Leading a remote team and staying sane during a pandemic

I’m fortunate enough to work for distributed organizations that fully embrace remote work. However, even with a remote team already established and practices in place, the quarantine still rocked the ship.

Our team is a diverse group of people, with extroverts that thrive on face to face dialogue with others and introverts that would prefer Netflix over drinks out.

I can mostly gravitate between both lifestyles, but as I’ve gotten older, my wife and I have leaned more preferring to stay home. Even so, I still need to get out a few times a week.

I typically worked from a coffee shop a few days a week, gym during lunch 3 days a week and yoga twice a week. Then the grocery store, seeing family/friends, date nights, and other chores. When you add it up, it actually ends up being quite a bit of time out of the house.

It was a routine and one that I was comfortable with. We live on the outskirts of DC, a slightly lower cost of living area, and it’s a pretty relaxed small-town vibe that really tracked with my current outlook on work-life balance.

So even though I’ve been doing this for a few years, I’ve really come to prize the errands to be run and the time away from work. The physical distancing away from the computer is important. Notifications are disabled on mobile so I can really disconnect.

That all changed with the quarantine. Not only did it affect my schedule, but it also affected the team I’m fortunate enough to work with and manage on a day to day basis.

Different team members have expressed similar levels of apathy, sadness, depression, and other emotions that they had either not previously mentioned or weren’t as prevalent before.

It’s important to remember during this period of time, team leads have to take a more active role in checking in on their direct reports and making sure everyone is doing the best they can.

While there should always be a line drawn between your personal life and work, when you’re locked in your house 24/7 with your job, the two can begin to blend together.

Right now people need support through this, so it’s ok for the line to blend a bit. Here’s how I’ve been tackling it.

Less asynchronous work

This is the hardest change I’ve had to make when managing the department. I fully plan to embrace asynchronous work to scale a massive distributed team, hiring the best, regardless of their timezones, but now may not be the right time to introduce new async practices.

As an example, I’ve wanted to introduce “async WIPs” for our team and had been planning to do so over the past few weeks. It’s basically a Notion doc with a narrative essay from each team member we write weekly on what we happen to be working on. This would take the place of our synchronous, face-to-face, meeting we typically had on Mondays.

My plan was to eliminate unnecessary meetings, help quiet voices be heard, and have amazing meeting notes week to week.

I was wrong. People need face to face meetings right now. Many of my team members live alone and don’t have recurring 1:1’s with everyone on the team like I do. This weekly meeting was their only chance for facetime with the team.

When I switched to the async meeting format, I had several team members approach me to ask about switching back. They realized they hadn’t chatted with anyone in days and it was emotionally affecting them to not have at least the base amount of communication.

The async format worked well, but now isn’t the time for it.

Don’t hesitate to reach out

This might seem obvious and should probably be part of your recurring 1:1 formats anyway, but make sure to check in with your team members for the first 5 or 10 minutes of each 1:1.

It’s always important, but doubly so during the quarantine. It’s important you let people know that they’re heard and their concerns are important. If you can avoid talking about the quarantine and instead have a mutual love of books, tv, or just walking the dog, all the better. Find a narrative thread and stick with it week to week until it becomes natural.

The new normal

Finally, this is our current new normal. You can acknowledge the weirdness of the situation on calls and joke in slack, but move past it and try to set goals, then reach them. When you complete your OKR’s, try to celebrate a bit. I bought people a book they wanted, donated to their charity and bought them a favorite bag of coffee/tea.

Work can be a burden and the hours you put in during this period of time can be extreme. For some, it can be an escape and a way to get away from the 24 hour news cycle of bad news. Find a balance and don’t treat your team members as a single unit, but a diverse group of individuals that all have separate concerns.

Embrace their concerns, comments and suggestions, just as you would when trying to find product market fit with a customer.

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