5 Lessons For Leading in the New Normal

The tech industry is about leadership and adaptation, why should tech leadership be any different

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Following up on my last article about the tech industry’s brewing culture war about the future of work, I decided to elaborate on 5 interesting lessons learned leading a team during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. What I learned was that culture is key. It is the one constant your org can align to in times of change and uncertainty, and having a good culture made all this 100% less painful.

Culture is NOT ping pong tables and a keg — those things went away with the pandemic. It’s about values, respect, and growth which can all be communicated in person or remote. Without further ado, 5 lessons we learned about remote work that we can apply to the new normal.

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In my experience, switching my primary communication mode to Slack has made me and my team more productive because async communication allows developers to ignore you. You read that right, your team members now have the option to ignore you and leave you on read while they finish implementing a feature or mind mapping a complex idea. Nothing is more disruptive than synchronous communication (looking at you cubicle hangers and people forcing a conversation in chat with “hi”… “ping”… “yt”…).

Of course, it’s not uncommon for things to fall through the crack when your developers get in “the zone” so it’s important to follow up (and remember to follow up). I found myself making liberal use of reminders to follow up on various things if I don’t hear back from a teammate on something after an hour or so. Be respectful, don’t pester, but also don’t forget you have a query out either.

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I don’t know about you, but going to a written vs a spoken communication format has forced me to dramatically improve my writing. I’ve had to consider things like brevity, intent, and cultural norms when writing a slack message to ensure the meaning is not lost when I talk to people. I’ve also noticed my team’s communication style got more direct as we used Slack as a primary mode of communication.

Not everyone interprets emotion in text the same way so it is important to be objective and sincere in your messages. Using emojis to convey tone is helpful for this and not just for kids anymore 😉.

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Leaders should check in with their teams regularly. In an in-person style, this was typically done by walking around the office and chatting up each team member in mini 1–1 format. This check in must be on a predictable basis so people can mentally plan for it and preserve the flow state. In a remote format, I admit this is something I wished I would have adapted to remote-first sooner. Something as simple as a “good morning, how’s things” ping every day or so goes a long way in making your team feel more connected and valued. Its not really that awkward and you get that async communication bonus where your employees can engage you when they’re ready so productivity stays at the focus.

When you lean into remote work, this becomes crucial because it level sets expectations. When the lines between work and home blur, and the impact of work is muted due to distance, it’s important to encourage your team to take breaks, establish sensible boundaries, and let them know where they stand in their career growth. One thing that has not changed in the new normal is this: promotions and performance improvement plans should never be surprises.

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One thing I notice looking back on in-office culture vs remote culture was the formation of trust circles around common local interests. You notice that trust and therefore information tends to be shared more often within the same lunch groups or coffee klatches, and often this information sharing is not written down or shared more broadly. These groups are more likely to pair up in team building exercises leaving remote workers and international teams out of the loop or in their own silos.

Going full remote leveled the playing field when it came to formation of knowledge groups and in my experience people it forced us to consider the perspective of international teams and remote workers and be more inclusive of them by looping them in channels, or adding zoom to those ad hoc conversations so anyone can join. Anyone was reachable and reachable in the same way which made it easy to stand up tiger teams and loop in different perspectives from people who work tangential to your group.

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Building a culture of transparency, empathy, and inquisitiveness was key for my team in getting through this. Transparency removed uncertainty in the team’s future and begot transparency on project status. Empathy helped ensure we were constructive in our dialog and ensuring our messages were read and understood. Inquisitiveness broke down silos among teams and unlocked new relationships that otherwise may not have formed if everyone stuck to the same office cliques and routines.

My team’s easy going culture and growth mindset greased the wheels on adapting to the remote first lifestyle and as we move to a hybrid model, we’re able to have more candid, more elevated discussions both remote and in-person again about our work, how we work, and what we ought to work on.

The new remote-first normal was a major learning opportunity for all leaders at all experience levels. A great mentor of mine would say “People aren’t wired for change”. New environments are difficult to navigate, but your culture is what grounds you and is the anchor point. Once you find a way to keep that culture alive (for me it was daily check ins, liberal use of emojis, and better writing) the rest of the changes are purely mechanical.

Software Engineer | Product Leader