Leading a team through the triple-pronged crisis of a global pandemic, massive economic recession, and widespread social unrest was something I never imagined myself doing. But clearly, 2020 had different plans.
The past year has been full of uncertainty, stress, and above all else, the need for change.
The only thing anyone knows for sure is that what worked 12, 6, or even 3 months ago doesn’t necessarily work now. The world is changing and adapting to our new normal at such a rapid pace that businesses–and especially leaders–can no longer stand still.
But how do you respond thoughtfully and confidently when everything feels uncertain?
We’ve always said that projects are about people. And so are companies, businesses, and global markets.
When faced with a crisis, you need to reframe the issue from being about your business to being about the people.
You’re not adapting your marketing strategy, but helping your marketing team cope with a completely new environment filled with emotional landmines. You’re not changing your product vision. You’re guiding your product team through a world where customer needs have dramatically changed (and will continue to).
As a leader, your response is often what people remember long after the crisis itself has moved on. But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to handling a crisis or managing change of any size.
However, there are some key lessons that I’ve seen come up time and time again in my own response to the pandemic that I think could help teams of all sizes weather this storm.
5 ways to help your team during a crisis
1. Act fast and decisively when the “oh no” moment hits
Crises are often fine until they’re not.
What I mean is that they escalate quickly from a few scattered news stories to the only thing anyone can talk about.
As with most people, there was a specific moment when the pandemic became the only topic of conversation around the Planio office. As we saw it spread from China to Italy and closer to our home in Germany, the reality of dealing with a deadly disease sunk in. And I knew we had to act fast as a company to keep ourselves safe and our business running.
Speed is a skill that takes practice. Decisions don’t always come easy when you’re faced with the stress and pressure of an “oh no!” moment. It’s too easy to feel overwhelmed when there are just too many things to deal with at once.
To counter these overwhelming feelings, the first thing I did was create a high-level plan for what would need to be dealt with should the worst happen.
We quickly realized there were four main areas that needed to be addressed in order to keep everyone safe during the pandemic:
- Physical offices: Should they stay open, closed, or some hybrid? Before the German government put lockdown measures in place, we decided as a team to work from home as a precautionary measure. I remember the day when I drove around town with all my teammates’ screens, keyboards, and other desk items in the back of my car.
- Travel: Should you stop it entirely? Planio is a part-remote company spread across Germany, the Philippines, and Japan. And we were lucky that our team was all in their home countries when the pandemic hit. But we also quickly realized that any business travel would need to halt. Health and safety needed to be prioritized above all in the early days.
- Culture and connection: How will you help your team and customers feel together even when they’re not? The main issue we felt early on in the pandemic was the lack of social interactions and seeing each other’s faces. Add that to the fact that video conferencing was suddenly a top priority for our customers, we decided to put Planio Meet (a video conferencing tool) front and center of our product roadmap. The first MVP launched (for all customers) within 4 weeks after the pandemic hit Germany! We’re now using it frequently internally whenever Planio Team Chat (which is text-based) isn’t enough and our customers love it, too.
- Internal communication: How will you stay connected and collaborate when you’re not in the office? Communication is one of the hardest parts of working from home. Yet the right tools can make the transition much smoother. We had already built our own tool of choice–Planio–to support remote work. Planio became our single source of truth, with almost everything happening in Planio Team Chat and Planio Issues.
It’s not enough to just make these decisions and delegate the response, however.
As a leader, the last thing you want during a crisis is for your team to worry about budgets, fronting the costs for new equipment, or the logistics of setting up a home office.
Since we’re a small company, we didn’t set work from home budgets or anything like that. I simply spoke with everyone individually and asked them what they needed to equip their home office. In addition, I ordered a phone and a sim card for everyone, and that was it.
But what if your team is too large to deal with these issues individually like this?
Larger companies will certainly face more of a struggle dealing with a crisis. However, you can still follow the same path outlined above.
First, identify the core elements of your business that a crisis is going to impact. Then, bring in some help. Instead of trying to handle it all on your own, create a group of team leaders and stakeholders who can help plan your new workflows, deal with logistics, and be the points of contact for all information.
2. Lean hard into trust and transparency
Many leaders feel a sense of responsibility to ‘protect’ their team from larger issues that are going on–like losing a customer or a major change in your business. And while there might be an argument for shielding your team from some of the truth (at times), trust and transparency are all that matter during a crisis.
A crisis like the pandemic isn’t just a business problem. Every member of your team will simultaneously be dealing with a high level of personal stress and anxiety. It’s your choice to either brush aside the personal aspect and add to their stress levels or try to minimize them by being open and treating your team with respect.
Trust and transparency need to be baked into your company culture. But if you feel you haven’t been open enough in the past, there’s no better time to start than now.
Numerous studies have found that trust is a driver of both higher-quality work and more financial value for your company. Employees who feel trusted and heard feel more motivated and find it easier to focus on the important tasks that keep them on track.
