Closing the Distance: Leading Productive Teams During COVID-19

Spire Digital
Spire Digital
Aug 26, 2020

This is a snippet from the article Closing the Distance: Leading productive teams during COVID-19, first published by our parent company, Kin+Carta.

As we are in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, we must adjust to a long-term work-from-home arrangement. Because social distancing measures were implemented relatively quickly, many employees are working without familiar hardware or software, while missing the team identity and collaboration that actually makes the workplace such a compelling destination for so many people. As The Atlantic notes, “Almost everything that doesn’t feel like work at the office is what makes the most creative, most productive work at the office possible.”

As a result, leaders have a unique challenge: how do you foster a creative, collaborative, and productive environment when everyone is stuck at home.

While some people may be working from home for the first time, many more are simply continuing a trend that’s more than tripled the number of people telecommuting since 2005. In the technology sector, remote work is more normative than it is in other industries, but these are not normal times. We are all navigating the COVID-19 pandemic for the first time, which makes leadership right now uniquely difficult.

Working from home, especially during times of crisis and uncertainty, can significantly impact employee morale and happiness, leading to decreased productivity and diminished people. For instance, according to the Harvard Business Review, two-thirds of remote workers are always or very often disengaged. For employees without an established remote workflow, this is caused by a lack of:

  • Structure. Years of established routines are suddenly interrupted, something that is even more acute for employees also caring for children who are out of school.
  • Familiarity. Effectively working from home means establishing a new workflow that’s appropriate for the time and situation.
  • Direction. An indefinite work-from-home assignment coupled with widespread uncertainty leaves many employees searching for order and purpose in their jobs.

During this uniquely challenging time, it’s likely that employees will feel discouraged, lost, fearful, and unfulfilled. It falls to leaders to maintain continuity and equip employees to thrive.

Now that teams don’t have an in-house option, facilitating effective remote work becomes critical. For software developers, this means providing the workflows, metrics, and team identity that can inspire success.

Paired Programming & Co-Location

Software developers can continue to collaborate through pairing, even when they’re not co-located. A combination of the right software and hardware makes this possible.For example, ZoomSlack, and Webex, three collaborative platforms that are seeing broad usability and big adoption rates during the COVID-19 pandemic, are particularly popular. Both services offer video conferencing and screen sharing capabilities, and Slack even allows users to annotate the screen, which is especially helpful for identifying coding errors in a paired workflow.When coupled with the right hardware, these services are easy-to-use and widely available, allowing seasoned remote workers and employees working from home for the first time to thrive.Specifically, employees need:

  • 2k monitors. Remote pairings can’t use dual monitors, but a 2k monitor provides the extra resolution needed to fit the most information on the screen.
  • Ergonomic workstation. The ergonomics of monitor height, chair, keyboard position, and other workstation features are often overlooked, but accommodating these features can improve comfort and quality.
  • Headset. You need to receive and transmit high-quality audio all day long. Choose a comfortable headset with noise isolation and background noise reduction.

The best way to know if the setup is working for each member of the pair is to ask for and listen to feedback. There’s no substitute for being a great teammate. If you have a retrospective ceremony, make it a talking point.In addition, use video cameras when it makes sense, but don’t let this technology become a distraction. Pairs can decide what works best for them rather than it being a mandate from outside the pair.

Most companies will tell you that people are their most important asset, yet many companies aren’t tracking how their people feel about their work. Since in-person assessments are impossible when everyone is working from home, measuring what matters most is a critical component of an effective, happy team. At Kin + Carta we devised a simple data gathering process to minimize unnecessary work while maximizing engagement. This includes:

  1. A weekly, anonymous survey sent out by our Scrum Masters: “How satisfied are you with your current project assignment? Your response is anonymous.”
  2. Employee responses, which can range from extremely unsatisfied to extremely satisfied.
  3. Response categorization to produce insights and actions.
  4. Analyze and assess. A downturn in morale is a great opportunity to meet and discuss among team members. Meanwhile, data transparency provides all stakeholders with an opportunity to be a part of the solution.

High performing teams have a strong sense of team identity because they have become a tight-knit group that knows how to work as a unit to achieve outstanding results. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 disrupts many of the activities and rituals that often create this shared sense of purpose, leaving leaders to devise new ways to connect and communicate with their teams. While the methodologies can change, building strong teams always requires three core priorities:

  1. CareGoogle’s Project Aristotle made it clear that we need an environment of psychological safety.
  2. Impact. We all want to spend our time in meaningful ways, and in ways that make a difference. Nobody wants to waste their time. It’s the only currency we really have.
  3. Fun. If people don’t enjoy the process of working together to achieve things, it’s only a matter of time before they stop caring or stop having an impact. They will eventually start prioritizing other things that give them that sense of enjoyment.

COVID-19 will force leaders to be creative, but it can’t compromise the ultimate goal of creating a dynamic team of thriving individuals who are productive, purposeful, and prosperous.

As leaders, we were made for times such as these. COVID-19 certainly wasn’t in our plans, but this moment is the practical culmination of every training we attended and the initiative we started. To navigate this time effectively will require creative thinking, outside-the-box approaches, and a commitment to helping people succeed. It’s a difficult task, and it’s not one that you have to take on by yourself.

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