Skip to main content

Work and the Coronavirus

digital red abstract world background
Helping people understand how COVID-19 affects work and employment by sharing insights and help from ILR's workplace experts.

Five Tips for Leading Your Startup or Small Business Remotely Through COVID-19

a desk at home with to illustrate working from home

Stephen Sauer

Stephen Sauer is an Entrepreneur in Residence and Senior Lecturer at the Cornell SC Johnson School of Business

We understand that as a small business or startup founder, you are eager to foster a positive environment and build a sense of community and meaningful collaboration among the members of your team. Due to the current COVID-19 restrictions in place to protect you and your colleagues, you are likely finding it difficult to maintain the same sense of cohesiveness remotely that helped your team thrive and move nimbly in a pre-pandemic world.

At its core, leadership is a contact sport, and it requires one-to-one relationships with each of your team members in order to be effective. So how do you foster that exchange when the opportunity to stop by someone’s office or to gather around the water cooler is taken from you? How do you show your people that you care about their well-being and that no matter how isolated social distancing may make them feel, they are still a valued and trusted member of a tight-knit team? More importantly, how do you demonstrate strong and compassionate leadership from behind your laptop?

You are not alone in navigating the challenges of remote leadership. The experienced professionals at Cornell’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement (CREA) and the ILR School are here to share their insights on leading teams virtually and the tactics they find useful.

To get you started, here are five essential tips for approaching remote leadership:

  1. Communication is key. Now more than ever, transparency and honest communication is absolutely vital for team performance. This is a time not only for perspective taking, but for perspective getting. Show your team that you are here for them, that you understand these times are difficult, and that you know they are working hard. Ask questions to identify where they are struggling with the transition to remote work. If they are behind on a project due to personal reasons, show that you understand and allow them to see that you too are facing new challenges. Be honest and upfront with people. In the end, a positive environment built on trust will also be a more productive environment.
  2. Create small rituals. Since the home is also the office when working remotely, it is all too easy to blur the lines between work and home, and it is important that your team knows when to work and when to focus on their personal needs. But that doesn’t mean it has to be all about work, even if it is work time. You want to make an effort to replicate the socializing or idle chit chat that team members would engage in if they were in the same physical location, but if you don’t build that into the virtual workflow routine it won’t happen. So, create some rituals: start each meeting with a quick icebreaker, have team members share a personal story or bring everyone up to date on how long the kids’ hair is getting or what bread they’re baking this week. Host a virtual happy hour. At Rev: Ithaca Startup Works, a startup incubator in Ithaca, NY, we have a daily standup where everyone says how they’re doing, what they’re working on, what impediments are in their way, and what they think of some oddball question (“what are the dumbest lyrics ever written?”). These little rituals become part of the team routine, something members can look forward to, and they remind people that it’s not all about work, all the time.
  3. It’s okay to be vulnerable. No one expects you to be superhuman. In fact, they would prefer if you weren’t. When leading a team, especially during a challenging time, it is important for your team members to see that you too are facing struggles, that you’re in the boat alongside them. Don’t be afraid to be real with people. When you are willing to share that you are challenged by something, it allows your team members to see that you are truly one of them, while enhancing the trust and familiarity that will bring the whole team together. It will also give you the chance to ask for and to accept help from your team when it is needed, and trust me, it will be needed.
  4. Use technology, but don’t overwhelm. We know that technology is the glue that’s holding the workforce together right now. Zoom and Slack and Google Hangouts and a bevy of other apps are running constantly in the background (and sometimes foreground), and these tools have truly been a boon to productivity in this virtual environment. However, during a time where everything is being done online, it is easy for team members to feel like they have to be constantly “on,” and “Zoom fatigue” is a very real thing for all of us. And while it is important to stay adaptive and innovative, learning new technologies can be exhausting for employees, and too much of a good thing can begin to harm their productivity. Sometimes, an email or text or phone call is enough to touch base or to get a question answered quickly, and people might appreciate the simplicity. If these were the norms before your team moved to a virtual environment there’s no need for them to change now – just because you have new technology doesn’t mean you have to use it all the time.
  5. Use data. If you are using technology, take full advantage of it. Productivity measures and performance metrics can help you to evaluate not only which parts of your organization are doing well but can also help identify places where team members may be struggling. And depending on the app, service, or platform you are using to facilitate remote work, you will have access to slew of data that you’ve never had before. Use the data. For example, if you see a drop-off in attendance or participation in Zoom meetings that are scheduled at a certain time of day or exceed some duration, you can adapt your processes to counter that trend. If certain types of threads in Slack garner more attention and greater action than others, take a closer look to figure out why, and then put those best practices into use. And data can be especially useful when you hire new team members and need to monitor their progress, not only in terms of productivity, but also in how well they are finding their place in the team. Put a plan into place for what data you want to collect and how you will use the data, and make sure the members of your team understand the purpose.

For more advice on leading teams remotely, watch the webinar “Best Practices for Remote Leadership in Startups and Small Business During COVID-19” where I am joined by panelists Elizabeth Mannix, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Management at Cornell SC Johnson College of Business; Charlie Mulligan, CEO of GiveGab; Ken Rother, Director of Rev: Ithaca Startup Works; and Nick Nickitas, CEO and Co-founder of Rosie.

You can also view other webinars in CREA’s series focused on supporting startups through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Weekly Inbox Updates