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How to Stay Connected With a Team in the Corona Times

Internal Communication
Motivation
Psychological Safety
Team Processes

10 June, 2021

Meena Rajvaidya
Meena Rajvaidya

Sr. Engineering Manager at Cisco

Meena Rajvaidya, Sr Engineering Manager at Cisco, details how to stay connected with your team, keep them motivated and engaged, a year into the pandemic, and the migration to remote working.

Problem

As a leader, I am always thinking about what would be the best way to motivate people on my team and cater to their needs. I am trying to get the best from people, keep them energized and engaged. The challenge by itself was only exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemics. Suddenly, all of our communication went online, and establishing a human connection became increasingly more difficult.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, people took it lightly. Most have been working day and night because there was nothing else to do being locked into their homes. But soon a burnout started to creep in. I found myself back-to-back in meetings, and often unable to spend enough time with my team. A couple of months into the pandemic I realized I was losing a touch with my team. I didn’t have as much time for meetings and I had to decrease the frequency of my one-on-ones. I started receiving the first complaints. Some team members were telling me how they had a hard time connecting with me since I am in meetings all the time. They would try to book a call, but my calendar was too crowded.

The pandemic was taking its toll on how we did work and it was affecting my team. It was affecting not only how people felt, but also our team culture and project deliveries.

Actions taken

To connect better with my team members I blocked time for different product teams that were reporting to me. During those sync-up meetings, we would discuss product-related issues. They were organized as drop-in hours, similar to school’s open hours. If any of my team members had any issue they could drop by and I would be available for consultations. During meetings, I would let the conversation roll and then gradually become more intentional about how they were doing, did they have any problem, etc. Sometimes only one person would be present, sometimes five or more which would shape the conversations.

In the pre-Covid times I was relying on people’s voices to decipher how they were feeling. I would listen carefully the tone of their voice to read their stress level. Listening was my superpower. If we would have a meeting scheduled to discuss a work item that had to be delivered and if I would notice that something in their voice was off, I would reach out to them and schedule one-on-one without delay.

This worked because I knew my team and every single individual on it. I knew how people sounded when they were happy and motivated, how they behaved, what were their typical reactions, etc.

However, regular one-on-ones could have happened once every three weeks because I was managing a team of 20+ people. But if I would notice warning signs of burnout or if a person would indicate having personal problems, I would schedule one-on-one with them at once. Sometimes their problems were rather personal -- postponed wedding due to travel limitation during Covid-19 or preterm birth by their partner -- but as their leader I felt it was my responsibility to know them and what was happening in their lives. Because, directly or indirectly, I was making an impact on their lives and the more I knew them, the more improvements I could make.

Though Covid-19 pandemic brought distress in many shapes and forms, the new circumstances bonded some of my reports and me much stronger. We all became more anxious but also more cognizant of the impact stressful situations could have on work. I would always try to put things in perspective. Work is important, but work is, after all, just work. In the grand scheme of things, health and one’s well-being, including one’s family members, should always be a top priority.

Lessons learned

  • Nurturing a connection with your team is critical. Covid situation or not, it is one of the key responsibilities of a leader.
  • It is okay to be vulnerable and share your own vulnerabilities with the team. For example, I am also unable to find a work-life balance, which is causing quite some pain in my life. I would also share how I try to address it. Knowing that I can’t make everything ideal, I try to make priorities and workaround other things.
  • Acknowledge the problem. Some problems may seem irrelevant or minor from your perspective, but to another person would look monumental. Even so, listen carefully to a person troubled by the problem, and acknowledge their trouble. Differentiate between the things that are in your control and which you can solve and those outside your control. Don’t waste your time and nerves trying to solve things outside your control.

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