I’ve been a huge basketball fan all my life. In fact, one of my first jobs was as an interpreter for the NBA.

But even for non-fans, the National Basketball Association (NBA) was a major story in 2020. In March, when the pandemic was starting to take hold, some NBA players tested positive for COVID-19 which influenced an indefinite halt to the NBA season.

But the NBA returned. After careful planning and assessment, the league decided to resume the season and stage the playoffs in an isolated “bubble” at Disney World, Florida. They’ve been playing in “the NBA bubble” – a secure campus inside the Disney World Resort – since late July with great success. (The NBA Finals began September 30th.)

Testing for players and staff occurs daily, activities and interactions are closely monitored, and everyone in the bubble has agreed to the conditions.

What is the NBA Bubble?

How to lead remotely when you’ve never done it before

The 2020 NBA Bubble was created by the National Basketball Association (NBA) to protect its players from the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s an isolation zone at Walt Disney World in Bay Lake, Florida, where 22 of the 30 total NBA teams completed the final eight games of the 2019–20 regular season, and the site of the 2020 NBA playoffs. All games are held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and every team is housed at Disney World hotels. All activities are closed to the public.

Fun fact

The Walt Disney World Resort in Florida is the same size as the city of San Francisco.

I decided to compile some thoughts and lessons from the NBA bubble and see how they could be applied to your (newly) remote work team and experiences.

11 lessons from the NBA Bubble for your remote team

NBA Bubble lesson #1

Having a superstar player is great for any basketball team, but it won’t be enough to win every game. You can get more wins with a great coach, players willing and ready to adapt to anything, and a balanced team that knows and works to their strengths and weaknesses.

For your remote team

If you manage a remote team, focus on creating a balanced and self-aware team. A balanced team is better than having a superstar unicorn.

At a time like this, when things are changing unpredictably, it’s important to be willing to adapt and try new things to see what works for everyone.

NBA Bubble lesson #2

No home court advantage means every game is the same. It’s indeed a whole new game not having a crowd to influence the calls, the noise, the referees.

For your remote team

Not going to the office every day means company perks have changed, and will need to be adjusted for the future as companies try to stay ahead of the competitive field.

There’s a big advantage in becoming remote-friendly ASAP, and learning to do remote activities to keep everyone involved. Try open Zoom calls, happy hours, lunches, or book clubs to get the team involved every week. Don’t forget to have a no Zoom / no meeting day and go outside.

NBA Bubble lesson #3

The game didn’t stop. It just changed. So now the players have to adapt to the new. And they’ll do that at different speeds.

For your remote team

Understand your team and their ups and downs. No one planned for this working experience and everyone is learning on the fly. Experiment with new methods and rituals to work out what really works for you and your team.

NBA Bubble lesson #4

The NBA created a way for people to cheer from outside the bubble and celebrate every shot. The virtual crowd shows up and cheers for every game.

Celebrate those little wins to keep your team motivated
For your remote team

With the newly added distance to your team, celebrate even more. Share every small win. Applaud and cheer from afar. Every small victory helps and celebrating gets everyone happier, engaged, and it drives momentum. Try Zoom celebrations. Or just have a shared online meal and everyone order their favorite takeaway and chat.

NBA Bubble lesson #5

The Phoenix Suns had a very low chance of reaching the playoffs and a losing record. In the Bubble, they went 8-0. They still didn’t reach the playoffs, but played much better than anyone expected and took advantage of their new situation.

For your remote team

Breakout teams (or teams that adapt fast) can surprise you and take advantage of the new environment to blow past the competition. A change of scenery even when unexpected can be a good thing for some teams.

NBA Bubble lesson #6

Most teams have played the same way for a long time. They have big centers, quick guards, and every team now shoots more three-pointers. But a team like the Houston Rockets decided to play differently, no centers or “big men,” and every player a high percentage three-point shooter. It’s so different, it makes every other team play differently against them.

For your remote team

When every team zigs, some teams prefer to zag. They stand out for good and for bad reasons. It’s important to look at other teams to understand what they’re doing and how they’re adapting to the new. But it’s also important to understand what works for your team. That’s ultimately more important than what other teams are doing.

NBA Bubble lesson #7

Many teams in the NBA say they can “turn it on” when it’s playoff time. But time and time again, consistency and momentum are what make the difference. A team that isn’t sharp, shrugs off bad losses, and lets some games get away from them often can’t “turn it on” when it’s needed most.

For your remote team

Momentum can be a difference in how a team performs. Keep doing the work and the basics every day. Do the same rituals, try them async, or on Zoom, and the team will eventually click back in to place, even out of their comfort zone. Remote will start feeling like normality. Consistency wins.

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NBA Bubble lesson #8

“I’d say that the strangest part is just how separated we are,” Sixers rookie Matisse Thybulle said of the benches, which, as games have become more intense, have become a lot less separated. “With this whole thing, it’s just been new, weird situations we just have to adjust to.” Yep, he’s right. And we’re all feeling it.

For your remote team

Everyone needs time to adjust, and each individual will do so in their own time. Invest in refreshing and re-energizing yourself and others on your team.

Wherever possible, separate your personal life from your work life. One way to do this is by dividing your personal and workspace.

NBA Bubble lesson #9

Teams in the NBA Bubble went on strike because of the Jacob Blake shooting in the United States. Players couldn’t think of playing like it was a normal day. The circumstances were upsetting and overwhelming and they decided they needed to make a statement, to step back and reflect on what’s happening in the U.S.

For your remote team

Know when to take a break from it all. It might be the news, personal health, family health, or whatever it is. Sometimes you may feel overwhelmed and it’s the reality we live in now. Sometimes you may have to take a stand and recognize it’s time to stop.

NBA Bubble lesson #10

Giannis Antetokounmpo was the defensive player of the year and the MVP of the NBA season, which are great personal achievements for any player. But his team was eliminated in the playoffs, nearly by a sweep. I bet he would trade one of those individual awards for a chance at the NBA finals.

For your remote team

It’s more important than ever to focus on your outcomes. Focusing on wins, improving the experiences you work on, and adding business value. Those count more in the long run.

NBA Bubble lesson #11

Again, the Houston Rockets are known for taking tons of three-point shots. But when the ball doesn’t fall, they end up losing dramatically. In one game, they missed 27 three-point shots in a row and lost a playoff series because of it. It proved a well known saying in basketball circles: “Live by the three, die by three.”

For your remote team

Outputs don’t matter as much as outcomes. Shipping more is not better than shipping the right solution.

And here’s a bonus lesson that works for NBA teams and remote teams alike: When comparing apples to apples, the team that wins is the one with more energy.

Keep playing!

11 lessons from the NBA Bubble for your newly remote team