Three strategies to achieve teamwork in a crisis

New Zealand was recently hit with a 7.8 earthquake that rocked Wellington city to such an extent that 11% of the buildings in the CBD were affected. Many of them closed for business.

That left teams working from home or scrambling to find new ways of working. Leadership teams weren’t prepared to be developing workplace strategies around distributed teams and all the new challenges that brings.

At Transformed Teams, we partnered with the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency to provide free support to local business leaders and managers dealing with the earthquake crisis.

Leadership teams told me that their teams were increasingly stressed by the lack of certainty about when they would be back in their usual work location. Another problem was that some team members went ‘AWOL’, not staying in touch with their team leader and not responding to attempts to communicate with them, despite being personally safe.

From other sources I heard of teams experiencing significant frustration, particularly around inconsistent communication.

In a crisis team behaviours go out the window affecting the Workplace Experience.

What could these leadership teams do to get their teams back on track with regards to performance and communication?

I couldn’t promise my leadership teams a solution that would be as easy as a coat of paint – teamwork isn’t generally solved with a silver bullet – but it is possible to apply simple workplace strategies in a short space of time. I chose three proven strategies that work well for distributed teams and could be implemented with relative ease.

The three strategies I offered these leaders provided each of their teams with solid ways to improve connection, communication and empowerment in their teams. Why empowerment? Because in a time of crisis, opportunities for communication and management are at a premium. Leadership teams who empower their teams can free up valuable time and headspace. None of these strategies takes more than an hour to implement.

In a time of crisis, your primary focus is the practical issues that come from the disruption. You’ll generally find that your team can last several days or even up to a week, using their own initiative to make decisions and surviving quite well with a lack of communication. After that, things begin to fragment. Assuming that your team is a team of knowledge workers. 

The experience in Wellington, NZ after the Kaikoura earthquakes was that after a week of lack of direction and fragmented teamwork, frustration and bad habits started to set in. Interestingly, a week or two is all it takes for cracks to show in distributed teams that aren’t dealing with a crisis – not much longer.

So what are the three workplace strategies that can save a team in a crisis? Perhaps ‘save’ is an overreach. Let’s say ‘help’.


Firstly, create connection

When a crisis hits the deepest and most needful parts of our human nature kick in – we want security, warmth, food, absence of pain. The lower eschalons of Maslow’s hierarchy. Without the basics, teams can cease to function.

It’s important to reconnect, to maintain human connection.

For those who’ve never experienced it – and perhaps that is you, reading this now – it is easy to underestimate the extent to which a natural disaster can shake your footing. If you imagine the carpet being ripped out from underneath you, and then the floor collapsing, and then the ground turning to quicksand, you have an idea of how people feel when their livelihood is threatened by a natural disaster. Certainty is distant. Confusion feels permanent.

How to maintain connection? Obviously you should make contact with your team members to ensure their safety, if you’re dealing with a natural disaster or unsure of their whereabouts during a local incident.

There’s another important step to take to maintain close team connection. Those in the IT industry will have heard of Agile Methodology. For those of us in consulting, accounting, law or marketing, ‘agile’ is just starting to come to the fore. Agile is a methodology established to create closer alignment with customer requirements. It came out of the the IT world in the early 2000s and has been used by major organisations throughout Australia, NZ and the world in that time. Agile is by far the leading practice methodology for project management within IT and it is now catching on in other areas including finance and marketing. Leadership teams in other sectors including the public sector, are also studying its principles.

Agile provides us with the first strategy. Agile teams use daily ‘scrums’ to facilitate a short feedback cycle – a maximum of two weeks between customer engagement and delivery. This was a huge breakthrough considering that IT projects under the alternative model – ‘waterfall’ – could go for 3- 6months before getting feedback.

Scrum is a 10 minute meeting, by phone or video conference if you’re working in a distributed fashion, when each person answers three questions briefly, usually:

  1. What I have achieved since the last scrum
  2. Obstacles I face
  3. What I plan to achieve before the next scrum

Scrum is a tool for free-flowing communication. It allows you to identify issues as soon as they arise. It saves one person from becoming the bottleneck of communication.

Staying connected as a team with a short daily meeting is a powerful way to reinforce your team’s cultural norms and for people to maintain social contact.

Most team members will intuitively appreciate the need to create a way of staying in touch during this time and as part of a leadership team, you’re the right person to set up this daily commitment.  All in all it will take you ten minutes to institute a daily scrum, with an email to staff or an announcement at your next team meeting and ten minutes to hold your first scrum.

Scrum won’t solve all your problems but it’s a trusted method that is easily implement, which will improve your team’s connection, social contact and keep the positive Workplace Experience alive.

Limiting the number of questions to three is the winning formula, whether you want to use the questions above or change them. However, think about keeping the original format because it keeps your team’s focus on performance.

One of the keys to an effective scrum is to take questions and discussions offline, so that the meeting stays short, focused and disciplined. This will help team members to come prepared – the other key to success.

Balanced with genuine sensitivity to people’s circumstances, the usual scrum questions are a powerful way to reinforce a culture of performance while staying connected as a team.

Secondly, increase empowerment

As a team leader or manager, what do you think is your most powerful tool for creating a high-performing team? Likeability? Vision? Competence? Strong communication? None of these. TRUST is your currency. Trust is more important than the cash you pay your staff or any of the benefits you offer. By a country mile.

Trust is particularly important in a crisis, when people have a sense of being out of control. Being in control of your life, decisions and choices is essential for people’s health, wealth and happiness.

