Vera Babat lends her advice on how to help others navigate working remotely while coping with the global pandemic

Inside Abstracta, due to the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19), we’re facing a time of a drastic and rapid culture change, as we move our work and daily operations from our offices to our homes. And we know we are not alone in this.

As for the care of our employees and their well-being, being 100% dispersed in remote teams brings many challenges beyond the technical and organizational.

Although it’s true that we already have some members who work remotely, the context of the global pandemic we are facing and the necessary measures of social distancing add further complexity to how we lead our teams

Our Chief People Officer, Vera Babat, has offered to share with us her perspective as a clinical psychologist in a video she recorded for our community of clients, colleagues, partners, etc. that we’d like to share with you.

In the video below, she shares reflections and ideas to generate a leadership culture in times of crisis; leadership based on trust and mutual care, which is so necessary in a challenging environment full of exceptions that impact everyday life such as children without school, access to supplies and a host of other concerns that take work away from our primary focus.

Below the video you can find some major takeaways as well as a full, edited transcription.

We hope you can find some useful advice!

Featured Highlights

Considerations Before Taking Action

  • Health is a state of physical, mental and social well being and it’s the foundation to living a full life.
  • These stressful times put a lot of strain on people’s ability to cope and we need to pay attention to how our team members are faring, physically and emotionally.
  • It’s important to help others strike the right balance between being optimistic and pessimistic, as siding with either on the extreme level leads to apathy and withdrawal.
  • Even though we’re practicing social distancing, it’s best to promote connectivity to prevent loneliness among our colleagues and loved ones.
  • Remember that during this crisis, your colleagues are not only concerned with their jobs right now, but are most likely confronting a whole host of added concerns that they wouldn’t normally have, thus diverting their attention. These may include childcare, caring for loved ones, added strain on relationships, accessing food and medications, etc.
  • Nurturing a sense of belonging, mutual care and trust is a key factor to success and sustainability of these teams.
  • Leaders must place an effort on creating psychologically safe spaces for their teams.

Specific Actions Leaders Can Take

  • Build your teams into networks of support.
  • Think of ways to boost remote connection, like virtual coffee breaks. But, before doing so, get a feel for what would be most appealing for your team. What little measures like this would be the most beneficial for them?
  • Offer a variety of different ways to socialize, whether it be giving online skill share sessions, forming “book clubs”, creating new water cooler chat groups on Slack, etc. Everyone has different needs when it comes to socializing and different levels of comfort regarding various activities.
  • Express your concern and encourage open and honest communication. Let the people you lead know that they can come to you, and explain why it’s too difficult to make a meeting at a certain time, for example.
  • It’s important to get a grasp of your employee’s current concerns over the coronavirus in order to give special care to those who need additional support. One way we’ve done this is by sending out a survey designed to understand how each team member and their loved ones are facing this challenge. 
  • Implement at least one daily video call with your team to check in on one another.
  • Listen to your colleagues, reach out, and offer perspective.
  • It may take some time to “get the hang of it,” but work together on your collective routines and rhythm until you’ve hit that sweet spot between structure and flexibility that you need to thrive.

Video Transcription

Intro

Hello everyone, thanks for joining us. I am grateful you’re devoting this time to listen to our experience and insights on such a challenging topic: Managing Fully Remote Teams in Times of Crisis.

My name is Vera Babat and I am Chief People Officer at Abstracta. Very quickly just let me tell, for those who don’t know us, what we do. Abstracta is a software testing company with over 100 people with offices in Latin America and Silicon Valley. I am a clinical psychologist and as Chief People Officer, my main concern is to promote a culture of overall well being filled with personal and professional growth.

With this video we want to contribute by sharing not only our resources and ideas on what you can do to manage fully remote teams, but above all we hope you find some tools to reflect upon the added complexity of doing so in times of crisis like the one we are facing.

The much-needed restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19, have had a direct impact on people’s lives and on companies moving our work and daily operations from our offices to our homes. 

Managing these 100% remote teams is challenging beyond the technical and organizational aspects of it. In this post, I am not going to cover tips for working remotely, as much has already been said on the topic.

In this video, we’ll go through some of the lesser-discussed aspects of working from home due to COVID-19, that shouldn’t be overlooked. We’ll analyze them and we’ll share with you our experience tackling them at Abstracta.

Yes, We’re in a Crisis

It’s fair to say that what we are going through with the outbreak of Coronavirus needs to be called a crisis. I do not need to go into the cases or the unfortunate stories coronavirus has left. I do not even need to go through the numbers to highlight the global economic impact the measures needed to deal with it are having and will have. You have probably heard and read about all those. I even know many of you started to feel a bit overwhelmed by it.

