Leading with empathy in the age of COVID

Tips from Rukmini Reddy - Vice President of Engineering at Slack

The pandemic has forever altered the way we work and communicate. While many people want to return to full-time office space, others prefer a hybrid model. This could present us with challenges like isolation, difficulty building relationships with colleagues, and not knowing what others are working on. At the same time, there are some increased benefits like a better work-life balance, no commute, increased job satisfaction, and lower stress.

Given that remote work is here to stay, the big question we face today is:

What is the blueprint for building remote relationships?

Being empathetic helps you with being a better leader. Making some space and hearing out your engineers' stories is very important, even more so in the age of COVID. Fostering openness, curiosity, and trust serve as the secret sauce to building meaningful relationships and high-performing teams.

Making a hybrid model work

Being Intentional with how you set up your meetings is critical, especially as an engineering manager. In addition to tackling technical challenges, engineering leaders often have to deal with things that are emotionally charged. By having these crucial conversations face-to-face, your team will feel included and valued.

Another useful approach is to ask your team members these questions when you meet for the first time.

1) What does respect look like to you in a professional setting?

This is a very grounding question. It will help you understand where your engineers are coming from, and puts you and them on the same journey. When misunderstandings arise, or when you want to give some tough feedback, you know what has grounded your report. You have something to go back on. Most of the time, it's not just about the tools we use, but also how we show up as humans.

2) How do you like to be celebrated? or What is your love language?

Understand how your engineers like to be appreciated. Is it gestures, words of appreciation, or gifts? Even in a remote setting, this helps you have more empathetic and productive conversations with your reports, irrespective of the tool. Whether you are on Slack or on Zoom, try to be more thoughtful as leaders.

Good leadership entails a good interpersonal relationship. It's about understanding what motivates the people on your team and inspires them to do the best work of their life.

Tips on helping your engineers manage their work-life balance

Even though the remote/hybrid work model helps engineers manage their work and life, we may see some of them struggle. Even we as leaders can see ourselves juggling from being parents, home-school teachers, and working professionals, which can be stressful.

Here's some things that can help employees find the right balance:

  • Consider giving one day off every month to employees so they can focus on themselves and their self-care
  • Consider giving working parents the benefit of emergency time off so they can take care of their personal commitments

If you are in a position where you can drive some change, then take a step forward as it may go a long way. If you are in a position where you need more support, then you'll need to ask for it. Something else that may work well is setting boundaries for yourself and expectations for your team. Let yourself and others know about your schedule, availability, and commitments as your co-workers may be dependent on you.

Tips on cultivating a remote work culture

  • Use innovative ways to welcome new team members. For example, creating personalized emojis to help new employees feel they belong.
  • Invite them to your new-hire cohort channel to help build camaraderie as part of the onboarding process.
  • Have 15-minutes daily check-ins for the first one month, enabling people to get quick support and answer to their questions.
  • Pre-record platform AMAs and All Hands, and share these in the team channel for asynchronous communication.
  • Have in-channel kudos and victory laps every week to celebrate each other's success.
  • If you can’t buy someone balloons to celebrate an anniversary, then consider how you can celebrate them in a public channel on Slack.

Forming better relationships when onboarding team members remotely

As a manager, you can set up a 15-minute daily discussion for the first month with your team's new hires. When people take new roles and responsibilities, they may feel blocked with questions like "What if I get stuck, who's going to help me?" Something as simple as 15 minutes a day can help you strengthen your relationship and onboard with empathy. The Slack bot, Donut, is also an excellent tool to build relationships and connect with people around the world.

With empathy, you get to understand the humans behind the metrics and that’s something that will surely make you successful.

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