Empowering Displaced Teams In The Time Of COVID

Lessons from humanitarian organizations

By: Amanda Evison, Tina Naser, and  Eric Harr
This article was first published on May 5, 2020.


Isolation, anxiety, and doubt are part of the daily lives of communities that humanitarian organizations support. Now these emotions describe the biggest challenge for business leaders managing displaced teams working from home for an extended period, amidst the fear and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. While many companies have been adept at rapidly establishing the tools and processes required for remote work, discovering ways to build and strengthen high performing teams during this period of open-ended high-stress will take longer.

One approach is to adapt some of the same practices used by humanitarian organizations to empower people displaced by tragedies to guide your team through the pandemic’s exceptional circumstances:

1. Stay Human

Humanitarian organizations start out with empathy to create an authentic human connection when they are trying to solve delicate, and often massive, humanitarian challenges. Now more than ever, it’s important for you to build up trust and social capital with your teams, in part to earn the right to hold them accountable for delivery. Anticipate stress points that your employees may face, and proactively reach out to them to offer your support. 

To do this, ask questions about how they are doing and encourage them to speak up on issues even if they are uncomfortable. Demonstrate that you are open to listening to their concerns and create a safe space for them to voice them. Schedule consistent one-on-one check-ins with all employees to get to know them on a deeper level. Plan on devoting more time to this than you normally would. Conduct the conversations from a place of real compassion to understand individuals’ unique working styles, experiences, and challenges. 

Actively listen when trying to convince large groups to agree on actions. Leaders need to be the best listeners in the room whether they’re at a humanitarian summit with 80 leaders from multiple continents discussing broad topics like providing affordable and safe housing for displaced people or in a company meeting talking over a new strategy. Good listening skills can motivate and align people across organizations, clarify the common mission, frame the discussion, and crystallize what success looks like.

Take time to create intentional spaces for informal interaction and connections alongside business-as-usual activities. Ensure daily stand-up meetings include a social element at the beginning to set the right tone. Encourage your team to connect on non-work-related topics, just as they would do in an office setting, using digital channels. Get involved by facilitating such interactions. Lead social coffee chats. Share photos from your own home office. Assign employees informal check-in buddies.

2. Clear Goals Will Reinforce Purpose

Just as people involved in humanitarian causes find that solving problems feels harder in isolation, your employees need to understand how their individual goals contribute to an overall collective purpose. Humanitarian organizations, for example, show benefactors how their vital funds improve deprived communities’ trajectories in order to forge an emotional connection that will enable them to have sustainable funding. Clarify how your employees’ contributions help to overcome a challenge in order to enable them to feel a sense of shared purpose.

Set clear goals and focus on teams pulling in the same direction, ensuring that what you ask of your teams is appropriately suited to the current context. If you come across as tone-deaf, people will immediately push back. Be sure to balance holding your team accountable with the realities that each team member is facing.

Employees will struggle to be as productive and striking the right work-life balance will be essential. Enable them to make meaningful progress without feeling overwhelmed by de-prioritizing non-essential tasks, setting realistic expectations, and communicating mission-critical priorities. Establish standard ‘operating hours’ to time-bound work-related activities and separate personal hours from work hours.

Regardless of whether you are able to meet in person or not, you need to maintain a positive relationship with your team and social capital. Do not be afraid to hold your employees accountable just as in a normal work context. But be compassionate. Be candid.

How organizations support and engage their teams may determine how successful and resilient they are to tackle the challenges of the coronavirus era

3. Make Every Word Count

But remember: You can’t just be right. What you say must resonate. More than ever, your message has to bring different groups of employees together just as humanitarian organizations connect very different people across disparate cultures, ranging from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs accustomed to operating in nanoseconds to leaders of faith whose timeline is an eternity. 

Leaders have an obligation to be impeccable. Their words matter. They are a part of the job description. In times of stress, consistently practicing what you preach becomes especially important. Don’t just tell your employees they are important. Show them. Reinforce the notion that we are all working without a net here and striving towards common objectives. 

Encourage constructive and honest feedback within your team and ensure that feedback is reciprocal. Ask your employees to prepare feedback in advance and deliver a mix of both positive and negative feedback to show that you are serious in your desire to listen to their grievances. Demonstrate that you are following through on it.

While feedback can be difficult to hear, ask yourself if you care more about your ego or more about your enterprise? Only by consistently listening to your employees concerns or complaints can you come up with solutions and course-correct for the future, so that you can realize your team’s true value. 

Anticipate challenges. Given that five different generations of varying experiences and identities comprise the modern workforce, teams may experience a generational disconnect exacerbated by remote working and the use of purely digital communication. Take the time to ensure that you are not creating divides with your employees by enforcing universal working styles and methods.

Demonstrate Resilience 

How organizations support and engage their teams may determine how successful and resilient they are to tackle the challenges of the coronavirus era. As leaders we must set the right tone. Think about the psychology of why we instinctively react the way we do in uncertain times. It's so important, particularly now, that leaders not panic. Ground yourself and understand that leading with a steady hand, and a strong heart, will help your organization not only survive this crisis, but thrive when it’s over.

Your team is looking to you to be the calm person in the midst of this crisis - they need this from you right now. Make no mistake: how you conduct yourself, as a leader - in these challenging times - will define you as a person, and it will shape your legacy.

About our external contributor

Eric Harr is the Founder & CEO of The Laudato sì Challenge, a Vatican-inspired humanitarian organization of 30 global partners consisting of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and non-governmental organizations. Harr was named as one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People and is the author of “The Real Truth About Social Media”.