Empowering staff with greater trust at a time when they feel they’ve lost their sense of control is just a great thing to do. There is no better way to do this than to give staff responsibility or autonomy over something that they would otherwise need to run past you.

What is one result that you can empower each staff member to achieve, without needing to check on you, during this time? Where you can give your staff member complete responsibility over that process, result, area, system or KPI?

Where you can give your staff member complete responsibility – a process, result, area, system or KPI?

During a crisis, it might be quite difficult to get information you need to make all the decisions in your business. Meanwhile your staff can often see the full extent of a problem of which you may not have full visibility. Your staff members may actually be in a better position to make a decision than you realise.

Another clear reason for increasing empowerment is that around 85% of people thrive when they are given the freedom to generate results without micromanagement. Empowering your staff is a more efficient way to do business than micromanaging.

It can’t hurt to put extra effort into developing trust, in fact you probably need to do that more than you realise. Most leaders overestimate the degree of trust their staff have in them – just like most of the population overestimates the quality of their driving. It’s called the better-than-average effect.

Instead as leaders we need to realise that we probably need to work harder on building trust.

Teams need more trust, not less, in a time of crisis. The challenge of having to trust your team more than you would like is only overcome as you try it. Extend trust and you’ll discover that your staff will rise to the challenge.

If you identify one result or impact that each staff member could handle completely autonomously without you, you’ll be amazed at what your team members come back with when you give them that freedom.

If you identify one result or impact that each staff member could handle completely autonomously without you, you’ll be amazed at what your team members come back with.

Consider it a trial if you like. Call it a trial, pilot, experiment or any similar term – you’re using this opportunity to trial giving your team member complete responsibility for ‘x’. If this one thing goes well, there could be others that you’d like to trust them with. If it doesn’t go well, you can pull back from the commitment without having raised any expectations.

This strategy is about seizing the opportunity to communicate that you’re putting faith in your staff. You might find that some staff members find this so new that it is uncomfortable. This was the experience at Ritz Carlton when they decided to give their staff, each frontline staff member, a budget of $2,000 to spend on a customer experience, anytime they wanted, without seeking permission. They explained the system and yet some staff members came back two or three times to check if it is really ok if they spend that money without permission. I can understand their consternation.

Empowering your staff with this simple strategy – one new responsibility that is completely autonomous – will take around 20 minutes, including planning, but that’s a lot easier than trying to continue to be the decision maker on every small matter, or most small matters. Perhaps there are also large matters you could also let go.

Thirdly, improve communication

This last suggestion is perhaps the most powerful tactic leaders and leadership teams can use to address team culture.

What does it do to your team culture to have one staff member be non-responsive on email? Or appear to go AWOL for a period of time?

Not everyone has the same idea of communication. We attach different meanings to the word ‘responsive’, for example. For you, responsive could mean a response within two days, whereas for someone else it could mean a response within two hours. Those are both entirely reasonable views, neither is right or wrong. When you don’t hear from your colleague for two days, you may be dealing with an innocent case of poorly aligned expectations.

If your team members have come from different backgrounds e.g. the public service and corporate worlds, they don’t necessarily share a common view about what is the best way to communicate in your team ever, let alone right now.

In a crisis situation, the previous communication norms might no longer be relevant – people were never allowed to call your mobile unless it was urgent, now they can only call your mobile because you’re not allowed back to your desk.

Communication norms can be much more complex than which device you use. Who makes decisions? Who is involved? How are those decisions communicated? Who needs to know what now? Meetings, use of email, use of personal devices, calling clients etc. -team members will see each of these differently.

The more uncertainty there is around communication, the less likely communication is going to happen as you would like it to.

You need to tie down these uncertainties to ensure good information flow. But if you decree a method, you could create problems for some people who are dealing with new hassles they never had to deal with before – other people in the home, their Internet connection isn’t as good at home as it is at work, they don’t have access to their full suite of programs and so on.

Let’s talk about how to manage this.

Create an interim team charter. Whether you call it a charter or an agreement or communication protocol, it is a documented modus operandi.

A charter is an agreement around your teams ways of working together and it generally focuses on communication. Each team member contributes to the charter, so you can achieve a high degree of ownership. Because each team member was involved in creating it, the charter can account for each individual’s unique circumstances and preferences. Because the whole team is involved, team mates can be sure that it is good for the whole team.

In this crisis situation, I suggest that your charter is an intermediate arrangement focused on communication right now. Here is how:

  1. Gather your team together, over the phone or videoconferencing if you can’t meet in person
  2. Ask the team “What is important to you right now about how we communicate as a team?”. Topics might include access to phones, email, meeting times, clarity around decision making, how team members want to be informed.
  3. Collect the team’s ideas and clarify words and phrases that are not behaviours so that they are described as behaviours with questions like: “What does that look like in action / in practice?” and “How would you know if that wasn’t done?”
  4. Check all team members agree
  5. Document these agreed behaviours as your interim team charter

Never waste a good crisis.

You could find that Scrum is a powerful tool to increase information flow within your team, which you want to keep going with after your crisis has subsided.

Perhaps pre-crisis you failed to realise how you were being an obstacle to your staff’s progress. With a trial of greater empowerment under your belt you might start making plans for what you’ll do with your extra time – strategise and lead, rather than implement.

The team charter is a feature of all the best high performing distributed teams. Why not extend the team charter conversation once the crisis is over, to what is important to your team about communication in general? You’ll unearth your team members’ real values and create a common basis for understanding, trust, respect and ultimately, better teamwork.

Schedule an Information Call today to find out more about our services.

Sign up for thought-provoking insights

Leave a Comment