BUSINESS

Managing a Distributed Team Through Natural Disasters (And Other Crises)

Ninety-five percent of respondents to PwC’s 2021 global crisis survey said that their crisis management plans and capabilities “need improvement.” Only 35% reported that their plans were “very relevant” to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, despite these shortcomings, most companies found ways to pivot in 2020 when Covid-19 led offices and retail locations to close, working from home became a requirement for some, and socially distanced factories and warehouses became the norm for others.

Agility emerged in part because necessity is still the mother of invention. However, equally important were the readily available online collaboration tools, the maturation of low-cost, high-quality video conferencing, and the robustness of both the internet and the power grid. Even for firms where digital transformation was in its infancy in early 2020, the tools they needed were ready to accelerate the changes necessary to reconfigure work.

As distributed teams become more common, the question for those planning for the next crisis is what to do should the grid go down, as we saw over several days in Texas in February 2021, or should digital workflow tools become suddenly unavailable, as we saw when Facebook and its related platforms were offline for several hours in October 2021.

We work with preparedness and response professionals around the world in a variety of industries and government agencies. Such outages, on a massive scale, are what keep them awake at night. The potential causes are numerous: for example, a cyber or physical attack on critical private or public infrastructure, a natural event such as a destructive earthquake, or a major natural or human-caused electromagnetic pulse event that would render almost everything electronic in the affected zone permanently inoperable.

Their experience reveals that, whether your concern is a disruption of hours, weeks, or months, there are practical, prudent steps to take now that can enhance day-to-day business performance while fostering robustness and resilience. Consider the following three pillars of crisis readiness for a distributed team: technology, structure and processes, and most important, humanity.

Create redundancy using technology.

Redundancy is at the heart of any system built to withstand turmoil and recover quickly if disrupted. John O’Duinn has been managing teams distributed around the globe for more than three decades and wrote a book about it. “No human or technical component should be a single point of failure,” he told us. O’Duinn helps ensure this through disciplined use of digital workflow tools so that any member of the team can find the latest project updates and files at any time. Consistency and discipline in this regard are essential, O’Duinn said. There must be a “single source of truth” for information necessary to carry the work forward. If anyone, particularly a senior manager, opts out of using the system, it sends the signal that these practices are optional and makes it more difficult to transition work to other team members.

O’Duinn shared the example of a team member who went offline unexpectedly while working on a live, mission-critical system. A news alert revealed that there had been an earthquake in the team member’s city. O’Duinn quickly reached out to other team members to see who could pick up the work. As the team had established trust and a single source of truth for project information, the work was reallocated within minutes and resumed with no operational disruption. This included a message that the affected team member would find in case they came back online: Stop work on the project. At the same time, O’Duinn tried to reconnect with the affected colleague, eventually succeeding via SMS text and ascertaining they were safe. “Because I was able to confidently shift the work seamlessly, I was able to concentrate on the more important work of helping my colleague in the earthquake as best I could.”

As with any technology tool, be sure to have backup plans. Peter Polson, founder of online personal financial services platform Tiller, has had a distributed organization since the firm’s founding in 2015. Tiller’s extended team of more than 20 people is spread across six states and multiple time zones. Since March 2020, the company has had team members suddenly unavailable because of hurricanes, wildfires, Covid-19, and family issues. Like O’Duinn, Polson strives for redundancy in both people and tools. “With laptops and phones, we’re operating as an incredible mesh network with tremendous redundancy and resilience built in,” he told us. However, he added, it’s “never perfect.” Tiller has built more backup into its cloud-based systems and has a cascading array of shared tools: “If Slack goes down, we revert to email and then text,” Polson said.

Build crisis response into your structure and processes.

Planning for moving people on and off projects quickly is as much structural as it is technical. MontaRosa is an executive search firm that has been distributed since its beginning in 2008, with team members spread across North America, the United Kingdom, and Europe. Their clients are in those regions as well as Asia and Australia. Founders Kelvin Thompson and Jodi Kaelle shared that to serve global clients, they built the firm to “follow the sun,” with projects regularly handed from person to person. “Unlike most firms in our industry, no one ‘owns’ a client relationship,” Thompson told us. “People own projects to ensure accountability, but there are always multiple people who know the client, their needs, and their expectations. If a team member becomes unavailable unexpectedly, we simply ‘stretch the clock’ in adjacent time zones so that nothing is missed.”

Openness to rapid change is more likely in a setting that values and incubates innovation. We interviewed CEOs at health care organizations that set up distributed teams during the pandemic. These conversations revealed that those with an internal emphasis on innovation were more adept at pivoting to mitigate a sudden external threat. Dr. Michael Mayo, CEO of Baptist Health in Jacksonville, Florida, noted that their organization innovates annually for hurricane threats. As readiness is not seen as static, emergency management is integrated into the business strategy. Tabletop and live exercises conducted throughout the year test for new vulnerabilities while post-incident reviews after hurricanes identify gaps in plans and procedures. These stimulate iteration of new protocols and procedures and identify ongoing opportunities to improve resilience. That experience was useful during the mask shortages early in the pandemic, as quality and supply chain teams were ready to collaborate to extend the useful life of N95 masks with a new sterilization process.

