As a native New Yorker, I almost get the feeling I’ve seen this movie before. I saw 9/11 up close. I experienced the 2008 financial crash from inside Goldman Sachs. I’ve been through bomb threats, water main ruptures, and a hundred other predicaments too banal to remember distinctly. But even having worked and led teams through all that, I still find the COVID-19 crisis challenging to navigate.
Part of the challenge is the magnitude of the situation. Mostly, however, it’s the uncertainty. We executives and HR professionals are not only running triple duty right now—as leaders at work, as parents-slash-teachers at home, and as conscientious neighbors when we venture out for groceries—we’re doing it all on a timeline that is both unknown and outside of our control.
We know the time for immediate response is over. Our job now is to dig in for the long haul. Even as we prepare to bring staff back into the office (again: not knowing when that will happen), remote work will continue to play a bigger role than it did before the pandemic hit. The same is true for the recent emphasis on employees’ mental health and well-being. Exactly how these factors influence operations going forward will be unique to each company.
Chances are, there are a few aspects of your initial response strategy that could use some fine-tuning in order to carry you through the longer term. The approach we’ve taken at Atlassian since the crisis began is to invite our staff into conversation with HR and the executive team, and it’s working. We’re able to get a holistic picture of what our people need, address those needs, and gather feedback—then rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat. (You can find the employee surveys we’re using here.)
Today we’re sharing the details of this employee-driven approach in the hopes that it can help you shape your own response strategy into one that is strong and flexible enough to get you through our current situation and any similar crises in the future.
Guiding principles for a sustained response strategy
Employees’ health and well-being come first. Period. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over the perceived choice between productivity and well-being, which is understandable when your company’s revenue is in free fall. But this is a false dichotomy. If your staff is disengaged, it’s not because they are fundamentally lazy and can’t be trusted to work at home.
The truth is, engagement is a natural by-product of well-being. People are worried about the pandemic itself, about whether their jobs are secure, about their kids’ education, about what life on the other side of this crisis will look like. Those worries distract us in all sorts of tangible and more nuanced ways. But micromanaging is not the answer. In fact, tactics like time-tracking software only exacerbate the problem. A more effective approach is to focus on easing their fears. The more distractions we as leaders can clear away, the more effective our people will be.
To that end, part of our response is to have employees and their managers hold performance and growth check-ins even though we’re months away from annual review season. It’s a way to acknowledge the contribution each employee is making, set them up to be productive in the short term, and help them navigate their longer-term professional goals by getting people and their managers better aligned.
This brings up another guiding principle: err on the side of overcommunicating, both top-down and laterally. Develop a communication plan you can deliver on, and be consistent. Maybe it’s a daily email from the heads of each business unit, or video messages from the CEO as we’re doing at Atlassian. Keep holding your company and department all-hands meetings as well so leadership at all levels stays visible. Even if you have bad news, share it. Without reliable information from you, people will invent their own stories to fill the void, which increases their stress even more.
But communication shouldn’t be a one-way street. Our third principle throughout this time has been to keep the feedback loop tight. For the past three months, we’ve surveyed all employees on a regular basis as to how they’re coping, how their work is being affected, and how they think leadership can help. Not only does this give us credible information to act on; it also allows us to share the results back to staff so they can take comfort in the fact that they’re not alone in their struggles.
Fourth, we have to be mindful of the resources we’re consuming and take great care not to divert resources away from medical staff and other essential workers. Part of “flattening the curve” means not consuming additional masks, disinfectants, and other supplies that hospitals desperately need. But more than that, we want the cities we work in to be as safe as possible now so they can rebound and thrive once the worst of the pandemic has passed.
We’ll reopen offices in a phased approach, and when that process begins, we’ll give employees as much control as possible in terms of whether they choose to return as part of the first wave or defer and continue working from home.
Let employees point the way
I cannot overstate the importance of proactively asking employees how they’re doing and what’s holding them back. That’s how you know you’re responding in the right ways at the right time. That’s what it means to be employee-driven in your response strategy. It’s the difference between declaring a company-wide day off on an arbitrary date and giving employees permission to take an extra day off on a day of their choosing.
If you haven’t yet solicited information from staff, start with a fairly comprehensive survey as we did initially. Check in on whether they have an appropriate workspace and reliable internet access at home. Are they also caring for children? Parents? A family member who has fallen ill? These aren’t just logistical issues—they have a psychological impact too. Also inquire explicitly about their emotional state. Do they feel connected to their team, or cut off? Are they lonely at home? Experiencing cabin fever? Both? Last, try to get a view of how the transition to working from home has affected their ability to collaborate with teammates effectively. Teams that already included a remote worker pre-COVID-19 may be sailing along just fine, but to other teams, video calls and virtual whiteboards involve a steep learning curve.
From the initial survey, we learned that many employees were ill-equipped for remote work in terms of monitors and desks, so we offered a $500 home office stipend. We also heard that nearly every parent was tied in knots trying to juggle homeschooling with their usual full-time job. This led us to encourage managers to work out flexible schedules for those with dependents at home, and encourage those folks to take additional time off as needed.
Of course, checking in can’t be a “one and done” sort of thing. Since the initial survey, we’ve been sending shorter versions that serve as a quick pulse-check. This provides the information we need to adapt our response as the situation and employees’ needs change.
After the home office stipend was announced, for example, the next survey showed a massive improvement in how effective employees felt and their ability to work from home indefinitely. But just about the time the logistical issues were in hand, our pulse-checks showed that loneliness was starting to take hold. So we rolled out programs to help people connect on a personal level, such as a walking challenge, online yoga classes, and other virtual workshops employees could attend together (the on-going webinars for managers new to remote work are an especially big hit).
We plan to continue this practice long-term. As I write this, we are sending a survey to assess employees’ appetite for returning to the office. Then, as we trickle back in, we’ll revise the survey again—rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat. We’ve used employee surveys for years to assess how staff feel about our engineering practices, our leadership, and their opportunities for growth at Atlassian. Even after things return to some version of normal, we’ll continue to ask questions around emotional health and general well-being.
The strategic value of listening
Taking an employee-driven approach to navigating these uncertain times lets you adapt policies and practices quickly and in a way that is informed by data rather than gut feeling. And that’s critical when you’re dealing with fast-changing circumstances of any kind, be it a pandemic, an economic downturn, or some fresh crisis we haven’t imagined yet.
External factors such as revenue and customer retention rates give you an indication of how you’re faring out there in the marketplace, but you’ll never get a holistic picture of your company’s health unless you have a conversation with your employees. They may not remember every policy decision you made during this time, but they’ll certainly remember how you made them feel. And how they feel will inform how engaged they are over the long term.
When people feel they’re being heard and their needs are taken into account, their mental load is reduced, and they can focus on delivering great work. If company leaders take one lesson from this whole experience it should be that caring for your people and caring for your business are one and the same thing.