So how do you build trust and transparency when the world is falling down around you?
Build trust by loosening your grip on schedules, deadlines, and meetings
While you might be tempted to add more meetings and structure to counter the current uncertainty, this would be a mistake.
Trust comes from ‘just-enough’ structure. Rather than an imposing set of rules and guidelines, you want to create a scaffolding for your team to do their best work.
Here’s an example: I’ve long believed in the power of autonomy and that more hours worked doesn’t mean more features shipped. When your team feels trusted and respected (and has a distraction-free environment to work in) they get more done in less time and should be rewarded for that.
Right before the pandemic hit, we introduced the four-day workweek at Planio with no loss in productivity. This means that even with 20% less time I can trust my team to be as productive as possible and get things done.
It also means that my team has more time to handle personal issues and knows that I trust them to use their days in the best way possible rather than getting caught up in meetings or chasing ‘urgent’ tasks.
You can think of this as ‘subtractive scheduling’.
Instead of adding more to your team’s day through additional meetings, impromptu video calls, and always-on communication, try reducing your weekly meetings or daily ‘available’ time by 20% and see what happens.
Create transparency by embracing a ‘radically open’ culture
A willingness to quickly change course or pivot completely is something that was healthy for founders even pre-pandemic. But it’s even more so now.
However, getting your team onboard with quick changes takes time, effort, and, above all else, transparency.
Trust is the foundation of transparency. When your team trusts you (and you trust them) it’s easier to be open about everything that’s going on without fear of judgment, penalty, or that it will be taken the wrong way. It also makes it easier for your team to help you guide the ship.
There’s a quote from Steve Jobs that I think perfectly encapsulates this idea:
“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
To build a culture of transparency and openness like this, I like to borrow a couple of concepts from Kim Scott’s Radical Candor:
- Care personally: In other words, actively get to know your team. Ask questions about their personal lives. Leave time at the beginning of meetings to connect more deeply. From the beginning, Planio has been a company where we encourage all teammates to honestly and openly talk about any issues be it personal, health, or motivation/productivity-related. We have a very open culture around that and always find solutions cooperatively and on equal terms.
- Challenge directly: Once your team knows you care about them, it’s much easier to speak openly, pitch wild ideas, and get their support. The team at Planio is small and has known each other for a long time. This level of connection has helped immensely throughout the pandemic as we understand our strengths, skills, and areas of weakness. This also makes it easier to talk directly to each other if there are issues or concerns.
Lastly, remember that there is always a balance between candor and privacy. It takes time to build trust. And pushing too hard right away can sour it from the beginning. Some people might just not want to talk about themselves at work either and that’s OK. You can still set an example by being open and transparent whenever possible.
3. Get used to making decisions without all the information
As a business leader, you’re probably used to taking your time, gathering data, and making the most informed decisions possible.
However, crisis management is all about being comfortable with uncertainty. You won’t always have all the information available for you. But you can’t let uncertainty paralyze you.
Your team is looking to you for answers and for leadership. This is why I’ve found that it’s best to gather all information that’s currently available and make a decision quickly while still leaving it open to change as new info becomes available.
Pairing quick action with 100% transparency about the decision process and the factors that influenced it helps you get buy-in and support from everyone else. Also, it means that changes in course will be understood much better if it’s clear why they happened.
Here’s how this looks in a simple workflow:
- Set clear timelines. Decisions need to be made quickly during a crisis. If you wait for 100% certainty you’ll never get anything done (or worse!). Instead, set a clear timeline for yourself. This could be “by end of the day” or something less time-bound like the 40/70 rule we wrote about.
- Agree on a decision framework. Transparency around how you make decisions is a key part of getting buy-in from your team. Let them know what you’re thinking, what the options are, and how you’re evaluating them.
- Allow for change. Make sure every decision comes with a caveat that it’s open to change as the situation changes. This statement needs to be backed up by action, however. When it makes sense, talk through any updates or changes to let everyone know you’re still thinking about the path you’re on and not just blindly charging forward.
Finally, be open to new or unexpected sources of information. If you’re a team that was built on hard data, it can be hard to make decisions without it. But a crisis necessitates leaning more into anecdote and gut reaction.
At Planio, we’re used to having an open ear for customers and their individual challenges and requirements. That’s why we take pride in having direct and open phone lines for all customers even on our smallest pricing plans.
We’ve seen many customers upgrade their accounts to move more of their company’s team members to Planio and we were glad to help. We even made upgrades free in 2020 to make the switch easier.
Being open like this didn’t just help us delight our current customers but also changed our product roadmap. We kept hearing that more and more teams were looking for video conferencing tools but were concerned with the data privacy issues with existing platforms like Zoom. That’s why we built Planio Meet specifically to meet these new challenges.
4. Pay special attention to ‘less visible’ teammates
One thing that bad meetings and crises have in common is that the loudest people get heard the most.
