Asia School of Business

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They say teamwork makes the dream work… but how do you make that happen in the face of a crisis like COVID-19? For the Class of 2021, this year was supposed to be the time of our lives. Full-time MBA students get to travel to different parts of Southeast Asia for their second, third, and fourth Action Learning projects, working with various host companies on real-life challenges.

Indeed, this international exposure is what many of us came here for and is a hallmark of the ASB experience. But as the virus spread across the region in February, it soon became clear that international travel was off the table. My team had to change plans in a hurry and let go of an exciting project with a fintech company in Jakarta.

However, the ASB Action Learning team came through for us and quickly secured Malaysian projects for all groups. It was a good alternative under the circumstances – we would still gain the invaluable real-world learning we signed up for while staying away from a potentially life-threatening infection.

Locked down, but not out

Just when we thought we had the virus beat, the Malaysian government issued a nationwide lockdown in mid-March. At the time, we were halfway through our Action Learning semester, and ASB had to think of yet another alternative. After several sleepless nights, the Action Learning team came back to us with a proposal to finish the projects remotely, effectively turning our “AL Onsite” into an “AL Offsite”.

The irony was not lost on us, and the projects would become even more difficult than they already were as most students had flown back to their home countries. For some groups, that meant being in completely opposite time zones. At least for my team, one thing that helped us pull through was the fact that we could count on each other through times such as these – or as they say, “we got your back.” Below are some thoughts from my amazing teammates Jenie, Jon and Utkarsh on how to stay together as a team when the going gets COVID-tough.

Start with empathy

“Having good teammates really helps!” says Utkarsh. “I am incredibly lucky to have team members who were understanding. They made sure we could have meetings and interviews scheduled after 11:00 AM so I would be comfortable working remotely in a different time zone.” For our group, being empathetic meant not only accommodating each other’s time zones but also personal time, which is easily forgotten in a work-from-home, always-on environment.

“Losing track of time has been the biggest challenge,” Utkarsh adds. “When you are working at home, you don’t tend to have a hard stop, so you continue working beyond the usual hours, leading to a loss of work-life balance.” Nonetheless, we tried to fill in for each other as much as we could. When I lost my internet connection during a Zoom presentation to our Action Learning host, Jenie quickly jumped in to continue where I left off.

When Utkarsh’s computer shut down unexpectedly during another meeting, Jon took over without missing a beat. What we found is that in difficult or even crisis situations, the team dynamic is more important than ever. Only by sticking together can we keep ourselves from going under.

Next, seek alignment

When things change or fall apart, the first priority should be to ensure the team can get back into alignment, and everyone is on the same page on how to move forward, says Jenie. In any Action Learning assignment, disagreements are a given because of the complexity of the projects and the fact that everybody has strong opinions. It doesn’t help that things tend to get lost in translation when communication is confined to a voice or an image on a screen.

But divided, we fall. As such, the team never lets any disagreements or egos get in the way of completing the project. For Jon, alignment means letting the team take the lead and listening to everyone’s perspectives. “It’s the team that makes the project,” he says. “Do whatever it takes to achieve alignment because without it, the same issues will resurface. Everyone gets to have a say – when it comes to people, slow is fast.”

Remote work is easier than you think

Action Learning is a hands-on affair, so you can imagine our initial disappointment when we were told we could only use digital hands. But we didn’t let that get us down as a team. We were enlisted to help our host accelerate its transition toward a high-performance culture, and our scope involved speaking to various employees across the organization to diagnose the “as-is” state.

Instead of meeting face-to-face, we conducted interviews and meetings on Zoom and other digital platforms, and successfully completed interviews with nearly 20 people over two days. To keep everyone in the loop in spite of our remote locations, we had daily check-ins on Zoom not only with the team but also with our faculty advisors and business coach.

On top of that, our host was extremely gracious with his time and guided us every step of the way. “I personally enjoyed working digitally because everyone has the autonomy to work at his or her convenience,” says Utkarsh. “It was easy for everyone to juggle work for Action Learning and personal work.”

Dream works

Action Learning is certainly not the same when an onsite becomes an offsite. But you can make it work, and that’s the attitude my team and I had going into it. The process can still be transformative if you let it. For me, it was about building resilience and not giving up when I encounter roadblocks. Just having a can-do attitude amidst these difficult times is a big win.

But the most crucial lesson from this experience is to work through problems as a team. That’s how anything great ever gets done. “I think it’s the team that makes the experience,” says Jon. “From afar or near, having a great team makes the ride enjoyable.” Ditto.