7 mins

The ability to foster such a culture is not something extra, it is a core skill for all leaders now.

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COVID-19 fundamentally changed the way we live and work. Some companies changed their business strategies, others had to resort to downsizing, and remote work became the new standard. 

As leaders in tech companies, we are looked upon to take care of our teams in these turbulent times. As a first-line manager, I put my focus on having a people-first approach; I want to treat my colleagues as human beings rather than just employees. How we, as leaders, communicate and manage the changes during COVID-19 to our team matters, as our teammates and peers will never forget how we treat them during this time. In this article, we’ll look at how you can achieve inclusion and a people-first leadership approach during times of change.

Deliberate change management

If your situation is similar to mine, you might be able to relate to these changes: mandatory work-from-home, layoffs & furloughs, change in company strategy. Every one of these changes could discourage our teams. 

It is challenging to navigate rapid changes. We could start off feeling confused, move on to denying the change happened, and end with accepting it. Only with the time to process such information could we move on. As leaders we might get to know the news in advance, so we get a head start to digest the changes that are about to come. It's easy to forget that we might be at a more advanced stage of the emotional rollercoaster than our reports. Are we giving space to the team to go through the change cycle, or are we expecting them to go on like business as usual? Are we being active listeners, or relentlessly defending the company's position? Our course of action will determine whether our team can move on from these changes and still retain trust in the management.

Safety & self-care

I treat my team’s safety as my top priority. As leads, we have been making decisions on how to reopen the office, comply with COVID-19 safety measures, and minimize the costs incurred. I adhere to the principle that safety trumps all other concerns. 

Apart from the team’s physical safety, we also want to look out for their emotional safety and wellbeing. Remote work looks like it is here to stay, and there are several things we can do to help our teams transition. 22% of people rated "unplugging after work" as the most significant struggle when working from home. We can encourage folks to take breaks regularly, log off completely after work, and we can provide mental health resources to support the team during difficult times. One effective way to promote these behavior changes is through leading by example. The best advice I have gotten was to take care of myself first, then the rest of the team will follow.

As soon as we started to work from home, we implemented different initiatives such as having virtual “water cooler” conversations, virtual team lunches, and virtual daily breaks. Keeping them optional ensured that folks didn’t get overwhelmed with having more meetings they would need to attend.

I gave The phases of remote adaptation article from GitLab a read, and I learned a lot. Though while it's helpful to look at frameworks to see what the team would need, I still felt that the best channel for me to understand the team's concerns was through 1:1 conversations. I tried to stop the urge of assuming what was going on in the minds of my reports or the impact the change was having on them. Instead, I strived to practice active listening to understand my team's needs. Absorbing the negativity and helping our teammates find a new path forward by being an active listener is one of the most valuable things we can offer right now.

Revisit our expectations

Setting clear expectations is crucial during these times. Furloughs and layoffs will naturally be in the back of people’s minds in times like these. And folks can feel increased stress from being less sure about their performance and whether they have been meeting expectations. To help reports with this, I revisited my expectations with them to make sure we were on the same page. I walked some of my reports through the list of tasks they were assigned, and we trimmed them down or delegated based on how much they could realistically take on. I asked my team what they would need and what I could do to best support them to help meet expectations. 

Let's dive into the case where the team had areas to improve. When giving feedback, I try to be genuinely curious about my coworker before forming conclusions as to why they didn't perform well. Here is one example. A team member often looked disengaged in meetings. What we might assume is that they were not committed to their work. If I had shared that critical feedback right away with the engineer, I could have lost the engineer’s trust and never learned about the back story. But instead I paid more attention, and I noticed that the engineer had been working out-of-hours recently. When I asked them about this in our next 1:1, they opened up and said they felt immense pressure regarding their performance. They were afraid to fail and disappoint the team. Instead of focusing on the disengagement, I had a frank conversation with them about expectations and supported them to rebuild their confidence.

We covered corrective feedback, but let's not forget positive reinforcement. When the team does excellent work, we should celebrate more. It presents another opportunity for us to build a positive team culture when physically, we are more disconnected.

Effective communication

The team craves direction and information in times of unpredictability. Transparency is key. If we can't provide that, teams will come up with stories and their own explanations. Working remotely exacerbates the information vacuum. Folks are not getting the feedback and assurances from the in-person interactions around the office like they used to. Instead, information gets siloed in Slack channels and video chats. Rumors can spread. But without effective communication from the higher-ups, this is fair and understandable.

To mitigate that, we could fall into the trap of over-promising. We might say things like, ‘there will be no changes to our product roadmap. Our company could gain back its ground in 3 months.’ The reality is we can't be sure. I was careful about what I would commit to the team. If I didn't have the information, there were times when I said, ‘I don't know. But I will share more with you as I assess the situation.’ I had to resist the panic mode. The other trap is under-communicating. When we don't have the whole picture, we might avoid communicating with the team so that we won't go back on our words later. This is not ideal either. In turbulent times, the team needs a present leader to steer the ship. Here is my approach to navigating communications during uncertainties.

I over-communicate the information I do know to the team. It is a good practice in general, but during these times, I spend more time working on the right messaging and repeating them through different channels. The messages I craft acknowledge the distress and difficulty the team is in without giving in to helplessness. I strive to be as transparent as I can.

Lara Hogan gave a great tip at the Leading teams through times of uncertainty and upheaval panel at LeadDev Live. If we don't have the information yet, but we could find out more, we can commit to a time and channel where we share the information. Doing so helps set the right expectation for the team so that they will feel less anxious. We cannot predict the future, but we can keep absorbing the news in the company and offer our informed interpretations. This way, we can also dispel rumors.

Check our biases

Last but not least, I want to remind us to check our biases. We wanted to help and be inclusive, but we can fall into several traps. 

We could be subject to availability bias. We might overly value experiences that happened recently, or be swayed by the events that most vividly come to mind. 

Here is an example. A team member had to go out at short notice because they found out that their nearby supermarket has toilet paper again. And another team member is taking extended lunches because they need to cook every meal for the family. We might then begin seeing them as unreliable members of the team, even though they have always been available before.

We could stereotype. That could mean we expect some folks to have specific needs and qualities, without actually knowing them personally or understanding the whole story. Here is an example. A member of the team has dependents, and their kids can't go to school right now. We could fall into the trap of assuming that they will not want to take on more responsibility, and therefore withhold opportunities without asking them. Checking my biases is a constant mental fight against jumping to conclusions. It is a challenging exercise to ask curious questions and actively listen to my team's needs, but one that has noticeable benefits.

Conclusion 

An inclusive team culture helps us through crises, and continues to help us through times of peace. The ability to foster such a culture is not something extra, it is a core skill for all leaders now, and it will continue to be in the future.