It was a day in late March. I was on my third video call and it wasn’t even 10 a.m.
“We’re going to have to rethink the keynote format,” I told my colleagues. “Can we host it virtually? And should we move the production lines to a country that is still open?” These were questions I’d never needed to consider before, but I was asking them now.
“Oh, and we’ll have to get creative about testing since we can’t access the TV labs,” I added with a sigh. It was going to be a long day.
We were planning for the launch of Google TV, a new entertainment experience that would be available first on the new Chromecast with Google TV. Working toward a product launch that includes both new software and hardware is a lot like working in show business. Once a launch date is on the calendar, we are committed. Whatever challenges arise, the show must go on—even if that challenge is a global pandemic.
For my team, the impact of COVID-19 went beyond launch logistics, extending to our day-to-day world. Google is well-known for its investment in making office life hospitable. Orchestrating a remote product launch demanded that we rethink many of our established workflows and brainstorming processes. This hurdle will sound familiar to many leaders. 2020 asked a lot of us all.
So what happened? We got scrappy. We threw out the old processes and experimented. We focused on outcomes and not on doing things a certain way just because that’s how they had always been done. The company supported us in every way—ensuring that every team member could expense the necessary equipment to make their home office more comfortable and productive and offering resources and tools to promote well-being and work-life balance. In the end, we designed, built, and successfully launched a brand-new product amid a pandemic. Here are a few things we learned along the way.
For us, the transition to remote work meant no more morning scrums, no more spontaneous whiteboard sessions, and no more break room chats. It was an entirely new work paradigm, and we couldn’t simply adapt our existing processes. We had to start with the goal and work backward from there.
Early on, we had to rethink our certification process. We needed to ship prototypes from the manufacturer to our partners, but many countries had shut down postal services. We had to improvise. In the end, we successfully delivered the products via DHL, but this experience taught us that there’s no template for processes during a pandemic. We had to make it up as we went along.
Social distancing complicated our external efforts as well as our internal processes. We had to reimagine the launch keynote and decided to host a virtual event over YouTube. To re-create the air of excitement, we even delivered themed gift kits to the attending press—complete with movie theater popcorn—for the Chromecast with Google TV premiere.
Don’t default to video meetings
Before the pandemic, we could stop by a colleague’s desk for a quick chat. It’s tempting to try and replicate that experience through a video call, but before you know it, that 5-minute chat has turned into a 30-minute conversation. As it turns out, Parkinson’s Law applies to meetings, too. That adage goes, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” so if you book a 30-minute call, expect it to take that long (if not longer).
Google’s work culture has always encouraged spontaneous collaboration, but now we needed an easy way to tap the right people for quick communication. In preparation for the launch, we decided to start chatrooms for every team. Many organizations have a similar system in place, but to make it work, everyone has to ask, Does this warrant a meeting, an email, or just a chat message? Choose the medium that best suits your goal, rather than defaulting to a virtual face-to-face meeting.
Get clear on accountability of deliverables
The Google TV launch required input from nearly every department. Coordinating a major project across multiple teams is already a feat, but doing it remotely is even more challenging. It’s critical to establish clear accountability for every component. Our team managed the launch timeline and set up regular video calls with other department heads. But beyond that, every team felt empowered to brainstorm solutions to meet the need of the moment. Clear accountability means that when issues arise, the people with the right skill sets feel empowered to solve them.
Determining accountability may sound simple, but it requires commitment and consistency. We had to be intentional about project management and decisive on delegation. Once an item had been delegated, people could be trusted to complete their tasks and escalate issues so we could resolve them quickly.
Let go of perfection
There’s vision, and then there’s perfectionism. Wisdom is knowing the difference. Leading up to the launch, we had to ask ourselves, What is essential? This question became a compass.
Prioritizing the essential is not about putting up with subpar results. It’s about setting goals and investing where it counts. This practice is even more critical when it comes to working remotely. Many of us are dealing with bandwidth constraints due to bored kids and busy households. We’re juggling life’s priorities at top speed, and sometimes we have to ask: What can I put down?
Prioritizing meant putting a few features on hold until 2021. But we stayed true to our vision instead of making last-minute sacrifices. The result is that we released an incredible product with a robust feature set, with only more to come.
Keep your head up
Despite the roadblocks, I’m grateful for the lessons this year has taught us. We had to reinvent our processes, from communication to collaboration. We surprised ourselves with our resilience and tenacity, and at all moments displayed boundless compassion toward each other. Today, remote work is the new normal. It may not always be that way, but the work culture of the future will likely blend the best of both remote and in-person work styles. In the meantime, keep your head up—because great things can happen no matter what.
Shalini Govil-Pai is vice president and general manager of TV at Google.