The world became a different place post-COVID-19 and how we work, communicate and collaborate has been redefined, possibly forever. Our company has a distributed team across the U.S. and India for development and operations. When “shelter in place” hit the entire world, we were not sure how we’d be able to execute our projects, customer commitments and day-to-day operations. Most of our engineers rarely worked from home, and in India, some even left their homes to be with extended families and parents during the lockdown.
In first-ever crises like the pandemic, leadership teams have to rethink everything to ensure safety for employees while keeping them engaged, motivated and performing during highly disruptive and stressful times.
Maintaining During COVID-19
Here are five strategies and tactics that we applied and iterated to help our teams focus and execute during very unusual and difficult times.
- Embrace the change.
- Listen to employees.
- Empower staff at every level.
- Communicate, communicate and communicate.
- Facilitate outcome-driven engagement, development and execution.
Embrace the Change
It was important for the leadership team to be intentional and systematic in accepting the change and establishing proper guidelines, tools and processes to transition quickly to a work-from-home environment. Selecting the same tool(s) for everyone established consistent, exclusive communications to help mitigate isolation. Some employees needed extra guidance in setting the workplace, schedule and systems to be effective working remotely.
Listening and Sharing
Employee health and safety was the top priority when lockdowns began, and it started with active listening to employees. Many employees needed to discuss the latest news on the pandemic or express concerns about loved ones who had contracted the virus. We created different levels of informal and formal check-in sessions in the early days of “shelter in place” to discuss anything, from family challenges including child care and remote school to news and market updates. Having open conversations about shared stress during the onset of the pandemic proved valuable in creating mutual support that we all needed to carry on with our daily obligations at work and at home.
Empowerment at Each Level
As we enter this next phase of COVID-19, with many of us fully engaged in some form of “new normal,” we have focused on aligning producers and consumers of deliverables to ensure they are fully engaged and understand the dependencies. This entails asking for individual accountability on deliverables and also encouraging people to work on aspirational goals.
We were already practicing objectives and key results (OKRs), but COVID-19 made it clear we needed to push harder on further refining OKRs and helping individuals prioritize and rationalize their goals as they progress. The goal-setting through OKRs has been super helpful in bringing our remote employees together on the same page with shared initiatives and missions.
Communicate and Overcommunicate
Frequent communications and collaboration across teams was a priority, allowing managers to ensure a clear line of sight into deliverables, priorities, trade-offs, logistical challenges and dependencies. The overarching goal was to keep people productive and avoid unnecessary delays in projects. While it was important in the early stages of the pandemic to overcommunicate across teams, in time, installing the right processes, tools and objectives drove engagement.
Outcome-driven Development and Execution
We use KPIs to measure outcomes on a daily and weekly basis. The outcome could be as simple as fortification of certain buggy areas of the product or security testing and fixing or automating defects. Outcomes can also be future looking cool experimentations that drive product ideas and generate compelling customer value. But the key is to make sure the team understands what success looks like throughout the journey of driving the execution of the outcome to the finish line. A simple example could be to review all security CVEs for open source libraries used in the product and ensure they are updated with the latest security patches.
We were surprised and delighted to see employees taking matters into their own hands by doing more than they were asked, especially in cases where they could bring their creativity to the table. As leaders, we sometimes undermine the power of an empowered team and the magic it brings to add measurable customer and business value.
The last few months have been taxing on everyone around the world; we do not know what things will look like in six or 12 months. Yet, we’ve also had the opportunity to learn some invaluable lessons about leadership, management and team culture. Moving forward past this pandemic’s inevitable conclusion, individual empowerment with outcome-based objectives will be the new recipe for engineering success. We’ve seen first hand how human creativity can get a boost when employees are motivated to share their stories, display their ideas no matter how rough they are and work together toward clear goals and a common shared vision.