Path to Fall - Leading Teams in a COVID-19 World

It’s always a challenge for managers to lead through change and to engage and motivate teams of diverse individuals. It’s even more of a challenge now with the huge and rapid changes in work practices and operational needs, the emotional storms this pandemic has unleashed, and the wildly different reactions to events that may be felt by different members of your team.

This guide offers ideas and best practices for leading in this time of uncertainty based on what’s known about effective management, what’s been learned from other disruptive or traumatic events, and the information that’s emerging about the range of emotional reactions and practical needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The content is adapted from the Leading Teams in a COVID-19 World booklet produced by Cascade Centers, the university's employee assistant program provider.


Understand UO's plans

  • Study and ask questions to understand what will be expected of you and your team.
  • Understand what discretion you have in deciding where and when your people will work.

Adapt your unit's directives for your team

  • Think about how your team might work together differently if some people are in the workplace and some are working from home.

Communicate to build trust

  • Communicate often and stay connected with your team. Have regular team and individual check-ins.
  • Be compassionate, honest, and open.
  • Frame your communications with positive messages. Focus on the present. Demonstrate a problem-solving approach.
  • Anticipate questions employees will ask and be prepared with answers.
  • They will want details on plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. Be compassionate, honest, and open. Listen and ask questions. Share what you know. When you don't know the answer to a question, promise to find out and follow up.
  • Build a culture of trust on your team by making it a safe place to express emotions and process reactions to changes and new information together.

Respond to emotional reactions

  • Listen and watch for signs of emotional distress, which include changes in work behavior. Engage the employee and remind them of the help available through the EAP.
  • Appropriately handle emotional reactions in team settings and conflict among team members.

Pay attention to your own energy and emotions

  • Pay attention to your emotions. Practice healthy eating, activity, and exercise habits. Take breaks to recharge. Maintain social connections.

Continue to adapt

  • Pay attention to what's working well and what isn't as you work together in different ways. Ask questions to take the pulse of your team members' productivity and emotional states.
  • Based on what you observe and what you hear from your team, continue to adjust the ways you work together.

Apply best practices for managing virtual and onsite teams

  • Regularly engage and include employees working remotely.
  • Be sure you understand individual concerns and constraints when you make decisions about when and where employees are expected to work.
  • Demonstrate your care for employees who are asked to come into the workplace.
  • Make the most of meetings.

Understand employee responses to change

It’s important to understand that employees are still processing a variety of emotions triggered by experiences associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Forced social isolation, cancellation of meaningful events, fear for personal health and the health of loved ones, financial anxiety, and grief over deaths are just a few of the factors that may be affecting your employees’ emotional well-being. Some employees may have found new joy in the extra time with family and may be dreading a return to a commuting schedule.

When you announce changes in your team’s work, such as a return to in-person work, your news could intensify the emotions employees are feeling, prompting strong reactions. Some may be happy with the changes while others may react with anger, sadness, or anxiety. Practical considerations will affect emotional reactions, too. Families with children may not be able to work as they did before, if schools and child care are closed.

That mix of emotions can lead to tension and friction on your team, as people may react to each other with tears, angry outbursts, or withdrawal.

Leading any change is hard. It’s normal for people to respond to change with denial and resistance at first. Leading change in a COVID-19 world could be especially challenging, given the emotional environment.

Your goal as a leader will be to help your team acknowledge and recognize the need for change. You will be the face of your organization to the people you manage and will need to inspire trust by showing that you are well-informed about company policy and disease prevention, that you care about your employees’ health, and that you understand the different needs and priorities among individuals on your team.