And precisely, that is exactly what a crisis is: when you have sooooooo much on your plate, when you have so many situations at once that you feel overwhelmed. 

There you have a crisis in front of you. 

Acknowledging it is deeply important, so we can treat it as such. Understanding different angles of it, separately, and then leaving some time to understand the complexity of all those interactions.

Otherwise, crises are hard to tackle. Feeling overwhelmed leaves us at risk of feeling lost, not knowing which way to go. Crises shock us. Crises hit us, making it difficult for us to react, to adapt.  

At Abstracta, we respond to this always reminding ourselves that crises are turning points. Accepting they are moments when our bases are shaken and yes, going through them is hard, very hard. 

But tough as these moments may be.. chaotic as these situations may be.. when we take this attitude, it enables us to learn a lot and we come out of them stronger. 

Impact on Global Health

So, the spread of COVID-19 is the most serious global health security threat in decades. This means our health is at stake. But is it such a big deal? Yes! 

We must bear in mind that health is a state of physical, mental and social well being. Our health is the foundation to living a full life.

So, this implies many things:

From our actual physical health point of view, this situation is reminding many how fundamental our physical health is.

We will all die someday, and though that may seem like an obvious fact, really listening to it and truly acknowledging it, coming to terms with it is huge. 

Although it is true that some people deeply appreciate life, its cycles and all its wonders, I dare say it is far from the norm. Our society is obsessed with denying our finitude. We deny our vulnerability to ridiculous levels. Coming to terms with the fact that life will end, hurts us to the point of pretending it does not exist. Denying it is not the way, we make our lives poorer, rather than protect them. We need to tolerate it. 

Humans have always questioned their existence. We are the only living creature that does it, and so much good comes from appreciating our existence rather than taking it for granted. This pandemic has made it impossible for us not to remember how heavily we depend on our physical health and the importance of health care and carers.

But as we always say, mental health is health. And let’s face it, these stressful times put a lot of strain on people’s coping mechanisms. That is why in times like this, we need to place special attention to all the initiatives we can implement that promote mental health. 

We can do many things to promote cultures where people can feel more authentic, feel more integrated, more connected. No person is an island. And how they feel is dynamic and it will change as our realities change. 

This brings so many challenges to those managing teams right now. Our teams’ mental health will evolve depending on how they and their loved ones sail through this time of emergency. So empathy and the power of connection cannot be understated.

Impact on Community

Deep down we know that this crisis, like all crises, requires community efforts.

Yet this one is different, in a very practical sense. Social distancing is THE way to show solidarity and prevent the rapid spread of the virus, flattening the curve to prevent the collapse of the health systems. We understand that, don’t we? But social distancing seems counterintuitive to all we know on how to nurture a close knit community.

Human beings are inherently social beings, we are wired for connection. But connection is different from connectivity. What is more, extreme connectivity many times has proved to interfere with human connection. So, for those of you who are social distancing, be kind to those surrounding you. Also, let’s remember that many are going through these measures while living by themselves. 

But as measures of quarantine become more extreme, we need to go the extra mile in our efforts to use connectivity to feel closer, to alleviate the feeling of isolation. 

We can do this at work as well as with our friends. Being home all day surrounded by the same people puts too much strain on our relationships. Quality and quantity. Having tasks with others, things to keep our minds busy with, things that are interesting, that give us a sense of accomplishment is important. It keeps us positive. A varied, rich and nurturing digital community and a sense of belonging in times like this can change lives. 

Lifestyle Changes

Our jobs do not define who we are. Yet, our jobs and our possibility -or impossibility of doing them remotely- are to a large extent defining the implications this crisis has on our employment opportunities right now,  even their continuity. And having that to sustain your lifestyle is major.

Adapting to remote work seems terribly relevant in today’s context, for this situation and very likely for future ones. So working on communication tools and organizational skills to improve your remote work abilities is very important to make it possible.

While keeping our jobs going and providing quality products and services to our clients is as important as ever, we need to acknowledge that many situations may be happening on the other side of the screen to both to our collaborators and to us, that might be urgent, diverting our focus somewhere else.

What this means can vary: kids at home without school, loved ones requiring extra care, concerns about medicines and food supply, struggling with feelings of anxiety… just to name a few. To make it more complex, many may at the same time!

The challenges we face are big. The good news is that if we accomplish this, we can come out even stronger.

Trust, Belonging, Commitment

Under these conditions, teamwork becomes more relevant than ever, as well as more challenging than ever.

Nurturing a sense of belonging, mutual care and trust is a key factor to success and sustainability of these teams.

