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What COVID-19 taught me about managing a team in a crisis, by Asha S Collins

Jan 17

My top 5 lessons on effectively leading a team through a pandemic in honest and human-centred ways — not forgetting an online dance party.

I work for a large pharmaceutical company that creates life-saving drugs. Treatments we’ve made available to patients around the world, and those in development, cover life-altering and often fatal diseases, including Alzheimer’s; rare diseases that affect children, such as spinal muscular atrophy; cancer; infectious diseases; and many more. I lead our late-stage US clinical-trials group, so my team and I are accountable for conducting most US trials for our potential new drugs. These trials determine whether drugs can be approved in the US for patients and greatly influence approvals for patients across the world.

It’s a big job. I have over 200 people reporting to me, plus more than 300 team members in the field. Our portfolio includes over a hundred trials and thousands of patients at any given time. Our clinical trials help give patients hope. It’s great and humbling work that I’m honored to do every day.

And then COVID-19 came along. Suddenly we were in crisis. We had thousands of patients on treatments across the 3.8 million square miles of the US. We didn’t know if doctors would be able to continue seeing our patients and providing them with our novel, innovative medicines. We didn’t know whether we would be able to ensure our patients were being monitored as closely as they needed to be. We didn’t know if it was even safe for some of our patients, especially those with suppressed immune systems, to continue visiting hospitals or clinics to continue their treatment. And, of course, would that even be an option? Would hospitals and clinics remain open for clinical-trial patients amid the growth of COVID-19 infections? If they did, could they continue to care for our patients?

On top of the clinical questions, suddenly we also faced questions about how we should be running the business:

Should we stop the studies? Did we need to stop recruiting for them? How should we help our team adjust to working from home effectively, with many home-schooling? How should we partner with our vendors to make it safe for our 300-person field team to travel for their work? And how should we support staff whose family members may have been getting sick or who were losing people to the pandemic? Or those having hard times while living alone in lockdown? Or even how to help the introverts who were being overwhelmed by all the Zoom calls and video check-ins? It was a lot.

Here’s what we learned we needed to do to care for our patients’ and our team’s wellbeing. These lessons can be applied to a wide range of crises beyond navigating a pandemic and beyond managing clinical trials.

1: Communicate, communicate, communicate. And then communicate some more.

Clear, open and consistent communication is key. We learned that we had to be really clear about what we were doing, how we were doing it, and about all of the open-ended questions to which had no answers. We had to communicate to the team, but also to find ways for us to hear from team members and let them communicate and connect with one another.

To do this, we ran three sessions each week open to all 500 team members. The sessions were scheduled every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at different times to make sure people could make at least one. They began with a check-in, when team members could share how they were doing with one another (sometimes this would happen in small Zoom breakouts). Them there were updates from our COVID squad (a small, cross-functional team that included myself, managers and others leading the crisis response). Finally, we had an open discussion when team members could ask questions and provide feedback.

Additionally, I sent out an email update twice a week to keep people up to date, including updates from our global teams. This note would also include a link to our Anonymous Question Box where people could submit questions.

In a crisis, you cannot communicate too much. Whether you have answers or not, communicate, communicate, communicate. And, honestly, sharing that you don’t have all of the answers is just as important as communicating the answers that you do have.

2: Move fast, adapt even faster.

If you move and act at the speed of your crisis, you’ll be behind. It will defeat you. You need to move faster. You need to adapt even faster. We stood up a small, cross-functional team to manage our initial COVID-19 response for the US. The team was not my leadership team, who weren’t ideally placed to assess on-the-ground realities or take a broader strategic view. Instead, we created a Squad, whose make-up included third-level managers and individual contributors, which met twice a day on Mondays to Thursdays and once on Fridays.

The Squad’s members represented three time zones and two hemispheres. To be agile, we could not only rely on our meetings. We had to learn how to work asynchronously and seamlessly perform digital handoffs. We leveraged digital tools like Trello to enable everyone to see where things stood, allowing individuals to pick up and hand off items during their “shift”. This consistent and frequent meeting cadence, as well as our team’s make-up, let us move fast. Being able to work asynchronously let us adapt even faster.

3: Make everyone a hero.

Reid Hoffman has said you can chart an epic journey if you “make everyone a hero along the way”. In times of crisis, people feel a lack of control. Yet they want to help: it gives them grounding, a sense of control and a sense of contributing to the solution. They’re not helpless; they have a role.

