Coping With Loss in a Virtual Team
Offering Compassion From a Distance
Janet sits back and sighs. She's just had to tell her team that Alina is seriously ill and needs to take long-term leave. Everyone is shocked.
The whole team works remotely, which adds to the difficulty. They can't get together to support one another, or to support Alina, in the way that a more conventional team might do.
Our colleagues can become close friends, even when workspaces are thousands of miles apart. Losing a co-worker, in any circumstances, can be a huge setback.
In this article, we'll explore a four-step approach to helping a team cope with the loss of a member. And then we'll look at ways of taking these steps specifically if you're managing a remote or virtual team that's been affected by bereavement, illness, redundancy, or resignation.
Dealing With Loss
People respond to loss in different ways. In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross outlined five stages of grief: denial (feelings of shock, numbness and disbelief); anger; bargaining (saying "if only," or questioning things); depression; and, eventually, acceptance.
Not everyone moves through each stage in a linear way. For some people, the sense of loss ebbs and flows over time. But this model can be helpful as a useful reminder of the thought processes that people go through when they're dealing with loss.
Organizations also vary in how they respond to the loss of employees. Some don't recognize it to the same degree as others. And the serious effects on people of not acknowledging or responding to loss can be amplified when those people work remotely.
Helping Team Members to Cope With Loss
Remote-working team members will likely experience sudden loss or change in the same way as a team working closely in the same office. To support a virtual team through loss, you need to understand how to support a "regular" team, and then adjust your approach for a virtual or remote setting.
Here are four ways to help a team through difficult times:
Your team will look to you for guidance, support and reassurance. This is especially true when the loss relates to an organizational change, such as a redundancy program. There will often be a desire to "talk it through." In a physical team, this may mean that people gather in groups to discuss what's happening, during breaks, around the water cooler, or after work.
As their manager, making it clear that you are open and available to talk can be a helpful part of this process. Learning how to deliver bad news with honesty, integrity and understanding is useful preparation. Having a clear communication strategy can also ease the stress of having to let your people know that something potentially upsetting has happened.
2. Be Compassionate
Your people will need to understand that you're aware of their loss, that they have your "permission" to grieve, and that you're there to help them through it as best you can.
For example, if a team member has died, it may mean that you allow colleagues to use bereavement leave, even if such leave is usually reserved for immediate family. Or you may allow people time off to attend the funeral.
Yet it's also important to recognize that work can provide a welcome sense of stability and continuity when things are otherwise in flux. With care, you can achieve a balance between giving a team member the time off that they need to grieve, and recognizing that they may also want to return to the "anchor" of work.
The flip-side is watching for signs that a team member is using work as a means of denial, perhaps by working long hours, which can become unhealthy.
Building your emotional intelligence can help here, because it allows you to recognize and respond to the emotions of others around you. Mind Tools also has several useful resources that explore empathy, which is another useful skill to have in situations like this.
3. Recognize That Loss Can Change Behavior
People may behave "out of character" as they work through their grief. As a manager, it is important to be supportive and non-judgmental, and to allow time and space for people to grieve. But you'll also have to make it clear if their behavior becomes unacceptable.
There may come a time when more robust performance conversations are needed. This will be especially the case if the loss has led to team members reassessing their commitment to the organization, which may in turn affect their morale.
4. Offer Extra Help Where You Can
Those closest to their absent co-worker may need additional support. You may look to provide this in the short term by delegating tasks to other people, by providing extra administrative support, and by relaxing schedules where possible, for example.
Loss can happen without warning and upset a whole team, so it's wise to prepare a contingency plan for when someone is suddenly absent. Having a "Plan B" will help you to lead your team toward a faster, more effective recovery.
Helping Virtual Teams to Cope With Loss
Let's return to the scenario at the beginning of this article. Janet's task now is to apply the four strategies we've outlined above to a remote-working environment, where team members may feel isolated from their colleagues and from the organization as a whole. Here are four approaches that she can use:
1. Using Technology
In a world where email and instant messaging are the norm, simply picking up the phone to have a conversation can make a real difference. Reassure remote colleagues that, while you can't be there to physically support them, you are still "emotionally present."
Also, emphasize that you're happy to take calls from them to offer reassurance, or to explain in more detail what is happening. This is essentially the same as saying to a regular team that you'll have an "open door" during this difficult time.
A whole-team conference call or video chat can be effective, too. This can help colleagues to understand that they aren't isolated, and provide them with a forum where they can share their feelings. That should encourage a sense of community and mutual support.
An occasional follow-up call outside of the work cycle may also be valuable. It shows team members that you're conscious of what they are going through. But be careful that this doesn't become intrusive, or that you are perceived as "checking up." Kübler-Ross and grief expert David Kessler have useful tips on what to say for the best – and what to avoid saying – in the event of loss.
2. Using the Virtual Peer Network
Your team members may use social media to discuss what is going on and how they're feeling.
You have little control over this – much as you cannot control what team members say to each other in the bar after work. So, while accepting that this is likely, you should remind team members (sensitively) about any protocols you have around the use of social media and the risks of making negative comments about the organization.
Encourage colleagues to support one another, too, especially those who were closest to the person you've lost. They may well be doing this anyway, but aim to ensure they do so sensitively and with tact.
3. Using Human Resources
You'll need to alert HR if you have team members on compassionate or bereavement leave, but do also make a point of asking HR to reach out and offer their support to the virtual team, too.
This will help your team members to feel more a part of the organizational "loop." Plus, as remote workers, they may be less aware of the support mechanisms or tools that your organization offers.
These could be confidential grief counseling, support groups, or an employee assistance program (EAP). Your HR advisors are likely best-placed to explain these services.
4. Sending a Gift
Send a gift, a card, or perhaps some flowers, especially in the case of bereavement. You may want to consider whether a combined team gift or contribution would be more appropriate.
However, this may be complicated to organize and you'll likely want to avoid other team members feeling obligated to participate, or to feel out of pocket.
Supporting team members who are coping with sudden loss is never easy, but it can be especially challenging when they work remotely.
Show compassion by being open and prepared to talk. Encourage virtual peers to support each other, even if you cannot be physically present.
Give your team members "permission" to grieve, but keep in touch and recognize that they may see work as providing a welcome dose of "normality" at a difficult time. Make use of any support or counseling resources that HR can offer, too.