I want to tell you then about concrete actions we have taken and are still taking. To do so, I need to give a little bit of context of how we work and what the area I lead called People Care does. As I mentioned, we provide software testing services, so our testers join our clients’ teams. As they do that, Abstracta mentors and offers them support from a technical leader and a network of other areas inside the company. 

Our People Care team plays an important role in this network as we as psychologists are constantly mentoring and guiding our tech leads and other members of the support system in ways to make people feel connected and committed to one another.

Why is this “people care” ongoing, but especially relevant nowadays?

Because these things we are saying are easier said than done… Actually achieving them requires very transformative processes, they take time, thay are based on trust, that is something that will depend on each person and specially because it changes based on our experiences. So, it requires that we constantly revise our attitudes and that we keep polishing and nurturing our relationships.

Accepting vulnerability, truly embracing it is hard. But it is so worth the effort. None of us are going to remember the measures taken, what we are going to remember is how we felt during these times of extreme measures. Did we feel reassured, did we feel our well beings were being considered, were our concerns heard? 

Promoting psychologically safe environments is an ongoing challenge, but in this context, it is of utmost importance.

So how are we promoting these environments when our team is dispersed? Knitting networks. 

Teams as Support Networks Work

In Abstracta, we’re offering a wide range of instances for socializing. Instead of face to face events, our efforts are now going into generating virtual ones. They need to be as varied as they can be to cater for all tastes and needs. Even doing this, we need to understand that, no matter what we propose, these ideas can work or not, even if, given a normal scenario, they’d be a smashing hit. And this holds true the other way round. Timing and what is happening on a given day is vital. 

My tip? Checking on people’s needs first is important to focus our efforts where people will appreciate them the most. 

Before proposing an end of the day sync up call, ask your team member how they are doing. 

Many people feel that the extra time on their hands is an opportunity to learn new skills. For them, we can provide different options, even guide them through the options so they are truly relevant. This can be very useful to help them make the most of this time. In our team, many have pointed out they feel it is a great time to catch up with previous online courses and also to have new classes, training sessions, webinars and such via video calls.  

But video calls can be used for many other types of purposes. We continue having language classes online as well as our leadership workshops. We have had many more actually, as we’ve been making updates and follow ups as the situation unravels. 

We also added new initiatives such as keeping a video call channel open at all times to meet for those “water cooler chitchat” or to get together at lunch time. 

Even more ideas have been proposed by different members of the team and we are trying them out: people getting together based on their interests and sharing things that are fun and relevant to them: recipes, gym workouts, netflix parties, even holding an “after office” to catch up. 

Also sharing content on different media is great for some as memes can be fun. Anyone who has a group chat knows though, that the difficulty behind this lies when that which can be fun for some, becomes distracting and even offensive for others. 

Tolerance, and lots of patience are needed in times of this. Monitoring our emotions, how these things make us feel and discussing them with those involved will help make our coexistence more successful.

Under this context, we’ve found that giving our technical leaders more tools on how to connect and promote daring leadership has proven important for them to feel better prepared. It is important to compensate for geographical distance, but also to understand each person’s context. How each team member is personally affected by the virus depends on multiple factors, and it’d require a lot of time to have a one on one conversations with each person to see how they are.

So, to help us take note of each individual’s situation and to help us share this within the People Care team and others who could provide support, we designed a survey to understand how each Abstracta team member and their loved ones are facing this context. 

It has some required questions to map priorities and needs and others that are optional so that people can expand upon the details as much as they want. As a starting point, this has proven very useful, and most likely we are going to keep sending new versions of it.

But this is not about data. This is not gossip. What is important is not the survey tool, but that we go the extra mile to understand what is going on, on the other side of the screen. What is important here is what we do with this information. 

How much of this info can we follow up on? How candid can we be? How supportive can we be? And above all, can we find ways of working together where we manage the teams considering people’s priorities and circumstances?

Reading the survey answers and learning how everyone’s personal situation differs has been an enriching exercise in empathy. For us psychotherapists that is fascinating, but I understand that for many this is not so. The faster we come to terms with how relevant it is to understand each person’s context and working together to bridge the gaps, the stronger our team will become… The faster it will find a new sense of balance in this situation.

For example, in my team we always have our daily meeting at noon. It works perfectly well. But now that we are all home, those of us with little ones might find it much more challenging at that time. 

Allowing these “personal life conversations” is so important. 

Only by knowing what those new situations are that can add more stress for people can we take action as a leader. Actions can be super simple. Something as simple as changing the time of a meeting can have many positive effects on reducing unnecessary levels of stress right now.