Find ways to give them that role. Give them a cape and blazon an emblem on their chest. There’s more than enough work to do. Don’t limit those strategies to just leaders or a core group of people. Get as many people as possible involved in owning and driving solutions. A small group of people cannot do or know all that is necessary for this scale of crisis; parse out leadership for parts of solutions far and wide to team members. Ensure the solutions and leadership isn’t held by a few. It helps people navigate through a disorienting time to have something they own in creating the path forward. Give them that ownership. Make them a hero.

4: Do not force conformity. Enable diversity.

The first Friday was disorienting, but all was basically the same. Then, all of sudden, the next business day, none of us were going into the office again. Kids weren’t going to school. You needed to figure out how to get your parents groceries without putting them in too much danger; or how you could communicate with them, now that their residence owners said they were no longer allowing visitors. Your sibling was furloughed and your great-aunt who sometimes watches your kids may have been exposed to COVID. And the million other iterations of how COVID played out (and continues to play out) in our lives…

So, what does that mean for your weekly one-on-ones? What does that mean for the PowerPoint deck that’s due tomorrow? What does that mean for that upcoming, pivotal milestone that you’re working towards? I’m extremely grateful to work for a company that had a clear message: that taking care of ourselves and our loved ones was a priority. In our team, we extended that to explicitly state that people needed to work with their managers to help define and redefine their “business hours”. That the same would need to happen with deliverables and stakeholders. Just as everyone had a slightly different set of circumstances they were managing, the answer to “what would happen to xyz” would also have a slightly different answer based on the individuals involved. We could not and should not expect the same 9 to 5 schedule when people were homeschooling. We could not and should not expect the same timelines and/or availability when people were figuring out logistics of care for loved ones.

We asked people to reflect on what they needed during this time (ie adjusted hours, additional special projects, shorter meetings) and ask for it. We would need to work more flexibly to accommodate our team’s different needs. For example, on one team, based on outside-of-work responsibilities, some people had adjusted working hours. Not everyone did, but some did. The team as a whole did not move to one, singular new scheduled based on the average of the schedules. We simply all published our new, adjusted working hours so that everyone knew when each team member would be available. We had to make room for the diverse schedules. And we had to make space for flexibility because these schedules could also shift from one day to the next. There wasn’t a new normal, standard schedule. There was a new way of teaming: a more flexible, agile way of working together.

5: Touch base with yourself.

A lot of this work for leaders is outward. Looking out for others. Communicating to others. Ensuring others have what they need. You may feel like you are being pulled in a million directions and time is constantly bearing down on you. This is how I felt. I also felt lost, especially in the beginning. Constantly feeling like I had no clue what I was doing. Questioning any guidance I provided the team. Wondering if I was doing enough. How could I show up better? How was I supposed to help people manage grief through this?

I (re)learned that creating quiet space for myself to reflect was essential. It quieted the constant self-criticism. Sometimes that quiet, reflective space was just with myself, sometimes it was with advisors, coaches, or mentors. Sometimes I am not a good touchstone for myself and to touch base with myself, I need others’ help. You can’t pour from an empty cup and you can’t do this by yourself. You alone, moving at breakneck speed with no rest, will not make you a superhero. You will simply be super tired, super stressed with a lack of clarity and, ultimately, ineffective.

BONUS: Have fun

This is just an absolute truth. In good times, in bad times, in unclear times, have fun. Find ways to inject fun into life and into work at all times. No matter how small it may seem, it is helpful and it is critical. (Also, there’s science that suggests that laughing helps learning.)

Very early on in COVID, it became clear to me that people were on edge. The stress was not just palpable, but also visible. So, what to do? Schedule an end-of-the-week dance party. Invite everyone you know in the company. Send out the invitation with a playlist Google Doc to which everyone can add. Bottom line: provide people some levity and give them something fun to look forward to.

It was a simple 15-minute dance party and it was sooooo much fun. I still get comments about how much people loved it. And it was simple, and just 15 minutes. People need each other and they need levity. It can’t be about managing the crisis or the budget or the end of the world every single moment, not even at work. So find 15 minutes, find 10 minutes, find 5 minutes and inject some fun into your life and the lives of others. There’s no downside — well, other than the shame of people seeing my outdated dance moves.