Years ago, when telework was just emerging as a “thing,” I developed and delivered training to help leaders managing remote teams at the University of Minnesota. While it was useful training, it dealt with managing remote work teams during normal times, NOT times of crisis.

Leading teams during this COVID-19 pandemic is unique and none of us have been there before. That is why I am recommending a webinar hosted last Friday by the University of Minnesota Alumni Association called: “Working Remotely….Now What?” by Dr. Jennifer Engler.* For leaders who have been suddenly thrust into working remotely with their teams, Jennifer brings a mix of compassion, reality, and authenticity that is refreshing and helpful. Her background as a psychologist, employee engagement expert, and talent development team leader at the University of Minnesota gives her a grounded perspective on what employees are experiencing during this time and what leaders can do to bring out the best in their teams.

For a link to the webinar, you can go right to: Working Remotely….Now What?

For those of you who would like to read some highlights first, you can see my Q&A with Dr. Jennifer Engler below:

Q: Jennifer, in your webinar, you talked about the importance of creating psychological safety for employees as they are now having to change the ways they work and communicate during COVID-19. Why is it critical for leaders to foster psychological safety in a time of uncertainty?

A: As I shared in the webinar, psychological safety is a shared belief that the work team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. Right now, almost every day at work feels like an interpersonal risk because our work and home lives have completely merged, and we’re all trying to manage the stressors of living in a pandemic. 

It’s particularly important for leaders to continue to build and maintain a sense of trust that each of us can show up with our true selves and be accepted in the workplace.  

Q: What do you mean by “show up with our true selves?”

A:  We need to be able to be honest and talk about how we’re doing and what we are capable of in terms of the work.  Specifically, each employee needs to know that each Zoom meeting they join is a place where they will be met with humanity.

It is everyone’s responsibility to model the behaviors that contribute to this sense of safety. Leaders are in this too and are feeling all the same stressors…sometimes more.  We all have a responsibility to each other to act in ways that create psychological safety for one another.

Q: What top three things can a leader do to create psychological safety for their employees?

A:  A leader can actually do four key things:

1. Ask for feedback regularly by checking-in with each of their employees, finding out how they are doing and asking what they can do to support them in their work in terms of balancing the workload while being able to be honest about the challenges in their circumstances and in their own ability to cope.

2. Acknowledge and admit their own mistakes and vulnerability as a leader.  It’s OK to share openly your own struggles and be honest about the uncertainties.  Employees want to hear honest and authentic reports about what is uncertain and where leaders don’t have answers and how they are also managing to balance expectations and priorities while being unclear about what is coming next.

3. Ask for and welcome different perspectives, especially in the context of recognizing that the way we did work in the face-to-face work world may not be the best way to do it now in the virtual work world of COVID 19.

4. And finally, leaders can create safety and community by asking open-ended questions and practicing reflective listening. Now, more than ever, it is important to slow down and take the time needed to really listen to one another. It is much more difficult to connect virtually and it requires us to listen so much more deeply than we may be accustomed to doing.

When leaders practice these specific behaviors and apply them to their own context and leadership style, they can help their team foster a sense of psychological safety, and foster a virtual work environment which is safer for interpersonal risk taking at a time when we’re all struggling.

Q: I liked how you used the framework of “onboarding” for helping smooth the transition from working in person to working remotely. It is a helpful tool for supervisors to think about how they are supporting their teams. What part of the onboarding steps have you been focusing on most during this time with your team?

A: We have been revisiting all of our workplace norms in specifically how we are working, everything from how we use the Google calendar to communicate our availability for meetings versus child care or self-care. We are paying attention to how we communicate with one another. We are revisiting the most effective medium (not everything has to be Zoom!), the expected response time, and how we can reach one another when we need something very quickly.

We’re also making it comfortable to be honest with how we’re coping and to ask one another for what we need as things change for each one of us based on our own unique circumstances. 

Q: Even for teams that are used to working remotely and using online collaboration tools, the pandemic has impacted people differently, with some who are trying to work remotely while taking care of young children, or sharing office space with partners, spouses or college-aged children who are now at home. What is your best advice to help work teams manage during this time? And what can leaders do to support them?

A: I have tried to model that it is OK to share those circumstances with one another and be clear about the limitations it is placing on the work. I am emphasizing that we can think creatively about how to manage the work for themselves and as a team.  If some of us have circumstances that allow us to be more client facing at present while others cannot, then they may have the capacity to do some more concentrated project work from which the whole team can benefit.  Those types of adaptive and flexible ways to manage the work while working to create equity in the team and a responsiveness to the changing circumstances is key during this time of uncertainty and rapid changes in everyone’s household.

Q:  Everyone responds to crises differently, and for those who have experienced previous life traumas, now may be a triggering time. For myself, I’ve noticed that I’ve eaten more carbs in the last two weeks than I usually eat in several months and I’ve gone into a bit of a “freeze” state (think:  “fight, flight, or freeze” as a response to threats). Knowing that everyone is dealing with the pandemic in their own ways, what can work teams do to support each other? 

A: There has been a lot of coverage in the media for the significant impact the pandemic is having on everyone’s mental health. Some of us are more at risk for struggling to manage the stressors of this pandemic.  Work teams need to be comfortable checking with one another, sharing truthfully how they are doing, and expressing care and concern for each other. 

Most of us can recognize when we need to get additional help and support and this is often even more clear when someone that knows us well and we trust expresses concern for us and asks us to get help to take care of ourselves.  This is what I encourage every work team to foster with one another.  The ability to encourage a co-worker to take time for themselves and seek support when and how they need it.  It is also important to be aware of the resources available in the workplace and in the community and to be comfortable sharing those resources with each other.

Q: From your perspective as a psychologist, with deep expertise in employee engagement, what ONE piece of advice would you like to leave folks with as they navigate leading their teams in higher education?

A: I would say practicing resilience. Resilience is a capacity that needs to be honed and practiced daily. By working diligently on our ongoing self-awareness, working from our strengths and having confidence in them, and working hard to maintain a positive mindset are all behaviors that help build and maintain our sense of resilience. 

In these circumstances, the ability to adapt and to remain flexible is likely our greatest key to resilience.

As I mentioned in the webinar,  a wise colleague gave me the metaphor of “going with the flow.” Instead of clinging to the river banks of what was, try to let the current carry us as we adapt to the ever-changing set of circumstances. Recognize that we are OK in letting go of what was. It is my belief that adaptation and flexibility will enhance our resilience in the current virtual work world of COVID-19.


Jennifer Engler, PsyD, oversees the E2 Employee Engagement program and other initiatives to create a thriving workplace culture at the University of Minnesota. Before joining the Leadership and Talent Development team, Jen served as Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Student Services in the College of Education and Human Development since 2010 and held positions at the University since 1999. Engler earned a doctorate and MA in Clinical Psychology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and her BA in psychology from Macalester College.

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