Now, let’s remember we are managing teams that are working in client projects! For each team, daily team meetings become super important. Video calls are extremely relevant as they allow us to see people and observe and listen to some paraverbal cues such as voice, rhythm of speech, looks, surroundings. These meetings should not become a burden. 

Finding the right balance between meeting productivity and leaving some time to connect is key. 

This means trial and error! How fast you achieve fluent communication will depend on you and your team members’ social skills. But this is not optional. I suggest that the daily check up on how we are doing it is done here, rather than in 1:1s. This way, leaders are not overburdened with information, and they can be supported as well. Also, as information flows, everyone’s support will flow as well.    

When someone offers support to another one, based on kinship, rapport, or even similarity of situations is great, and it has a long-lasting impact. But the reason why this is positive if it happens with the rest of the team, is that our technical leads are in close communication with our People Care area. During their follow ups, our mental health professionals can provide guidance based on their professional knowledge and experience and even participate actively in future meetings.  

The Eternal Pursuit of Balance

Mental health is deeply connected to striking a sense of balance. And let’s understand that balance is not necessarily being in equilibrium all the time. We all go back and forth between positions, especially in times of crisis. So again patience and tolerance are crucial.

Now, what is this balance that we are seeking? As we discussed, we need to understand that depending on many aspects, we are all under many stressing factors that will make us shift between optimism and pessimism. 

To foment a cautious, caring, and healthy team outlook based on reality, we need to understand both of these sides of the coin in order to put each of them into perspective. We must try to help us, our teams and those who surround us stay within healthy ranges of this spectrum and not be left at the extremes

While healthy levels of optimism are always welcome and so necessary, under stressful times, people can overdo it as a coping mechanism. 

In times of crisis, focusing on the future is certainly useful, keeping projects going is necessary, because this IS temporary. This too shall pass… it is true. 

But, we need to acknowledge that much can happen during this time. That it is not a minor situation for many. Denying it, we run the risk of desensitizing ourselves from what is going on, of detaching ourselves from the rest, losing touch, failing to connect on a profound level, thus bringing us closer to mechanisms that eventually will leave us feeling lonely and isolated.

Pessimism gets a bad rap. But optimism’s counterpart is fundamental to keeping us grounded and even safe.

Again healthy levels of this are extremely important. For example, why else would we put up with all the undesired consequences of social distancing and self-quarantine? Because we’ve learnt what happened in other places, because we fear the consequences.

But when we put so much focus on what is threatening us, we put ourselves in a very vulnerable position. Reading the news non-stop, getting information from non-official sources can leave us feeling too much at risk. 

This threat is a difficult one for those with a tendency to have obsessive compulsive behaviours, for example, because it is a microscopic virus and it can be anywhere. Or even worse… others can have it even when they show no symptoms. As if this wasn’t enough, our lifestyles feel threatened, many fear for their loved ones, for their own health, for their jobs… I find that this combination is extremely likely to bring much suffering. Mental health is at risk for many. 

Another risk to mental health is burn out. We are facing measures that might be longer than two weeks. Where I am, in the southern hemisphere, fall is approaching soon… keeping our sanity is equally important.

When we talk about health, you will always hear that prevention is better than cure. 

I wish we can spread this message as much as we can. 

We can all promote healthy coping mechanisms to deal with this situation and come out stronger and wiser. 

Working on our own feelings, understanding them well, is basic to helping others.

Poor mental health in a way is contagious as well. Being exposed to high-anxiety levels promotes anxiety. Being with depressed people brings us down. 

The good news is, being with mentally strong people also has a ripple effect.

What Can You Do?

Reach out and help others! Promoting emotional health and well-being is beneficial for others, as well as for you. It will help you gain perspective.

Tough times are learning opportunities. They remind us of the fundamental things. 

And connecting to those, hard as it may be, can even help us connect to feelings of profound gratitude. 

So, what actions can you take?

Key Elements 

  • Work on your remote team work ethic, until you hit that sweet spot between structure and flexibility that you need to thrive.
  • Focus on connection. Learn about your colleagues, and then let curiosity guide you. Help if you can. If you can, just listening helps lessen the burden.
  • To be part of people’s support network, nurture yours.
  • Listen, learn about what is important to others. And offer perspective.

Adding these variables and taking them into account will allow us to have a positive impact on the emotional life of our collaborators and to be able to leave strengthened to continue advancing together, even amidst the chaos.

Together, we can offset the impact of the virus in our personal and professional lives and come out stronger because of it.

Please, let us know, what are your thoughts and have you implemented new ways to support your team during this difficult time?


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