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As our product innovations team was developing the content for the Birkman High-Performing Teams workshop over the past year, I learned a new term from them: “VUCA”—an acronym for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. VUCA is the nature of business in the modern era, and this could not be truer than what we’ve seen with the impact of COVID-19 on the world in 2020 so far.

COVID-19 ticks all the VUCA boxes. There are many elements to the virus that we don’t know, and the business landscape (and stock market) are reacting quickly off the little information we do know. One of the things we are learning: the importance of social distancing.

To encourage social distancing and “flatten the curve,” companies (and governments) are encouraging (or requiring) employees to work-from-home (WFH) at a scale never seen before. Zoom stock has nearly doubled in value this year as organizations are scrambling to have the tools to support remote working teams. No organization wants to have contributed to the spread of COVID-19.

But where does this leave L&D professionals and consultants? If you're a facilitator, much of your role may be travelling around the country, or the world, and working with groups of people.

In this situation where 1) you can’t travel, and 2) you can’t have a group of people together, what are you to do? How can you contribute to the success of your organization during this crisis?

Why It’s Critical to Invest in Team and Employee Development Now

During times of stress and change, it may be hard for organizations to prioritize team workshops and engagement activities, but it’s more critical now than ever:

Plans changing causes stress on employees.

  • Most companies are changing their plans for Q2 in some capacity given the impact of COVID-19 on the world. The uncertainty of the plans changing will challenge employees who thrive on stability and predictability. Knowing that they have a connected team there to support each other can provide the comfort they need to stay productive as they WFH.

Miscommunication and conflict are more likely to happen when not in-person.

  • Tone doesn’t translate to email or messaging apps, and it’s easy to misconstrue the intentions of your coworkers. Leaders should avoid adding on additional stress by exploring how differences in communication style may become more apparent.

Working from home conditions may be stressful.

  • Modern offices are designed to maximize efficiency for workers. Faster internet, docking stations, dual monitors—we are used to the tools we need to perform at our best. Shifting to a makeshift workspace at home may be less than optimal and impact productivity, causing frustration and stress—not to mention if there are children or pets at home too. Team connection can help employees with their engagement in their jobs while undergoing this shift.

Employees are stressed in their personal lives, too.

  • With school closures, grocery store chaos, and economic uncertainty, the impact of COVID-19 is reaching beyond our day jobs and the impact to our companies. Employees at risk or with close family members at risk may be worried for their personal safety as well. All of this can impact their engagement and productivity while shifting to WFH. Investing in their development right now is not just helpful for managing stress at work, but it can help with their self-awareness for managing the stress from personal life as well.

The organizations that invest in employee development and performance during the next few months will come out on top.

  • While some industries may be positively impacted and potentially even overwhelmed with demand in response to COVID-19, the economic impact on other industries may be more of a challenge, particularly over the next couple months. Regardless of which situation your organization is in, if you can make greater strides over the coming weeks and months than your competitors by keeping your employees as productive and engaged as possible, that will be a competitive advantage for your organization.

Psychological safety (the willingness to take risks and be vulnerable with each other), is a top indicator of performance, and incredibly necessary in this stressful time as organizations need to innovate to navigate our “new normal” as well as keep employees engaged and staying productive.

Content to Cover Under Current Circumstances

If psychological safety is the key factor for high performance, and high performance is critical during times of economic stress and change, what’s the right recipe for a virtual team workshop that increases psychological safety during this time?

I would pose that if you just took an off-the-shelf “fun” team building workshop and adapted it to virtual right now, you may miss the mark. People are stressed personally and professionally, and glossing over the causes of stress with ice breakers won’t capture attention. You can’t sweep COVID-19 under the rug. Rather than having employees try to disengage with their current stressful reality, equip them with the tools to manage the stress, be more productive as they WFH, and avoid conflict with their team members. Show employees you care about their mental health and their success by training them, not distracting them.

Amy Edmondson, the guru of psychological safety, shared that there are three stages to defining psychological safety:

  1. Setting the Stage – Aligning the team on what’s going on and the challenges they have—what are the variables that put their success at risk?
  2. Inviting Engagement – Ask employees to contribute their opinions and participate. Ask people questions—listen and show them that you’re genuinely interested in their ideas. Frame the questions in ways that encourage them to make recommendations for how the team can be running better during this time.
  3. Responding Productively – Reward the transparency with thanks and respond with curiosity of how the situation can be remedied.

Amy Edmondson’s stages do a great job of speaking in the context of real business issues and tackling a problem, which is exactly what many organizations are doing right now in the face of COVID-19. It’s easy to think of COVID-19 as an issue that executives are facing, but we should all be rallying together and contributing our best ideas at every level to help our companies make the best of this situation. (Hint: that’s why I wanted to write this blog this week.)

I also strongly believe that while it is essential that leadership practices the above steps to establish psychological safety, it is also relevant at team and direct interpersonal levels—and this is where the virtual team workshop can help.

Business topics you may want to cover with a virtual team workshop right now and “set the stage” for discussion:

  • Analyzing the team’s risks and opportunities given their current state
  • Project planning for how to adjust plans and stay productive over coming weeks
  • Resolve any existing underlying conflict that may exist within the team
  • Communicating effectively while working remote
  • Managing stress at work (and at home)
  • Understanding self and social awareness - how your actions and reactions may be affecting others around you

Content Solutions and Tools from Birkman

Birkman is optimally designed for these types of challenges. Birkman workshops and conversations help employees and remote employees have better engagement with their work, reduce conflict, handle stress, tackle problems productively, and drive psychologically safe conversations—so that creative solutions get heard and teams respond effectively to VUCA situations.

