Managing with Empathy Amidst a Pandemic
Senior Director of Product at Houzz
Working in the Midst of a Pandemic
During the first lockdown in March 2020 everyone was in shock. Personally, one of the biggest challenges was understanding which of my team members were too shook up to function. And pinpointing that through a monitor made it all the more difficult.
Three lockdowns in, we knew that this wasn't a temporary situation. Accepting the "new normal" was another challenge. How do you convince yourself, let alone your employees, to keep hitting KPIs under such uncertainty and distress?
Even though the initial waves of the pandemic are over, remote work is still an integral part of our lives. Countless companies embraced hybrid working models and many started to hire remotely. It's safe to say that from now on, hardly any offices will have all their staff under the same roof. So the issue of managing remotely will always be topical.
Cultivating Empathy in a Remote Environment
In times of distress, you need to reprioritize. You need to acknowledge that it isn't business as usual. I made it a point to make my team feel like I'm working for their success in this situation, rather than for the company. I reassured them that it was okay to take a few days off to cope– and that it wouldn't harm their career or the business. I offered more flexibility in terms of working hours. I sifted out the most important priorities in our roadmap. When I sensed that a team member was overwhelmed, I’d say, "Hey, do you need me to lighten your workload? I can cross off the nonessential items from our roadmap for now, but I just need these three things to come out. What do we need to do to make that happen?" This eased their stress and helped them focus on the task at hand.
HONESTY AND TRANSPARENCY
Many people think that managers should keep a certain distance from their employees, and that they should refrain from being 100% transparent. This approach may have worked in the past, but not anymore. Not on Zoom. In a remote environment, you're no longer in constant contact with your team. You don't get a lot of face-to-face interactions. So in the limited time you get with them, you need to be as open and honest as possible. You need to be yourself because that's the only way you're going to get them to be themselves.
One of the ways I overcame the challenges of working through Covid was by being completely transparent. I wasn't the kind of manager who said, "These are the KPIs that I need you to hit." Instead, I did the following things:
- Assured my teammates that I understood their struggles during these stressful times.
- Explained what we needed to accomplish to keep the business running.
- Listened to the challenges they were facing.
- Asked what they needed from me in order to make things easier.
Afterward, my team members started being very honest with me. Suddenly, I knew all of their challenges and needs. This enabled me to get the right tools to help my team.
Another lesson I learned is that you have to over-communicate. Before Covid, I'd see people in the hallways and talk to them by the water cooler. I could go over to their desk to remind them of something. Now, I have to do it through email or Slack. It's important to find tools that help you over-communicate with your team. For instance, I recently built a Trello board for my team that allows us to review all upcoming features on a weekly basis. This way, everybody knows exactly what's happening. There's no lack of transparency.
This is also important in terms of maintaining trust with management. Our leaders can actively see progress via these tools– they can see that we don't need to be in the office to get work done. And that's really important if we want to keep these flexible working conditions.
Helping Your Team in Difficult Times
- Make your team feel like you're on their side. Pay attention to their state of mind and, if they need it, offer them a hand and adjust your roadmap.
- Always practice honesty and transparency with your team. Make the most out of your 1-1 meetings with them. Facilitate open discussions where all parties can communicate their challenges and needs.
- Utilize tools that help you over-communicate both with your team and with upper management.
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Senior Director of Product at Houzz
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