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Leading Teams With Empathy

Headspace is at a premium, so managers have a big role to play.

Like everyone reading this, here at Postlight, coronavirus has turned our lives upside down. As much as we want to operate like it’s business as usual, things certainly aren’t business as usual.

Nearly half of our team was already outside of our NYC headquarters, but in response to the pandemic, Postlight went entirely remote. The challenges we’re facing aren’t going to be solved with remote best practices (although we definitely have recommendations). This isn’t just remote work — this is pandemic work.

As experienced product managers at Postlight, we wanted to share how we’re orienting and supporting our teams in the middle of a worldwide crisis. We’re big believers that we can all learn from each other. 

Be a human to other humans

We are advocates for bringing your whole self to work: passions, emotions, quirks, and all the things that make you who you are. In the best of times, you create deeper connections and more transparency, and ultimately build better products when everyone has a seat at the table. 

Plenty of people have stressed the importance of communication when working remotely. But, again, this is more than just working remotely. Now more than ever, it’s important to find pockets of time to check in and see how colleagues are faring. Have that work meeting, and then take a minute to make sure they and their loved ones are all doing well.

People are more likely to open up to you, tell you what’s going on with them, and be there for you in return — whether that’s to get a pull request reviewed super quickly, or to chat about the fact you can’t get your mother-in-law to practice social distancing. 

We are not perfect in a normal week, and these past few weeks have been far from perfect. We have found that when you approach your teammates as humans who are just trying their best, they will respect and support you. Publicly owning up to mistakes is important. Being open with where you’re falling down is more crucial now than ever, whether we’re addressing bugs in new features or the broader world around us. 

Slowing down is okay

We’re fortunate enough to be working from home, but it’s hard to operate at a normal cadence when we’re preoccupied with a thousand other things. Those of us with families abroad are worried about how they’re doing, and wishing we could be closer. Some of us are struggling with loved ones being out of work. Others are concerned with the overall state of the world and monitoring the evolution of the virus. It’s normal to feel that some of our daily obligations seem a little less important.

But we’ve been understanding if things take a little longer, and are stressing the importance of communicating everyone’s physical and mental availability. Feel like you need to sit down for a half an hour in the middle of the workday? We get it, and say go for it. Just update your Slack status.

If working with clients or external stakeholders, remember that they’re likely going through similar things. We’re asking our teams to communicate early and often with them to understand how they’re doing. This might change the timeline or project scope, but most are understanding. Some are even relieved. 

That said, we have also found a ton of value in creating a to-do list and trying to accomplish as much of it as we can every day. Even if it’s less than what we might regularly complete, having a purpose keeps us heads-down, focused, and away from the news.

If you’re having trouble focusing, try starting your days with a list of the three or five most important things you need to tackle, however small, and try to get them done. If you feel your team is struggling, do this exercise as a group to keep the team aligned. Crossing things off a list, whether physical or digital, creates a sense of momentum.

It can be easier to focus on smaller, well-defined tasks. As product managers, we can help our teams by splitting their work into smaller chunks and continuing to prioritize incremental improvements. This might not be the time to write an open-ended ticket for a new feature set, even if you have a great relationship with the engineer you’re assigning it to, because they could have a child on their lap also asking about how to spell words beginning with the letter ‘E’. Headspace is at a premium right now, so try to help people with as much information as possible. Plus, watching smaller tickets move through the design and development process will help with morale, which is no bad thing.

What we’re collectively going through isn’t normal. But we can all take solace in the fact that it is exactly that: a collective experience. While everyone is affected, we’ll each have our unique ways of processing what’s happening. We feel it’s important to recognize that, as much work has to continue, the state of the world requires us to adjust our ways of working beyond not being in an office together. More than ever, we’ll take the time to tend to the individual needs of the team. And to keep things moving, even if it’s taking smaller steps.

Jojo Giltsoff is a British product manager, embroiderer, and avid reader living in New York. Reach Jojo at jojo.giltsoff@postlight.com or by following @jojogiltsoff on Twitter.

Jorge Mir Alvarez is a Senior Product Manager at Postlight. During quarantine, when he’s not working you’re most likely to find him in the kitchen or deeply immersed in a game of Football Manager. Reach him at jorge.mir@postlight.com or by following @jmiralva on Twitter.

Story published on Apr 22, 2020.