Today all of us are living an odd life, where time seems to run differently as we sit in our homes (“What day is it again?”), there’s a strange feeling of sensory deprivation (“Have I seen the sun today?”), and heading to the grocery store feels like taking your life in your hands.
Against this distressing COVID-19 backdrop, many start-ups are still moving fast. Some are lucky enough to be relatively unaffected, many others are identifying survival strategies, and a fortunate few are pivoting to actually maximize opportunities. Whatever the case may be, their employees are all working under levels of stress that defy comparison to any other situation in recent memory. From feeling the effects of isolation to trying to parent and educate children while working, every team is adapting to new challenges.
Now more than ever, it’s on founders to support their teams by leading with steady empathy. Within our portfolio, I’m hearing some good questions and seeing some best practices to help their employees during this unprecedented time. This is what we’ve been talking about.
I know of a C-suite executive who recently set clear expectations: he was going to work different hours a day in order to look after his children and balance the requirements of his wife’s job too. The best thing his leadership did was take this completely in stride. Asking for balance shouldn’t be a big deal — and to their credit, they didn’t look at it as one. Instead, they saw a valued employee, working hard to balance competing needs in difficult circumstances, and modeled flexibility. He also made it possible for other team members to do the same. (As an aside, I also love the way this leader supported his wife’s career so matter of factly).
Founders, take note. Make sure to explicitly extend scheduling flexibility throughout your organization. In times of great uncertainty and upheaval — and does this ever qualify! — people may feel incredibly uneasy being open about their struggles to handle it all. This is especially true for working parents. Tell them it’s okay to be honest about what’s possible and what they need. Then make sure your leaders use those parameters to help their employees find their footing so they can be as effective as possible.
It’s OK to be vulnerable
The coronavirus is an existential crisis. It is taxing us at every level of our humanity and our society, whether it’s fear of a loved one or ourselves falling ill, struggling with the isolation from family and friends, the concern over job security, or the desire to return to normal life. Although it’s important not to overshare, there’s something to be said for the power of leadership vulnerability and openness. The moment when a founder has to shush a whiny toddler on a Zoom call or shares frustration around the difficulty buying toilet paper is intensely humanizing. We’re all in this together, these small reveals say, even when our circumstances are different.
Be transparent and be available
If the business is struggling, it’s okay — desirable, even — for a founder to acknowledge those difficulties and share a bit of their own feelings about it. If you say to your team, “This quarter looks really rough,” you won’t be saying anything they don’t already know. (You hired them for their brains after all.) But you are confirming they can trust you because you’re being transparent.
Just make sure to couple that openness with how you’re going to steer the ship through these rough waters. One of our founders, for example, has a weekly Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Zoom. He sits there and works but employees are free to pop on and ask him anything they want to know. It’s been great for them. Employees get answers to their most pressing questions directly from the source. Plus, that founder and his leadership team have a much better sense of the issues that are of most concern to the workforce — and can stop misinformation before it spreads.
Another team is doing weekly town halls, Wednesday standups with first-line leaders, and emails in between. In a crisis situation, communicating to the point where you feel like it might be too much is actually reassuring for the team. It creates a sense of stability when the world feels a little too dynamic.
In my conversations with our portfolio companies, I keep hearing that working from home is making it much more difficult to detach. Turns out many people needed that commute home to disengage. Now they’re starting earlier, working later, eating lunch in front of the computer, and feeling the need to demonstrate they’re always on. That is not good for them and it’s not good for the company. Burned-out employees are less productive, energetic, creative and happy.
But it’s going to take more than lip service from you to encourage a healthier model. As a leader, you will have to show as much as you tell. Block time for lunch and don’t answer Slack messages or texts for that time. Take a break in the middle of the day and help your daughter with her school work, and mention it in conversation with a teammate or two. If you write emails at night, maybe schedule them to send in the morning so others don’t feel like they too have to work at night.
Help your managers
This is going to be a hard time for leaders across the board — from first-time managers to seasoned executives. If you have someone with a tendency to micromanage, they might wrongly insist on employees accounting for every second of every minute of every day. This is the time to invest more of yourself in teaching. Get all over this. Be clear on what you’re looking for from your people leaders. Give them more tools. Even a lunch-and-learn where your best managers talk about what’s working for them can be helpful. Don’t be afraid to set expectations and hold your people accountable.
The truth is, no one has ever been through something quite like this before. But if your number-one focus is around taking care of your employees, it will ultimately help you — and them — come out stronger on the other side.
What’s working for you as a founder?