The COVID-19 pandemic has hit most of us pretty hard. If you're in a startup, depending on your industry, you're likely worried about the solvency of your business. And there are many more, of course, who are affected by this pandemic — front-line workers, restaurant staff, and employees in the hospitality sector.
It's highly likely that you're working from home right now. If you're in a company that isn't normally set up for remote work, this can be quite jarring for you. I want to talk about three things you can do as a manager when you're stuck under a work-from-home or stay-at-home order:
- Step in as the communications guardian for your team.
- Brush up on written communication, and —
- Do a one-on-one with every member of your team two weeks into the work-from-home order.
Note that this guide isn't written for the individual contributor — for that, I recommend Glenn Fleishman's Take Control of Working From Home Temporarily. Fleishman has released that as a free ebook, and it's filled with incredibly basic but incredibly effective tips for those who aren't used to working from home.
This post is targeted to the startup manager. It's about maintaining team productivity, not individual productivity. Let's get started.
Step in as Communications Coordinator
One of the most annoying things about shifting to a remote work configuration is just how much work depends on informal, casual communication at the office. This is the sort of thing that happens when you're talking on the way to lunch, when you're discussing some work issue while at lunch, or when you walk over to Mary's desk in order to decide on some minutia related to work, and Joe overhears your conversation and takes it into account when planning for his tasks.
All of that ambient decision-making and information-sharing goes away when you're forced to work remotely. This is why remote companies have policies and processes that encourage explicit information sharing, in order to deal with the lack of ambient information transfer when everyone is working from home. It also means that you have to take up the slack when you first switch to a remote-first environment. As manager, you must be the person who shores up the lack of information transfer during this period of transition.
Why should you do this? You should do this because you are the manager — and the job of the manager is to increase the output of the team.
During this period of transition, it is inevitable that your team's productivity will dip. That's ok. But it's your job to make sure it doesn't dip too much.
As a stop-gap measure, make it your job to be responsible for this invisible communications work. It is now your duty to take every decision, every piece of new information, and route it to the stakeholders in your team (or outside your team!) who need to know. How you do this is up to you; you could, for instance:
- Update on Slack as necessary, or once a day.
- Communicate important information to the individuals who need to know, when it's most useful to them to know it.
- Write a daily email.
- Aggregate information and update everyone on your daily teleconference call (if you do one).
- Record a daily video (only recommended if it's not longer than 5 minutes; otherwise nobody will watch it).
The most important thing here, however, is to not be too verbose. Writing concisely is good even in the best of times, but it's essential to cut down on useless words if you want your daily updates to be read consistently.
If you write 3000 word essays every day, people will quickly learn to stop reading and skim. This leads us to our next point:
Brush Up On Your Written Communication
While it's possible to record short videos and do large teleconference calls today, a huge part of remote work communication will inevitably be via writing.
Now is a good a time as any to brush up on your written communication skills.
I recommend writing updates to your team in point-form, to arrest the tendency for people to skim long blocks of text. But more importantly, you should look into basic writing guides, and use this period of remote work as an opportunity to put everything to practice.
Here a bunch of useful recommendations:
- Mary Dash's Guide to Writing on plainspeaking.gov — This is a wonderfully concise guide to good communication. Read this once, and then slowly integrate it into your written work.
- Roy Peter Clark's The Writer's Workbench: 50 Tools You Can Use — This is how I originally got good at writing. As of press time this course is currently free; otherwise, feel free to check out Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by the same author. Each chapter is one technique; my recommendation is to read a chapter and put that chapter's technique to practice before moving to the next chapter.
Do A One-on-One With Your Entire Team Two Weeks In
I've written extensively about one-on-ones in my Starter Manager Guide. Here's a quick recap: the primary benefit of a one-on-one is to prevent blow-ups from happening. In other words, good managers use one-on-ones to catch problems before they happen.
A transition to remote work is exactly the sort of thing that might lead to show-stopping problems down the road. You should wait a week for people to settle in, and another week for problems to start showing up. Of course — the people with terrible problems (they fall ill, or they have to take care of a loved one) are likely to report them within the first week. But I'm also thinking about more subtle problems — like communications issues, or coordination issues — that may affect your team in the weeks to come.
This is why I'm recommending waiting two weeks instead of one — but the important thing to remember here is to stay vigilant and conduct one-on-ones regularly(!) in order to catch potential problems before they occur.
What kinds of problems may pop up? Here's a small sample:
- Your boss begins to stop updating you on business problems and plans. This may lead to sudden interruptions or changes of direction in a couple of weeks.
- A teammate who is responsible for a critical piece of technical infrastructure is having trouble with his internet at home, which puts your team at risk if something goes wrong.
- A teammate is deeply affected by the work-from-home situation, and needs counselling and mental health support.
Be a good manager. Be there for your people.
As a final note, doing regular check-ups is simply good hygiene as a manager. Your subordinates are people, and they are likely to be affected by this situation in various ways. Be there for them, and cut them some slack when their productivity is affected by this pandemic.
Good luck, stay safe, and take care of your team (and loved ones!) in this time of the coronavirus. This disaster will eventually pass. The goal is to get through this together.
PS: a podcast version of this episode may be found here.