But we all know that it’s often the silent issues that destroy companies and relationships.
At Planio, we don’t have regular annual/quarterly/etc review sessions. I speak with everyone directly whenever a situation needs to be addressed and I encourage everyone to do the same with each other or with me.
The main reason for this is that waiting for an annual review to bring up issues may be too late. The conflict or issue can develop to a point where it can’t be resolved. Or, it may get forgotten or dismissed as ‘not that important’, which, in my experience, just means it will continue to fester and grow into something bigger than it needs to be.
However, as a leader, you can’t always be expected to know when something is bothering your team. And putting all the pressure on yourself (especially while you have a million other things to take care of) leaves room for invisible issues to creep up.
It’s often the silent issues that destroy companies and relationships.
As we’ve dealt with the pandemic, I’ve had to think about the invisible issues my team is facing but might not necessarily bring up. Here are a couple to consider:
Work-from-home parents balancing schooling and work
The shift to working from home hit our working parents hard, especially in the first months when schools hadn’t figured out how to move classrooms online.
Fortunately for me, my team was vocal about the issues they were facing juggling between work responsibilities and homeschooling. Ultimately, we added a section called ‘how is life?’ to our weekly video calls where we had space to discuss those kinds of challenges that aren’t 100% related to work.
Out of those chats, we exchanged ideas, best practices, and learnings within the team and then published a blog article for any other work-from-home parents with similar struggles.
People struggling with the isolation of being out of the office
Some people are more social than others. And a crisis like the pandemic, which sent us out of our collaborative environment and into our homes, is especially hard on those people. Yet, it’s hard to talk to your boss about how you’re feeling ‘lonely’.
Again, I was lucky that our team spoke up. And so we introduced weekly video calls to make up for the loss of real in-person interactions.
However, it’s important to make sure that if these are non-work calls that they’re optional. Not everyone on your team needs extra interaction and adding that to their schedule can cause more harm than good.
Burnout/overworking caused by anxiety or unfair expectations
One of the worst invisible issues that creeps up during a crisis is when teammates hit burnout while trying to ‘make everything right.’
I see my team members as friends. We all work together with full ownership of our work and the product we make. However, that ownership can turn toxic during a chaotic moment like the pandemic. People will work longer hours and ignore their health and personal well-being just to hit deadlines.
If you’ve hired great people, they’ll want to do great work. But it’s up to you to set proper expectations and not reward overwork during a crisis.
5. Return to your company values to plan for the future
An external crisis like a pandemic can cause an equally painful internal crisis.
You might find yourself questioning your business model, making drastic changes without confidence, or radically transforming how your team works. However, while change is good, it has to be for the right reasons.
Company values are a wishy-washy term that most people associate with motivational posters or bad self-promotional speeches. However, every company started for a reason. And remembering what drove you in the early days is a powerful way to rally your team during darker days.
In his TED talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action, Simon Sinek calls this the ‘Golden Circle’. It starts by identifying why you’re a company, then moves onto how you fulfill that why, and finally what you make to get there.
Here’s an example:
Planio was built as a sustainable business. Our goal was never to raise tons of VC money or burn through cash to pay for Facebook ads–something I wouldn’t advise, pandemic or not.
Instead, identifying and solving real problems that customers are ready to pay for has always been our mantra. (In fact, Planio started as an internal tool that our agency’s customers asked to keep using after our projects were finished!)
So, our Golden Circle might look like this:
- Why? In the middle of the Circle is the core belief of your business. At Planio, it’s to solve real problems while maintaining our customer’s trust.
- How? Next, is how you’re going to fulfill that core belief. This is Planio’s focus on UX, customer support, and privacy. We build products that are beautiful, easy to use, and built to protect your data.
- What? Lastly, you have what you actually make. In our case, this is our flagship product Planio as well as our constant features updates
Understanding your company values will help you move quickly and adapt to whatever is happening.
A global crisis reshuffles the cards with lots and lots of new challenges and problems that need to be solved, so they’re all opportunities for entrepreneurs and small businesses.
As an Agile team, our product and project management works in small iterations. This means we can react to changes in our environment quickly.
We have a larger product roadmap with individual clusters of topics with as little dependency on each other as possible. This makes it easy to re-prioritize if needed–as we did with Planio Meet. It was on the roadmap/plan, but further out before the pandemic hit. Yet we were able to move it front and center quickly this way.
If you’re feeling lost and don’t know how to move forward, look to your company values. They’ll guide you through the darkness.
Crisis management comes down to one golden rule: Focus on the people first
Closing our office, canceling the lease, and moving the furniture into storage was a sad moment for our company. But knowing that everyone is safe, happy, and productive at home is what counts in the end.
Respect and listen to your team. They are the most valuable resource every company has. Be flexible and open to change. Be cautious and move in small increments. And don’t bet everything on one card.