Adapting and Prospering in a Virtual World

Regardless of the industry, the COVID-19 pandemic has left most working professionals with two choices: adapt or stay stagnant. While the unexpected reality we face today may be alarming at first glance, the ability to change is a necessity to thrive in today's world.

Hands of an MBA student working on laptop computer with SMU Cox folder in the foreground

This blog post was originally published in November 2020 and was revised in April 2023.

Telecommuting was already set to expand in 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, offices transformed faster than any future-of-work advocate could have imagined. Professional sectors were implementing changes in workplace culture, operations, and communication. Tech companies like Zoom and Slack ensured that businesses have the technology and resources needed to transition to remote work successfully. Education professionals were utilizing online curriculums to create unprecedented lesson plans, especially for younger children.

Across industries, the COVID-19 pandemic left most working professionals with two choices: adapt or stay stagnant. While this unexpected reality might've been alarming at first glance, our ability to change allowed us to continue thriving.

The keys to adapting to and sustaining self in this new virtual world and prospering after a crisis are to practice self-care, lead effectively, and look ahead.

What Happens During a Crisis

A three-part webinar series hosted by the SMU Cox School of Business addressed what David Jacobson, professor and Executive Director of Online Education, described as, “for many of us, the most tumultuous and unsettling period of our lives.”

Like many other organizations worldwide, Professor Jacobson and his colleagues experienced an unexpected transition from everyday practices when COVID-19 emerged and the SMU Cox staff were told to work from home.

A 2019 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) report on the “Psychology of a Crisis” states that humans receive and process information differently during a disaster. In the report, DHHS breaks down key information worth considering. Some of which include processing and coping strategies.

Four ways people process information during a crisis include:

  1. Simplifying complex messages
  2. Holding on to current beliefs
  3. Looking for additional information and opinions
  4. Believing the first message they hear

The DHHS states that simple, credible, and consistent information should be released as soon as possible to help alleviate misunderstandings and avoid delayed action.

Humans experience a cycle of exhausting emotions during a crisis, like uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and dread. People go through stages of hopelessness, helplessness, and even denial. People behave differently during a crisis. Survivors may bypass official channels and seek special treatment. And while unaffected observers may mentally rehearse the crisis, other groups face direct stigmatization, as we have seen with discrimination of Black and Asian Americans during the pandemic.

However, crises can also have positive effects. Survivors learn to cope and might have “feelings of elation” when the disaster is over, which leads to growth and psychological strength. Many people gain a stronger sense of community, renewed self-worth, and think more innovatively. However, positive outcomes depend on how leaders manage the crisis.

Reflection, Receptiveness, and Routine

Without a solid foundation, a structure will eventually fall. Leadership ability should be viewed similarly. Strong leadership starts with individual management; you can only lead as far as you take yourself. In our webinar series (linked below), participants identified two key leadership building strategies. Those were: Build from Within and Be Diligent.

Build from Within

The first step is to acknowledge that you are a human with strengths and limitations and to become aware of your emotions. “There’s often a taboo that people just don’t want to talk about with mental health,” explains Maribeth Kuenzi, SMU Associate Professor of Economic Growth and Leadership Development. She continues, “There’s what’s called situational depression… a short-term depression that tends to occur when there are traumatic events or big changes in someone’s life.” Several self-care exercises and resources are available to assist with short-term depression, such as meditation or grief management.

Be Diligent

Leaders must be consistently ready to act, which is only possible with optimal work-life balance and emotional intelligence. Set clear boundaries with family and friends, so you’re able to stick to a routine that includes a set schedule, breaks, and a comprehensive to-do list. Drink water, eat healthy food, stretch, spend time outside, and exercise.

Effective Leadership

Being unexpectedly immersed in a new environment strongly affects the workforce. Arjan Singh, SMU Adjunct Professor of Marketing and Global Strategy Consulting, explains that “as soon as we’ve gone from this world where people have had very clearly demarcated workspaces and personal spaces, to then being merged together in the situation we’re in; a lot of that clarity and demarcation goes away.”

How to Succeed in the Digital World During Change

Healthy communication is the most powerful tool when managing a remote team. Moreover, effective virtual teams recognize the difference between formal and informal components in communication.

Formal virtual communication includes anything related to employee tasks, processes, goals, and roles. Without micromanaging, effective leaders keep up on a remote team’s assignments through weekly check-ins, project management tools, or other organizational methods.

Informal virtual communication helps manage isolation and makes up for the face-to-face, non-verbal cues you get in an office, such as smiling or waving at someone from across the room.

When you begin to lead on a human level as a peer, with empathy and understanding, you’ll notice a change in your ability to influence others toward success.

Exposure and Accountability

Brené Brown, research professor, author, and podcast host stated, “Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” The acclaimed storyteller reminds us that growth only happens amid uncertainty. Though, being a risk-taker does not mean you have to be reckless. Mapping out a plan and taking positive steps to mitigate as much risk as possible will improve outcomes and solutions.

Choosing To Look Ahead and Thrive

A growth mindset sees change, failure, and challenges as opportunities for attaining new skills and achievements. Emotionally intelligent leaders recognize losses and limitations and can quickly adapt and move forward.

The SMU Cox School of Business change series provides invaluable tools and resources to help leaders lead effectively in the Dallas community and beyond. Renowned SMU Cox faculty David Jacobson, Maribeth Kuenzi, Karin Quiñones, and Arjan Singh address three components of Adapting & Prospering in a New Virtual World. Together, they approach the importance of “stabilizing yourself”, “stabilizing your team”, and ultimately “looking forward.” You can view the entire three-part webinar series by following the links below:

If you are interested in pursuing your MBA, learn more about the SMU Cox Online MBA program today.