The coronavirus pandemic forced many companies—including my own—to shift from working in an office to switch to working from home. This new context in which we were operating forced me to evolve and grow as a leader. To a certain extent, I had previously relied on passing conversations and individual meetings to keep folks informed. In the office, I almost assumed people knew my thinking and intent via osmosis by simply from being in the same room. Once we were all remote, I realized that I had to become significantly more intentional and open with communications for the team. Also, like many other CEOs, I faced innumerable decisions and challenges that had to be addressed quickly.
Pre-pandemic, one of the ways I would touch base and check in with folks was by breaking the team into groups of roughly eight people. The agenda for these meetings was simple. It was time for individuals to ask me anything. I’d spend an hour with each group. They would ask me questions that were top of mind, and I would try my best to answer them. These meetings, which we called “tea time” (since we would bring in fancy pastries and tea), were an opportunity for me to get a feel for the pulse of the organization and an opportunity for others to gain insight into my thinking. The questions were far ranging. People asked about everything from “which new initiatives do you find most exciting?” to “what kind of furniture are we going to buy for the front patio?”
When the pandemic hit, each of us on the team, myself included, were dealing with a wide range of emotions—from anxiety, fearfulness, grief a sense of loss—along with the reality that the world simply wasn’t the same. Additionally, companies were shuttering, conducting layoffs, and freezing hiring. It became evident that I would need to evolve my communication style.
When there is so much that can’t be controlled, I knew I had to provide greater visibility into the decisions we were making, share a side of me that was more vulnerable, empathize around how crazy and difficult things were, and provide a steady hand.
With the pandemic, we had to make decisions fast and communicate with imperfect information.
Before COVID-19, I was a leader who liked to present a buttoned-up, well thought-out solution. With the pandemic, we had to make decisions fast and communicate with imperfect information. And it was incredibly important for the team to feel connected with the company and me, as a leader. So, I had to start sharing more than ever before, including talking about my uncertainties around the future, as well as the challenges of dividing work and family.
I was unsure if putting myself out there more would land positively or negatively, but it was heartening to get feedback that it felt real and authentic to folks. It cultivated greater trust and confidence.
This has also helped provide an example and encouragement for others to open up. I needed more connection with the team as I looked for ways to better support them during this time of turmoil and uncertainty. To do that, I had to ask individuals what they were experiencing. So a few weeks into sheltering in place, I flipped the script on our “tea times.” I asked. They answered. It boiled down to one question: “How are you doing?” I would always start to set the tone and open up first. Then I’d turn it over to the group.
This switched flow of conversation was a big change, but the method was a productive way to connect and engage with our team, remotely. From the experience, I learned so much. Some folks are single parents, yearning for more adequate childcare and a respite from their days. Others have ailing parents. So they had taken on more responsibility in caring for them. Given the circumstances, these folks are taking on a significant emotional toll. Some love working from home. Others hate it. When we announced an extension around working from home, I discovered that there were people who were incredibly relieved and others who were devastated. They’re lonely and miss the camaraderie and in-person culture and rhythms deeply.
I found that the new “tea times” offered invaluable, raw, and real insight into what our team was truly experiencing. I gained the perspective that, first and foremost, we had to help our colleagues feel settled, safe, and secure to the best of our abilities. Otherwise, how could we expect them to be productive and creative in their jobs?
Since then, I have found these discussions more important than ever. These group conversations have not only brought the KiwiCo team closer together, but have created a way for me and our People Operations team to help support those who need it most. We have offered extra paid-time-off mental wellness days to the entire team, optional socially distanced gatherings for those who miss the office, Zoom fitness classes and happy hours as a way to have fun together, home office stipends to support a more comfortable working environment, among other remote perks. While this pandemic has brought such uncertainty and loss, I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to grow as a leader, to become more attuned to our team, and to respond to their needs.
Sandra Oh Lin is the founder and CEO of KiwiCo, a learning and enrichment company. KiwiCo inspires the next generation of innovators by designing and delivering fun, hands-on experiences that build creative confidence and problem-solving skills.