conference – just do it. Lencioni’s is a favorite because I’ve never seen it fail to improve a team’s understanding of each other. Do team members have hidden talents they’d like to share? A song, a poem, a musical instrument? A piece of artwork or craft they’d like to show? You are suddenly in each other’s homes. Use this as an opportunity to see each other as whole human beings not just workers. 
  7. Explore your values as individuals, teams and as an organization. Start with a free Personal Values Assessment and then facilitate a discussion about what is important to you as individuals and how this is reflected in how you will work together. Examine how these compare to your stated values as an organization. How can you ensure you live these values, particularly now?
  8. Don’t forget to celebrate the good stuff. You may need to lower the bar a little. Perhaps it was a week where everyone managed to be on the morning meeting. Perhaps it is a story from a donor or volunteer. Maybe it is as simple as singing Happy Birthday.

I welcome your good news stories. It is, perhaps, human nature to more readily share what isn’t going well than what is. As we celebrate and appreciate our health care and essential service workers, lets do them the service of taking care of each other by working well together.

Maryann Kerr, MA, Leadership is Chief Happiness Officer/CEO and principal consultant with the Medalist Group, a boutique organizational development and philanthropic firm she founded in 2006 with the mission to create well-led, kinder, collaborative, inclusive workplaces. She is a true believer that the health and well-being of our workplace is directly correlated with the health and well-being of our employees.

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