Leaders, perfect your virtual emotional intelligence

06 April 2020

Leading remote teams requires managers to step up and take the necessary accountability to lead by example. This includes managing their own emotions, but also those of their team.

Our interactions during the COVID-19 lockdown is limited to digital channels and a sea of faces on screens. In the midst of this unmatched humanitarian health pandemic, it is now more important than ever to be empathetic to the emotional well-being of the person on the other side of the screen. This means that many of the nuances of rich communication delivered through body language and tone might be diluted. The fact is that supporting virtual teams require leaders to pro-actively create awareness for emotions they may encounter via digital channels.

Facilitate engagement and support 

Many virtual meetings often start off with team members sharing their experiences of being under lockdown or to seek support from one another. This behaviour is completely understandable – virtual meetings might be one of the only times during the day people get to see another human face-to-face. The need to connect often takes priority. On the other side of the screen, team leaders might become concerned about how much meeting time is being diluted in the process as team members go into lengthy personal discussions not on the agenda or meeting outcomes.  

The solution lies in pro-actively creating a space on your virtual communication platform for the following:

  • Create a channel for team inspiration, humour and support. Team members often reach out to each other with a supportive message or a joke to lift everyone’s mood and spirit. Build a channel for this in consultation with HR to help set guidelines and parameters.
  • Prioritise time in the team calendar for virtual coffee breaks or lunches. Schedule an informal 15-20 minute slot for a virtual coffee break or a themed virtual lunch meeting. Here teams can share in supportive conversation and exchange of stories. Should these conversations pop up during formal meetings, they can be channelled productively into virtual breaks without making employees feel like their feelings or need for support is not being recognised.
  • Offer team members more one-on-one time in your calendar. Many conversations facilitated in group format contain the additional pressure of achieving productivity goals during extraordinary times. This may lead to key managers not reaching out for help as often as they need to. Schedule oneon-one catch ups and leave accountability up to the employee to utilise that time or not. These conversations may uncover signs that your star performers need more help than you may have realised.

Help your team recognise that what we are all experiencing right now, is grief.  

One of Harvard Business Review’s latest articles That discomfort you’re feeling is grief became one of the publisher’s most read stories, ever. Grief expert David Kessler creates awareness for the collective loss of normalcy we are all experiencing. The same stages of grief apply in many ways – denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance.

Every employee in your organisation is more than likely navigating his or her way through a different stage of grief right now. These emotions will inevitably spill over into your team’s work and productivity. Grief might manifest in controlling or micro-managing behaviours, while others may start to over-communicate and display a need for constant closure.

More than ever, you as a leader should take accountability for your own behaviour and set an example for your team. Have the courage to be vulnerable with your team in sharing your own experiences. Be brave enough to share where in the grief cycle you are. This act builds significant trust.

Use scheduled time for supportive engagement and equip virtual teams with the appropriate knowledge, tools or coping mechanisms. It does not have to be an HR exercise, but do consult with your people practitioners, organisational and management consultants – ultimately this change modelled by leadership must be effective and authentic.

Focus on purpose to help teams maintain resilience 

Help team members find their purpose and meaning in their work while confined to their homes. When we have purpose and meaning, we have a reason to get up in the mornings, keep calm and carry on.

Use this time as an opportunity to help teams discover skills or strengths, they never thought existed. This cements resilience, block by block.

And finally - celebrate milestones more often, no matter how big or small.