Sean Sullivan, Associate Media Consultant at The MediaShop, drives home some key ideas on leading a team through a lockdown. Remote work does not make a remote team. 

To really help our teams to rise to the top and bring out the best in each other, we need to adopt new ways of thinking and being. If you are hoping that this will blow over and things will get back to normal soon then you might be averse to this idea because you may see the current situation more as a pit stop rather than a detour. 

But I want to encourage you to assume a longer duration of the current situation. John Sanei, a futurist said, ‘Act like we are never going back to normal’. I know that’s not what you want to hear but embracing the idea that this might last a lot longer is a necessary first step if you are going to assist your team in committing to this way of working.

I want you to know that I have had the same resistance. There is nothing that beats the energy that is created in a room when a team of talented and intelligent individuals are feverishly working on bringing new ideas to life. I just facilitated a brainstorm online and found myself thinking time and time again that ‘it’s just not the same’. And that’s exactly the point. It’s not. But, also, it’s not supposed to be.

We cannot build new ways of working on old ways of thinking

It took me some time, but I am now fully accepting of working with teams online. I enjoy it. I measure it differently, I approach it differently and I hope that you will make that shift too. Below you will find a few high-value ideas on how to lead a team during times of lockdown where isolation and distance is the norm.

Your visibility and consistency is everything.

Your presence, albeit virtual, counts for a hell of a lot. Be visible. Every single day. Show that you are leading, trying, inspiring, and supporting your people. Be consistent with showing up, but also in the way you treat the people on your team.

The bearable deadline and the three directives

What makes this experience so unsettling is that there is no end in sight. If there were, things would be easier. Seeing the clock countdown makes the unbearable bearable. It gives us something to aim at. Goals do this for us. They give us something to work towards. But the idea of quarterly goals has been disrupted. It’s impossible to have the exact same goals as you did before.

Therefore my suggestion to teams has been to set three directives for the next 21 days, a timeframe provides certainty and directives provide direction (these are not explicit goals but rather a high-level theme).

The magic question

A question is a gift that unlocks new worlds. It opens the door to a new way of understanding. One team I worked with really showed me the potential that this question has to reshape the entire dynamics of a team. And that question is: ‘What do you need from me?’

When team members turn to each other and ask this question, magic happens. Leaders should be starting this new transition and phase with this exact question posed to their team. It’s a simple question that can create a deceptive amount of depth in a team in a relatively short period of time.

If there is enough trust in the team you will hear people asking for things such as support, to embrace different ways of working, for more understanding, and for more responsibility. In a team that has no trust, you will hear generic, superficial requests.

Fix the meeting

The playground for teams today is a meeting. And as a virtual team, you will be spending a lot of time in virtual meetings, which can be notoriously bad and often frustrating. Effective meetings are the signature trait of high-performing teams. Guess what, if your team currently has a poor experience when meeting, then this will be amplified online, so, it makes sense to get this right.

Obviously the first thing to figure out is which platform you’ll be using. Test it. Make sure it works. This is virtual meetings 101. Once that is taken care of, you need to find ways to allow the meeting to flow. I have found that the best meetings always have a few agreements that allow for ultimate flow. 

Agreement 1: To the point

Keep in mind that what makes virtual meetings challenging is the same thing that makes working from home challenging: association. Our screens are associated with scrolling, browsing, opening new tabs and multitasking. So, guess what happens once the meeting starts? We check our phones.

We see new notifications coming in. We glance at our calendar. We sneakily reply to that WhatsApp message that came in. What we need is focus and conciseness. Therefore, the first operating principle for meetings is exactly that.

Meetings are short and everyone’s full attention is required

You could even make a ritual of everyone putting their phones out of reach at the same time as a grand physical gesture of locking into the call.

Agreement 2: involve them all

Everyone speaks at every meeting. Ever noticed how speaking cues are much harder when on a call? Sometimes it’s because of a tech issue causing a delay but other times it’s because your turn to talk is interrupted by one of the ten other tiny thumbnails on the screen that were also waiting to talk.

