Early last year I worked as an engineering manager at the e-commerce department of a large corporate company. My team at that point consisted of 14 people and part of my job was to have regular on-to-one meetings with every team member to check in on their progress and their overall well-being.
Typically for a one-to-one, I would meet each individual member of my team once every two weeks to discuss their development, skills, growth, and barriers. I would give them the option to either have the meeting in a meeting room, in the coffee shop downstairs of our office building, or outside while taking a walk.
My office was located near the Danube River at the time, so many team members chose the option of taking a walk by the river. I gave them the option to choose the setting because I wanted to put them at ease. A meeting with your manager can be a scary thing if you don’t know what will be discussed, so letting my direct report choose how we would conduct the meeting gave them some control over the situation so they could feel most comfortable.
And then came 2020, and everything went out the window.
Like everyone else, I had to make adjustments when we switched to working from home. I was used to having my one-to-ones be personal and in a relaxed setting, so suddenly having to do them through a screen was scary to me at first. I also felt the awkwardness in meetings with my colleagues and team members. We needed to change our way of communication and with some fine tuning and feedback from my team, we made it work.
Here’s what I learned in this last year:
Credibility and trust are key.
Clear communication has become even more important these days. Since I don’t see my team at the office anymore, I don’t get a feeling of how the overall mood is; I’m not always aware of the ever-present office chatter. I now focus my communication on two base principles: credibility and trust.
As a leader, my team needs to be able to trust in what I say and that, if it comes from me, it is the truth. Especially during uncertain times when companies are closing down. If my team believes what I say to be the truth, they are able to feel secure in their positions.
Sometimes I don’t have all the facts, though. In those cases, I have no problem saying, “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.” Sometimes the news I have to share is bad news or uncomfortable news. Being truthful doesn't mean that I will always share every single detail. Sometimes I hold back some bits I know will only unbalance or upset the team and will only share these topics if and when they are necessary.
Whenever I'm sharing news it's difficult to keep track of people's reactions when you can't see them all sitting in a room with you. This is why checking in with team members on a regular one-to-one basis is so important. It's hard to gauge the overall vibe of the team when you don't meet them in the hallway or elevator and get a glimpse of what they are feeling. Checking in helps, but for this to work, a good foundation of trust is the most important tool in your arsenal.
Trust is the pillar of communication between a team and their leader. Building trust is hard and takes time. Once trust is lost, it’s very hard to earn it back, so taking it seriously is very important to me.
Building trust through a screen is similar to doing it in real life, it might just take a bit more time. Taking the other person seriously, listening, and being open to their opinion are the key things here.
Resilience matters. So does offering support.
Opening a Zoom call to a crying team member is something that no team lead wants to experience, I imagine, but many of us have in the recent past. People have lost loved ones, had to move out of their apartments, or suffered from mental-health issues.
I find myself dealing with my team members' emotions and struggles far more often than I used to in the past, which is due to the fact that, since Covid-19 hit, life has been far from normal for most of us. A turning point for me and my team was after a particularly traumatic day when I had to lead a meeting with all developers present. I didn't feel like talking to so many people and I was drained and tired. So I opened the meeting and said "I'm not fine today. It's been hard for me and that's OK, I'll be better tomorrow."
Admitting my own vulnerability gave people the chance to review their own state of mind and I got a couple of messages after the meeting of people thanking me for giving them "permission" to admit that they are hurting, too.
I could have postponed that meeting or just soldiered through it without saying anything, but it was an important lesson for the team and myself. Being able to show my own weakness is a sign of trust towards my team. I don't need them to build me back up, but I want them to see that it's OK to not be fine and it's OK to talk about it.
It is a great show of trust if one of my team members is able to open up to me about their struggles and it’s my job to take those seriously and treat them with care and respect. But not all of us are able to handle these situations and not all of us should have to. If you feel you are not equipped to deal with this, I hope your company offers services where employees can go to to talk, or at least have a list of organisations and phone numbers at hand that offer mental-health services.
Make time for small talk.
We are no longer meeting randomly in front of the coffee machine, but I still want to know about my team member’s new cat, or what shenanigans their child is up to these days. Small talk in one-on-ones has become an important part of my biweekly check-in with my team.
Small talk builds relationships and trust. It helps me get to know my team members and gives us some time to just chat, take a step back from the day to day work, and talk about the weather or other things of no consequence. From there, we can transition into more work-related things, but the place to start for me is in the mundane.
Lockdown has made many people lonely, so having the possibility to just chat is something that many people need at this time.
Small talk can be draining though, especially for introverts, and if you’re in a lot of virtual meetings each day. I find myself “socialed-out” most days after I have had a lot of meetings. Taking some time to myself, journaling, and reading has helped me to centre myself again after having to be social. If I’m drained, I can’t be there for my team, so taking care of myself first is something integral to my daily routine.
Take these lessons with you back to 'normal.'
By now most countries are rolling out vaccines and we can finally think about seeing people again, as well as going back to our offices. In my mind, things have changed a lot in how I do my job, either remotely or in person. While I value in-person meetings and seeing people face to face, I can do my job from home just as well. The lessons I learned about communication and building trust are incredibly valuable and will serve me well in the future, no matter where my team members are.
One thing that became clear to me in the past couple of months is that I won't be going back to normal. I decided to leave my job and have taken a full remote position as an engineering manager with Container Solutions, taking with me all the skills I acquired through a year of forced remote work.