Mijal Iastrebner is SembraMedia’s co-founder and managing director. SembraMedia was co-founded by ICFJ Knight Fellow Janine Warner who is also its executive director.
Being a team leader is a challenge in any context, and the difficulties of managing a team are exacerbated in times of global crisis and isolation, like during the current COVID-19 pandemic. On top of needing to navigate new limitations, leaders also have to take precautions, like working remotely.
Space for your team to feel supported
To be able to embrace new processes and manage internal crises on a team, it is vital to acknowledge what all team members are going through.
“We cannot help but be scared by the situation in which we are all living. Fear is a basic human emotion. A lack of information fuels this sense of fear. As adults, we try to hide our fear, which is a behavior that can have consequences when we have to face it,” explained clinical psychologist Hebe Maguire.
Recognizing that fear has an effect on members of the team, it’s possible for leaders to create spaces where people can feel emotionally validated during times of crisis, like the current pandemic.
In circumstances like the one in which we find ourselves now, where there is physical isolation, it is key to sharpen one’s ability to listen , and to empathize with one’s team in order to prevent misunderstandings, anger or unnecessary risks. It can be helpful to call team members on the phone or via video call more often, even if those calls are brief. Consistently checking in on team members can have a big impact on their well-being, and by extension, can positively impact their work.
In Argentina, in light of the pandemic, the team at fact-checking organization Chequeado evaluated their yearly financial projections. "We did an exercise during which we eliminated everything that was nice to have, but not essential, assuming that we won’t be able to afford those things given the current global circumstances," said Laura Zommer, Chequeado’s executive director.
A week later, they repeated the exercise. “We think that it’s a useful exercise to do at least once every 15 days so that we can take into account how well or poorly things are evolving around the world,” she said.
In addition to thinking about group-wide priorities, it is also a good idea to take time to review processes with people leading different areas of your organization or heading specific projects. In times like the ones in which we find ourselves now, journalism is even more demanding than under normal circumstances, so it’s important to acknowledge this new reality with your team.
If a new task arises for someone on your team, it can be helpful to postpone, delegate or eliminate another one of that team member’s tasks. Distributing responsibility in this way will help your team members be committed to their work and further improve the quality of that work.
“Commitment is based on trust. If we want people to respond with commitment, we have to know how to make clear requests,” explained Powered Box founder Mariel Graupen, a human resources and executive coaching consultant.
For those on your team who may feel overwhelmed by the current global situation and become paralyzed in their work, breaking lists of tasks down into sub-assignments can help them focus and feel a sense of progress. Adding subtasks will make the list of what they need to get done seem longer, but it will help your teammates focus their attention on day-to-day responsibilities — on what they can accomplish instead of what they can’t.
“Leaders have a responsibility to ensure the security of their team. Your teammates who depend on you as a leader are watching you all the time,” Graupen said.
If your teammates ask you, as the leader, what their projects will look like going forward and you can’t give them a concrete answer, that’s fine. What is important and the most effective is that you have a committed response. As an example, Graupen says you can say something like, “This is what I know. A specific component of the project depends on other factors, and I will let you know in this specific way when I have an answer for you.” She added, “The team learns from what its leaders do, more than from what those leaders say.”
The leadership team of El Pitazo, an independent Venezuelan media organization that covers national news, and a Velocidad grantee, took measures early on in the pandemic to send out communications to their team. “We sent out different messages: one to El Pitazo’s correspondents and one to the management team based in Caracas,” explained Yelitza Linares, El Pitazo’s business and partnerships coordinator.
The messages clearly explained the actions being taken by El Pitazo based on (and acknowledging) the concerns brought up by the team. The management explained a reduction of in-the-field coverage, procedures for remote work, and the hygiene measures that would be taken by the El Pitazo team, among other things.
“We made the decision to limit our in-the-field reporting to only one team. We provide them protective equipment, including safe transportation, gloves, face masks and detailed hygiene instructions,” explained Linares. “Given that we don’t have a way to send these resources to our correspondents, we decided to limit their coverage to what they can produce from home, online and on the phone,” she said.
Pedro Vaca, executive director of the Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP), a press freedom organization in Colombia, supported the measures taken by media organizations such as El Pitazo. “Providing even basic protective resources to journalists working in the field is a huge challenge, sometimes it’s hard to find any,” he said.
Vaca explained that FLIP is making kits of protective equipment to help meet the needs of journalists who do not have sufficient resources. “I see journalists in Latin America emulating the protective measures they see being taken in other parts of the world, like putting plastic over one’s microphone, but they aren’t following the necessary measures to then properly clean or maintain that protective equipment.”
“The Latin American media ecosystem is very informal. Many journalists work freelance, and it’s important that the media outlets that hire those freelancers ask them if they have health insurance,” Vaca said. He added that the Organization of American States declared that news is an “essential good.”
Another factor that adds complexity to working as a journalist during the pandemic: “Right now nobody wants to lose his or her job,” he said. “There may be journalists who do not want to continue reporting in the field, but are stuck at a crossroads where they feel forced to continue exposing themselves.”
Backing their words with action, some media companies are deciding to provide advances or bonuses to journalists working in the field, exposed. The management team at El Pitazo decided to give bonuses right now that were originally planned for April to help their team cope with impending supply shortages.
“We are in a critical moment right now that is going to exacerbate the economic crisis that we are already in,” explained Linares. “On top of electricity, internet and supply shortages, there is now also a gasoline shortage, which could further delay the delivery of food to stores,” Linares said.
Identifying both your news organization’s strengths and weaknesses during the pandemic and sharing them with your team can allow everyone to feel grounded. Even though there might be situations that you or your team can’t fix or change, this grounding can help provide everyone with a sense of control.
Providing perspective also can have a direct impact because it can lessen team members’ anxiety and help them avoid wasting energy, which helps the overall work environment.
Every small win is worthy of taking a victory lap (in the living room, of course). Amid the chaos of work and life, it can be difficult to stop and celebrate. In today’s reality, where everyday tasks can be difficult to accomplish, acknowledging successes helps keep morale high and strengthens the team’s relationship.
“In the midst of working on so many projects, it’s easy to go from one to the other without stopping to celebrate accomplishments,” said Janine Warner, co-founder of SembraMedia and an ICFJ Knight Fellow. “To help make sure that our successes don’t get away from us, years ago I invented the ‘I’m done dance’ to celebrate when my team finished something that required a lot of effort.”
Leaders are human too
“It’s important for leaders to practice self-care and to model being the first ones to ask for help. At some point, the effects of burnout are like a pandemic — if it starts with the leader, it is highly likely that the whole team will catch it,” said Graupen. She warned, “It’s legitimate to have fear, have a bad day or not know what to do. That’s why it is key to maintain your personal space, creating a work schedule with respect to your other duties.”
Graupen pointed out that if leaders try to pretend, their coworkers will immediately notice, no matter how much effort these leaders put into “faking it.”
“A key concept for leaders to understand is that they are human first, before any role they might have,” she said “Leaders will be afraid too, just like the people with whom they work. It’s true that leaders are responsible for the results of their team, and their role is to support their team members, but not everything that happens is in their control.”