The COVID-19 pandemic has upended social habits and scrambled workplace routines. Today, with up to half of all Americans working from couches, kitchen tables and improvised desks under “safer at home” recommendations, many of the practices managers have always relied on to unify teams are no longer feasible. How can people maintain workday boundaries when meetings can be scheduled at all hours? How can they keep a professional façade when team members can overhear a family squabble brewing in another room? What to make of bad home haircuts, exhausted faces, unreliable Wi-Fi, or the anger, grief and guilt stirred by the George Floyd killing and ensuing protests?

Today, with no chance to meet around a conference room table or even exchange pleasantries in a hallway, managers need to “get back to BASICS” to support and engage employees, even when they’re miles apart.

Here’s how the acronym works:

B Is for Bonding

Friday bagels or beer is out. Instead, look for the big and small things that hold people together — moments of fun and times in which people talk about the mission. How are we, collectively, bigger than the sum of our parts? Try a buddy system: Partner experienced and newcomer employees to check in with each other. Take low-key office customs like a coffee hour into cyberspace and create new ones, such as sharing a daily win or challenge. Create a virtual background that situates everyone in the same “space.” What’s important, though, is that bonding activities are flexible, optional and not judged. People are juggling many new responsibilities (becoming teachers, chefs, fulltime caretakers, cleaners, hairdressers and many other roles) in the pandemic, so bonding activities shouldn’t add a burden.

A Is for Agility

Yes, the ground is shifting under us, and we’ve got to stay nimble. Managers need to encourage teams to be curious, observant and attuned to social change. Because learning needs to happen so rapidly, the fastest route is often peer-to-peer: What did you try? How did it work? Did you notice this? Yes, let me show you how I handled that. Reward team members who network, experiment and coach each other. Encourage nonlinear ways of thinking and adapting.

S Is for Safety

It’s important that people feel physically and psychologically safe in high-stress times. While the best physical protections against COVID-19 have become clear — mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing — managers need to provide psychological safety, too. Team members need to know they can disagree, offer nontraditional ideas and experiment. Set the example that no one’s job or ego is on the line if an experiment doesn’t pay off as expected. A crisis is messy — and so is innovation.

I Is for Inclusion

This is enormous. The statistics around telework paint a stark picture of racial and social class divides. African Americans are more represented in low-wage jobs that expose them to greater disease risk, have more responsibility with less support at home, and face far greater odds of dying from COVID-19 than white people do. In Louisiana, for example, 7 in 10 people who’ve died from COVID-19 are African American, despite the fact that black people represent 32 percent of the state population. The Black Lives Matter protests respond not just to police brutality, but to systemic racism and strain that goes unaddressed. Inclusion, of course, stretches beyond race and socioeconomic status to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, learning style, disability and many other factors. Notice your own reactions, particularly when you feel frustrated or judgmental: Are you penalizing one group more harshly than another? Are you taking into account — or have you sought to find out about — the responsibilities and challenges that your employees and peers face?

C Is for Compassion

Compassion means being courageous enough to acknowledge that yes, we are all in the same storm, but not everyone is in the same boat. Be proactive and ask, don’t assume — do people need additional flexibility, equipment, tech support or anything else. Give people the option to provide updates via Slack rather than always needing to be present on video. Make sure your expectations for how much people can produce and how fast are realistic. The more you can acknowledge and reduce suffering — even through simply listening when you can’t solve the issue — the stronger and more engaged your team can be.

S Is for Strategic Alignment

After a crisis, there is a “new normal,” and you’ll need to think carefully about what that will look like for your team. Ask yourself: Where are we now compared to where the organization needs us to go? Grab a pen and paper to map out the old values, behaviors and norms (particularly the unspoken ones) and contrast that with what a new normal might require. Identify: Where are there gaps, what needs to change, what actions need to be carried out and how? Reckon, too, with how comfortable you are with change and how feeling in limbo might affect your mood and resilience.

The COVID-19 pandemic has overturned the way people work. Getting back to BASICS will allow for the compassionate, responsive leadership that every organization urgently needs now.



Leading Virtual Teams
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About the Expert

Laura Morgan Roberts

Associate Professor of Business Administration

An expert in diversity, authenticity and leadership development, Roberts’ research and consulting focuses on the science of maximizing human potential in diverse organizations and communities. The author of more than 50 research articles, teaching cases and practitioner-oriented content aimed at strategically activating one’s best self through strength-based development, her work has also been featured in global media outlets. She has also edited three books: Race, Work and Leadership; Positive Organizing in a Global Society; and Exploring Positive Identities and Organizations.

Prior to joining Darden, Roberts served on the faculties of Harvard Business School, Georgetown University McDonough School of Business and Antioch University’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change.

B.A., University of Virginia; M.A., Ph.D., University of Michigan