As a tool that builds awareness of behaviors, interests, and perceptions of self and others, Birkman is adaptable to many scenarios in the workplace for improving communication and developing emotional intelligence. However, it’s most critical to have a foundation of strong communication and collaboration during times when the stakes are high.

Birkman can help answer:

  • Do we know some of the foundational basics that will make us stronger, such as a team purpose?
  • Do we have clarity of our purpose, roles, and tasks, and are we all on the same page to avoid missteps?
  • Who on the team will be the natural communicators to help align the team and make everybody aware of the team’s direction as we respond to COVID-19?
  • Who will naturally be a valued source of dissent to make sure we avoid groupthink?
  • As a team, how will we see our stress manifest? How can we help support each other to stay productive?
  • How can you use awareness of behavioral styles to bolster the team in stressful situations like COVID-19? Who will take a practical approach and focus on fixing the tactical problems at hand? Conversely, who will naturally provide emotional support and empathetic messaging to employees and customers during this difficult time?
  • As we tackle this project, who will be motivated for the different tasks involved? In what situations can each individuals’ strengths be leveraged best?

Because the Birkman assessment uses non-judgmental language, it lays the groundwork for understanding each other in a psychologically-safe way, which will yield healthier conversations about differences and encourage the voices of those within the team that may not be heard, especially in times of stress, such as right now.

If You Want a Turnkey Workshop Solution

The Birkman High-Performing Teams Workshop (HPT) is designed to be run virtually or in person.  HPT is a team coaching program that builds a foundation for the team to function at a higher level, driving meaningful team conversations and culminating in a powerful action plan to apply their learnings to a real business challenge the team faces.

The workshop guides the team to agree on a team purpose, build clarity for aligning the right people and tasks for achieving team goals, see the power of psychological safety within the team, and understand how each person’s personality as well as team dynamics contribute to them reaching their  objectives.

Birkman High-Performing Teams was designed using modularized content for segmenting into multiple sessions. As long as you have a digital whiteboard for collaboration and a teleconferencing/screenshare platform, you have what you need to run a powerful virtual team workshop. And, because it does not require prerequisite Birkman training, it can be quickly and easily implemented. Learn more by signing up for our webinar on High-Performing Teams in the Virtual Environment

Download a sample High-Performing Teams workbook here

If you Are Birkman Certified and Want to Utilize Components

Check out the next blog in this series: COVID-19: Birkman Virtual Workshop Concepts Deeper Dive

Changing the Format for Virtual Delivery

Hopefully the statements and ideas above were a timely reminder to how critical employee and team development are as employees adapt to WFH or for everyone during times of stress. Once you’ve decided to host a virtual team workshop, you may have some challenges—not everything that works for in-person workshops is easily adapted to virtual sessions. Based on both research and experience, here are some of our recommendations for hosting virtual workshops.

Length of Workshop

Limit workshop sessions to no more than 90 minutes in one sitting, ideally with a break midway. You want to keep your audience engaged and not restless. Creating a series of workshops, like morning/afternoon over multiple days will drive engagement, help you get through the content, and reach deeper, more productive discussions.

Number of Participants

While live workshops can work well with larger groups (20+) because you can hear a diversity of opinions and perspectives, if hosting virtually, it can be hard to hear everyone’s voice. Ideally limit your workshop groups to teams of 10 or less so that everybody has a chance to share and connect.

Shifting your Activities to Virtual

One of the most popular Birkman activities is to draw out a Birkman Map on the floor, and have team members stand on it, moving with their Birkman Symbols as they visualize the differences between Usual Behavior and Needs. However, with a virtual whiteboarding tool like Miro, I was able to quickly create a virtual interactive Birkman Map in less than five minutes for free. Think creatively about how you can use interactive tools to replicate the experience virtually for your favorite activities.

Adopting Technologies

Here are the essentials:

Video Conferencing Platform (e.g Zoom, GoToMeeting)

  • Strongly encourage the use of webcams. It keeps people honest that they’re engaged and more closely mimics in-person meetings so you can read non-verbal reactions to statements shared in the workshop.
  • Consider if you need the ability to enable breakout discussions in the platform before you purchase the right tool for you.
  • Add polling questions or use the chat feature to encourage participation and drive engagement.

File Storage/Document Sharing Tools (e.g. SharePoint, Google Drive/Docs)

  • Make it easy for people to upload content to the group (especially relevant if action planning) as well as have an easy place to download your workshop resources.

Interactive Whiteboard / Remote Collaboration Tools (e.g Miro, Mural)

  • Have people contribute real-time on a shareable whiteboard during your workshop. It gives the power to all participants (rather than having one scribe) and drives interaction in a visual way.

Need Help?

I feel confident speaking for the team on this—we would love to hear from you if you are wanting to lead a virtual Birkman workshop for a remote team right now. Whether you want to run your game plan by our experts or discuss the resources available to you, we want to hear your vision and help you attain it.

Our team is online and working remote as well—adapting to the same situations as you and your clients. We’d be happy to share with you what we’ve seen work for successful virtual team workshops. Just reach out if you’d like to connect with us and speak about your vision for your team workshop. We want to help you lead the L&D solutions at your organization as they need your expertise the most in adapting to COVID-19 and maintaining a competitive edge in this time of uncertainty.

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