Topics: Teams Leadership

The Madness in March: 5 Ways to Coach Remote Teams During COVID-19

Today we are all facing a new reality both personally and professionally.  As you might guess from the title of this blog, we originally intended March Madness to be featured heavily throughout with a few quips and zingers inserted here and there.  However, as in life and in business, things change. Employers and employees everywhere are quickly trying to adjust to a new normal as more and more businesses are moving their teams remote.  Even though brackets won’t be busted this year, the lessons that can be learned from championship basketball teams can help you roll with the unexpected and build a strong team that can thrive whether they are in the office or working remotely.

Basketball is a sport where success is built upon a team working together on and off the court. To win that coveted national trophy, every individual player must come together as a team.  As a manager, you are the head coach and your employees are your players. The same dynamics employed by a championship basketball team can be applied to the workplace to create a culture that fosters employee happiness and loyalty while still driving results in the face of change.  

So what are the 5 ways to coach a winning team despite what life may throw at us?


Connect the Right People

Boston Celtics Coach Red Auerback once said “some people believe you win with the five best players, but I found out that you win with the five who fit together best.”  You might be able to recruit the best in the industry, but what happens if they don’t work well together or connect with the company culture? Employees are more likely to enjoy their work and feel appreciated when their values and needs align with those of their colleagues and employer.  When your team is no longer collaborating in the same office, it’s even more crucial that your employees feel heard. A recent study by Salesforce, The Impact of Equality and Values Driven Business, found that employees who feel like they are heard are 4.6 times more empowered to perform their best work. Depending on your company culture and team, here are a few tips to bring the right people together and help their voice be heard: 

  • Identifying employees who can help support other team members within their area of expertise. Now that video calls and screen sharing are essential, who can train those team members who haven’t done one before?
  • For social cultures, ask your internal “cheerleader” who loves to bring the team together to create a private LinkedIn group page or Slack channel to keep people connected and engaged. Maybe organize virtual lunches so people don’t feel alone. 
  • Identifying and asking your employees what resources or information they need to be successful in this remote environment.  Who on the team can best support them? For example, do you have a resource like DocuSign in place to virtually execute documents or contracts that require signatures?


Set Team Goals

Chances are, if you were to ask individual players on a basketball team what they want to achieve most, you’ll probably hear “win the national championship” from just about everyone.  Winning teams have a common goal – one that all players work together to achieve. People feel appreciated and valued when they see how their contributions lead to success. While staying on track with goals may be more challenging when your team is now spread out working remotely, businesses and teams move forward by setting goals and working together to achieve them.  Balanced goals can help center your remote team and bring them back to their starting positions. You can continue to win by:

  • Setting a goal for challenging transitions and changes to keep the team focused and motivated while they are working from home. 
  • Setting smaller team goals on a weekly basis that align with the overarching goal will make it more manageable.  These goals don’t have to be business or KPI related either. For example, each team member could strive to connect with two other team members each day. 
  • Communicating clear goals to help create calm within the storm. However, asking your team for their thoughts on how to best achieve these goals – both team and individual – will bring different perspectives and ideas based on this new environment so you won’t skip a beat. 


Communicate Game Plans

Communication is perhaps the single most important characteristic of a championship team.  Not only do coaches need to clearly communicate to their players, but players need to effectively communicate with one another both on and off the court.  Poor communication can quickly rust what was once a well-oiled machine. If Player 1 doesn’t know that Player 2 intends to pass the ball and Player 3 is open but never gets the ball…well, you can imagine what the result will be.  Nearly 60% of employees report not being given clear directions by their manager (Source:  Can you imagine what would happen if 60% of a basketball team didn’t know what to do when they returned to the court after half time? Yep – that’s a bracket buster!  Poor communication is frustrating and can lead to lack of teamwork, low morale, and reduced productivity. A remote workforce can place even more strain on communication, especially when your team doesn’t usually work remotely.  As your team’s coach:

  • Communicate game plans to your team on a regular cadence via a channel that works best for your team. This is important from a team and individual perspective so everyone is running the same “play” and staying connected. 
  • Implement calls or video conferencing in place of your in-person meetings.  This is a great way to have something familiar for the team to touch base and ensure that the information is clear, concise, and reaches each member of your team.  
  • Review written correspondences before hitting send.  Unlike in-person communication where facial expressions and vocal inflection can help set the tone, it’s easy to misinterpret the tone of an email or text message.  


Encourage Team Friendships

Many coaches and players agree that spending time outside of practice and games helps to foster a stronger bond between individuals, which in turn contributes to how players perform on the court.  Just because your team is remote doesn’t mean that they can’t establish friendships. In fact, those connections are even more important in times of high stress and uncertainty. According to a recent Gallup poll, a workplace that encourages friendships sees 36% fewer safety incidents, 7% higher customer engagement and a 12% higher profit (Source:  Employees who have strong social interactions with colleagues are less likely to be actively looking for other jobs, more likely to have a positive experience during the work day, and less likely to miss work due to illness.  To help alleviate the emotional toll and anxiety that isolation and social distancing can bring, you can encourage workplace friendships by:

  • Increasing activity on social networks or digital communication options, such as Skype or Slack.  
  • Implementing digital Lunch & Learns or afternoon coffee breaks where your team can check in.
  • Depending on your culture, sharing your own experiences working from home and being disrupted by children or pets.  In fact, laugh about it, normalize the experience, and encourage your team to do the same. We’re all in this together! 

Lead By Example

Any coach knows how to hold practice, run drills and call plays.  Good coaches know how to hone skills. Championship coaches know how to lead.  It is the coach who sets the tone for the entire team both on and off the court.  The coach is the cohesive glue that binds the team together. Success comes from the top down, so it’s essential that a manager leads by example.  If you show your employees how much they are appreciated, encourage them to work as a team, form friendships with colleagues, and communicate clearly, they’ll do the same.  It may take more effort than usual to lead by example if your team is suddenly remote. But that means you have an opportunity to blaze new trails and show your employees how powerful a team can be, even with the restrictions of working remotely.  Try some of these suggestions:

  • Take the time to personalize every digital encounter with your team. 
  • Recognize and appreciate your employees through this difficult time, such as writing personalized thank yous.  
  • Be available and take the time to listen, especially to your social employees.  Every employee ticks differently, identify and ask who wants regular check-ins or would rather just work in peace. 


So now that you know what dynamics make up a championship team and how they apply to a remote workforce, it’s time to go out there and win it all!  Go team!


Topics: Teams Leadership

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