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5 Ways to Make Your Virtual Team More Resilient in Times of Crisis

Bradley Kirkman, Ph.D., General (Ret.) H. Hugh Shelton Distinguished Professor of Leadership in the Department of Management, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Poole College of Management, has researched the unique dynamics of virtual teams since the late 1990s. Now, with a groundbreaking practitioner publication in Organizational Dynamics, he offers a timely guide for keeping those teams resilient in the face of adversity. 

“Houston, we’ve had a problem.” On April 13, 1970, Pilot Jack Swigert and the rest of the Apollo 13 crew issued a distress call when the explosion of an oxygen tank forced them to abort NASA’s third moon-landing mission only 56 hours into the flight. Facing a dangerous shortage of water, energy and oxygen, the crew members heeded instructions from engineers on the ground, more than 200,000 miles away, to build carbon dioxide absorbers using only materials contained within their spacecraft. Against all odds, they succeeded and returned home safely.

The Apollo 13 mission provides one of the first known examples of virtual team resilience—the capacity to bounce back from a setback that results in a loss of virtual team processes. Like Apollo 13, most of today’s teams face some degree of “virtuality” in their work, particularly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. Even after the pandemic finally subsides, many virtual teams are here to stay. If you aspire to lead an indestructible team, you need to take direct, intentional action to build team resilience: 

1. Build team confidence by empowering team members to complete meaningful work. 

When leading a virtual team, it can be tempting to cling to control and only delegate less mission-critical work to your remote employees. But effective leaders do more than give their team members more control. If you delegate a task that a virtual team member believes to be meaningless and unimportant, that team member is not likely to feel very confident or empowered to advance common goals. Our research finds that the more virtually a team operates, the more team members need a leader to empower them to complete the knowledge- and learning-oriented tasks that are so critical for team resilience. 

2. Prepare team strategy in advance. 

Using virtual training sessions and regular team meetings, ensure that your team develops a strategic knowledge base to handle whatever comes. Walk your team through a range of possible scenarios with an eye on barriers, constraints and opportunities. Each team member should have a clear, complete understanding of the actions they must take within their scope of responsibility depending on the contingency. 

3. Open the door to improvisation.

Try as they might, leaders can’t possibly plan for every specific scenario that could arise. To become resilient, virtual teams must develop the ability to improvise. Leaders can facilitate this process in several key ways. First, conduct whatever assessment or training necessary to ensure that your virtual team members possess the right combination of knowledge and skills to fulfill their role in a difficult time. Intentionally build a team with diverse perspectives, knowledge, backgrounds and experiences to offer specialized contributions. Second, foster team creativity however possible. Increase contact among team members at virtual meetings, happy hours and teambuilding events. Encourage teams to develop a shared history rather than changing membership frequently, if possible. Cultivate an environment that rewards team members for diverse, conflicting perspectives. When team members learn to work together to devise creative solutions, they gain resilience. 

4. Create an environment of psychological safety.

Resilience rests on a foundation of security. Focus on building a sense of psychological safety through asking for input early and often, making sure that virtual team members feel included and valued. Despite the challenges of communicating virtually, make a point to verbalize appreciation for the contributions of every team member. Discuss mistakes constructively, not critically, and demonstrate vulnerability by admitting your own mistakes and lessons learned. To the best of your ability in a non-physical workplace, keep “virtual doors” open to any team member with questions or disagreements. 

5. Do your part to minimize before, manage during, and mend after adversity.

Minimize the impact of adverse events through discussing likely challenges, simulating a response framework and creating a formal set of procedures and roles to guide team responses, whatever the situation. When inevitable problems arise, activate the strategies you have in place and prioritize interactive meetings to encourage all team members to contribute, participate and ask for help in areas they are falling behind. When the storm passes, facilitate after-action learning sessions to review strengths and improvement points in the team’s performance. Through minimizing adversity well before, managing during and mending after it strikes, you can maximize your limited time and energy to build team resilience over the long haul.