To this end, it might be a good idea to have someone chair and facilitate the meeting. It doesn’t always have to be the leader. It’s just the job of the facilitator to make sure that we get input from everyone in the meeting. 

Agreement 3: the Yoda

Appoint someone in the meeting who is willing to challenge what is being said. The Yoda needs to say what is not being said in the meetings, help resolve disputes and ensure that candour is being exercised to the highest level. An additional role of the Yoda, and the reason why I included this point, is to keep the conversation on track. It’s easy to get side-lined and go down a tangent. The Yoda recognises when we are going too deep down a rabbit hole and then pulls people back so that the meeting stays focused and on point. 

Agreement 4: check-in and out

This is a great little tool and, I cannot believe I am saying this, an icebreaker. A quick check-in before we start is about gauging where people are emotionally before engaging with the meeting. You might not see the power of this right away but I encourage you to give it a go.

I have seen first-hand how people check-in by acknowledging that they aren’t in a good place and this immediately provides a moment for the team to rally around their colleagues. The check-out is a similar process. Everyone ends the call by sharing how they are currently feeling and what they are committing to next.

Agreement 5: we will get better

Want a great way to improve meetings? Do a post-mortem. Ask your team how they think the meeting went and what could have been done to make the meeting more effective. Listen to the suggestions. Evaluate them as a team. Make small tweaks. Add things that work to the agreements list and keep refining the team operating system. What I have seen is that most teams need to start in one of three areas: communication, accountability and trust.


Teams massively under-communicate, and once they go virtual, they either under-communicate even more or they fall straight over the edge and barrage each other with communication across email, video, WhatsApp, Slack and who knows what else. There are three components that we need to address here. 

Cadence, clarity, and channel.

  • Cadence: teams need to decide upfront what their communication cadence will be like. A golden rule is to have at least a daily huddle in which every team member gets to check-in. Preferably this is done via video. From here, we need to agree on when check-ins will happen or when we will convene to check on progress.
  • Clarity: digital communication lacks tone. No one can see your facial expression when typing. Additionally, writing can easily be ambiguous. Therefore, it’s important to translate tone – yes, you are encouraged to use emoji’s. And to ask yourself whether your writing is clear and concise before hitting the send button.
  • Channel: the quickest way to overwhelm your team is to use a thousand different applications and channels to communicate. Decide on a channel or medium and stick to it. A daily huddle is done on video. Status reports are done via text on Microsoft teams. Keep communications central.


This is a period of learning for everyone. You and your team will not get the whole ‘virtual team’ thing right without overcoming a myriad of challenges. But imagine getting to the end of this and having a team that functions well remotely as well as In Real Life (IRL). You would have created a flexible team that can operate even under the most strenuous circumstances. So, give yourself and your team some space to get this right.

Empathy in overdrive 

This is a crazy time for everyone. You think you understand what people are going through but you probably don’t. Neither do I. I am doing my best to imagine it but to be honest – it’s unfathomable. There are incredibly many levels to this including the entrepreneur who might lose his business, the entrepreneur who does, the employee who takes a pay cut, the employee who is cut. The freelancer with some work, the freelancer with no work. The family reliant on a breadwinner who has been retrenched. The sick, the elderly or the weak. Now is the time to be more compassionate and more understanding for what your teammates might be going through but also the world at large.

Fight the enemy

Having said all of that, now is not the time to back off. Remember what we are going through is not a pit stop, it’s a detour. Commit to a new way of work in full. Give your people something to fight for, because they already are. It doesn’t matter what the future brings. The reality is, for now, you have the opportunity to refine the way your team operates in a distributed and virtual manner.

Go for it! Commit. Become the best damn virtual team that you can be. And then, when things go back to ‘normal’ be the best IRL team that you can be, because ultimately what that creates is flexibility. A team that adapts; that evolves to meet the challenges it faces. And nothing, nothing, is more dangerous than a team that has mastered that. 

Source: Erik Kruger, team coach and keynote speaker.

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