O’Duinn advised thinking through crisis contingencies so that they’re baked into a team’s operating principles. “For example, if ‘the boss’ is suddenly missing, does everyone know who will step in?” he asked. “And if needed, who would replace the replacement?” While designating individuals is straightforward, preparing them for the hot seat requires developing their confidence in setting priorities and making decisions. The team leader should routinely explain the logic and criteria behind decisions. This builds bench strength and boosts daily performance, as it “reminds everyone of the core values of the team and the mission,” O’Duinn said. In a high-stakes crisis, such a shared understanding of priorities and trade-offs helps prevent people from second-guessing the stand-in leader, which can be exacerbated by the challenges of distance.

Foster trust and connectedness on your team.

Even with the most well-considered plan and sophisticated tools, team cohesion and performance in a crisis depends on human factors of trust, generosity, ingenuity, and cooperation. “Remote work is easy, but feeling connected to a team in pursuit of a mission is hard because it’s emotional and in the heart,” Polson noted. “The human gestures you make as a team leader are critical to making a distributed team sing.” Tiller uses a weekly all-hands call that starts with each person expressing gratitude to build connection. Investments in relationships will fuel agility in the face of a novel event.

MontaRosa’s Thompson echoed this sentiment: “Trust is the critical thing. You need emotional connections with each other.” A core principle in their firm is to assume good intentions. Such a mindset orients individuals to collective concerns and overarching objectives. It also makes it easier to forgive the missteps that are seen frequently in fast-evolving crisis environments. Thompson pointed to his business partner, Kaelle, as MontaRosa’s “chief glue officer,” who regularly attends to fostering a positive culture throughout the distributed team. “She’s the chief motivator and chief connector,” he said. That team “glue” is never more important than when facing adversity, as threats trigger an instinctual “freeze-flight-fight” response and self-centered behaviors. Trust-based relationships are a necessary antidote.

Regularly bring distributed teams together physically for both work and social activities to forge those connections. O’Duinn recommends a cadence of once per quarter. MontaRosa has long scheduled such offsites to ensure a shared understanding of the business and create the space for relationship development. With Covid restrictions, both O’Duinn and Polson encouraged team members local to each other to meet outdoors for important human contact. Polson noted that being together “invests in the social fabric of our team,” and that even the sole offsite they’ve had in this Covid-constrained year made “huge deposits in positive team dynamics.”

Practice — then practice some more.

Whether a team is co-located or distributed, practicing the response to crisis is the surest path to true crisis readiness. Unfortunately, this mindset has not been widely adopted across organizations beyond business continuity and health and safety functions. Practice comes in many forms: Exercises and simulations acquaint people with emergency operating procedures, help them build mental models, and allow them to experience the pressure of a crisis. Airline pilots, for example, undertake mandatory simulation of emergency scenarios every six months. Checklists routinize these behaviors.

Drills provide focused rehearsal of critical actions that are too urgent for checklists. For example, surgeons use drills to refresh on handling massive hemorrhages — a scenario where a checklist is impractical. Regular, even daily, drills build robust cognitive recency that speeds response as recall becomes automatic — in other words, no time-consuming reasoning is required. With distributed teams, a drill could be as simple as establishing at the beginning of a meeting who is the backup lead should communications be lost. This technique allows teams to develop the distributed leadership capacity that empowers local leaders to act when they find themselves in the midst of a crisis.

Practice can also be part of regular business activities. For example, one of Tiller’s policies is that time “off” doesn’t count unless the person truly unplugs from work. Aside from the wellness benefits of such an approach, planned absences provide opportunities to exercise the protocols and workarounds that will be called upon in crisis. Inject urgency into the transition to simulate an emergency. For example, two weeks before a team member’s departure for parental leave, pretend they’re starting it today.

Simulation exercises should be thorough — allocate at least a half day — and realistic scenarios can be pulled from the headlines or even your own close-call experience. To optimize learning, the exercise should test your plans to the breaking point. If everything goes perfectly, the scenario is not rigorous enough. Review performance with psychological safety in mind, concentrating on improving the system, not judging individuals.

Another useful practice drawn from emergency management and used by IT functions to prepare for cyberattacks is “red teaming.” A team is formed specifically to find vulnerabilities in current plans and practices. Beyond IT, red teams can be formed using the alternate members of the crisis team and challenging them to stump the primary team with realistic overlooked scenario contingencies. The roles can then be reversed. This creates ongoing opportunities for learning and development as well as improving plans. No plan is perfect. Regular red team efforts will challenge assumptions and drive continual improvement over time.

* * *

Distributed teams offer both new challenges and fresh opportunities to get ready for the inevitable next incident. The most effective preparedness activities are those that are institutionalized through everyday routines. “What would I do if…” should become part of the team’s regular thought process. Invest in tools, training, and testing to ensure that your distributed team members have the greatest chance of rapidly adapting to known threats and unforeseen circumstances.

Most important, remember that “things” always fail, and every crisis brings unanticipated contingencies. You will ultimately be dependent upon people. Take care of them. Your greatest resource will be, in Polson’s words, “nimble and creative thinking.” Foster that culture each day on your team to succeed now — and when crisis hits.


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