At the start of March, Sequoia released a statement labeling COVID-19 “the black swan of 2020.” And, at least in the startup space, it feels like we might be sitting on the heels of a period not unlike what followed the financial crisis in 2008. I’m sure many are wondering, what does this mean for our businesses? And, equally important, how are we planning to create open communication with our employees surrounding this period of major uncertainty?
It’s important to remember that this impending uncertainty and anxiety isn’t just felt in the c-suite. From employees who might have started just before March 1, to senior management who’ve been with the company for years, our teams are facing a difficult and complex time in their tenure.
As the CEO and co-founder of a seed-stage startup, I’m perpetually on the frontlines of tackling the unknown. Every so often I’m put in a position where I have to recalibrate my company’s next steps, and redesign how we will move forward. So, when faced with potential COVID-driven changes to our business, my team was, for the most part, prepared, and are ready to cautiously charge forward.
Here are a few ways that I manage employee stress and anxiety during periods of uncertainty that (IMO) are particularly relevant to today’s challenging climate.
My team is privy to as much of the state of the business as is reasonably responsible to share. If we are experiencing a tough time and need to cut back, I will let them know. If we are having a particularly tight quarter, we work together to get through it.
Now, I’m not saying that you need to give complete insight into your cash flow and typical monthly expenditures. What I’m getting at is this: Be open and honest with your team about what the next few weeks or months will look like. Not only will this boost employee morale, but it will help employees understand the severity of the situation at hand.
Of course, the level of transparency you share can also be a person by person basis, depending on their seniority, maturity, experience level, etc., but keeping a general rule of transparency is an important pillar in moving forward during difficult periods.
But also be prepared to gauge your comfort on the level of transparency you are willing to give…
How do you think about limits on transparency? The thing I’ve struggled with, but have always tried to balance, is how to protect my team from feeling unnecessary anxiety without infantilizing them either.
Let’s take a company’s runway, for example. At what point do you let your team know that you’re at risk of not meeting payroll? On the one hand, you want to make sure you give your team enough of a heads up when you are running low on cash so they have time to find another job without risking unemployment. On the other hand, things can change on a moment’s notice (for the better), so you don’t want to pre-emptively share challenging news if in one week’s time the future could look very different.
I try to ask myself the following questions: “if my team knows this now, will it unnecessarily burden them. What is the probability things will change for the better? For the worse? If things don’t change, and I tell them in two weeks, will they feel like I withheld important information and be upset”.
Just like I imagine a parent has a desire to protect their children and shield them from some of the stresses they have to deal with in life, it’s important to remember that your team are not children, they are adults. More often than not, I think people will surprise you with how well they handle difficult news and difficult situations. When faced with uncertainty, people step up their game and it brings people together in a vulnerable and powerful manner. Not to mention, it’s a lot less stressful as a leader to share the burden of knowledge than shoulder it entirely on your own.
A company can climb out of a tough quarter, but realistically, that’s not always the case. Having an early and earnest conversation with your team about the various outcomes that could proliferate post-COVID is incredibly important. And for many of us, we’re about to encounter a tough end of Q1 and an uncertain start to Q2. This could equate to layoffs, new and alien pressures on your teams, and difficult cash-flow decisions in the near-term.
Discussing the possible roadblocks and aftereffects ahead will not only prepare your team for what’s to come, but it will lessen anxiety surrounding your company’s future. I find it useful to frame things like this, “This is what I know”, “This is what I don’t know”, “This is when I’ll get back to you with another update”. Most people can handle uncertainty, but it makes it easier to tackle if you can contain it for them. By noting when they will get another update, it creates structure even when there is none.
I make both the time and space for each and every person on my team to be able to sit down and work through any issues that they might be experiencing – even if I do not directly manage that employee.
And, during the COVID shakeup, I’ve tried to provide flexibility and accountability to my team. For example, I allowed one of my team managers the freedom to take a half day on the Friday of our first work-from-home week. She was feeling particularly anxious about personal and work changes, and I knew her productivity would take a hit if she simply powered through. We worked together to create a list of actionable items that were due the following week, and then I gave her the space to decompress.
Lending a non-judgemental ear can mean the difference between an employee gracefully managing a difficult situation and potentially becoming unproductive and it impacting their output and performance.
And, don’t forget to ask people “how do you feel”. It’s a nuanced difference from the typical, “how are you doing” – it feels more personal and compassionate, and often gives employees the opening they need to express themselves.
Continue to build (and build up) your community
As I wrote last week, now is the time to maintain and grow your company culture. From daily “hello” and “goodbye” routines and virtual happy hours, to encouraging time outdoors and making space for non-work banter, it’s crucial that you continue to cultivate your company’s community.
You can also get creative with new health and wellness benefits. For example, one of our partner companies recently instituted Headspace as a new mental health benefit amid the COVID climate. And if a new benefit is not in your budget, Headspace has compiled a free toolkit for company leadership to distribute to their teams. And that’s just one example – a number of brands (both local and large) are making mental and physical wellness materials available to the public, free of charge.
As CEOs and leaders, we’re quickly determining next steps of how to keep our teams continuing with business as usual. But, as we hyper-focus on the practical aspects of working remotely, we must also be mindful of uplifting the non-work elements that keep our teams motivated.
Connectivity vs Community
During our team meeting recently, I asked my employees what they were struggling with most during the WFH transition. Most of my team were not struggling with the lack of community, as one might think, rather, they were struggling with being overly connected to the work day. Most of the Scouted team all live in small NYC apartments, and without the physical barrier of going into work, there’s little that sets our work and life space apart.
It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between connectivity and community. Now that we are all WFH, there’s a good chance your team is struggling with always being connected, not having set barriers between their work and personal life, and perhaps losing the concept of time each day.
It’s a small thing, but now I have everyone say “hello” and “goodbye” on slack to each other at the beginning and end of their workdays; it not only signals to the team when they are online, but it helps each of us signal to ourselves when we are ‘on’ and when we are ‘off’. Just because people are saving commuting time, does not mean they should be working more hours. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and it is important we not only ensure our employees understand that but we help them compartmentalize and get through it.
And if you are facing layoffs…
Unfortunately, this could be a reality for small and large businesses alike. But having a plan in place for how and when layoffs could happen, and being prepared to exhaust other options before letting people go, is key to minimizing both leadership and team anxiety surrounding layoffs.
Your plan should include talking points on things like feasibility of severences, networking on behalf of your employees, outplacement resources and opportunities, and a set a clear timeline for what employees can expect. And, before any team conversations, be sure to have clear messaging and buy-in from your executive team.
We’re all human, and yes, your employees will stress about this uncertain time ahead. But by managing your team’s expectations, and being transparent about what’s to come, you can help your employees take on this new normal with not only confidence but also compassion. It’s an opportunity to take ownership of what we can all control, and prioritize the less obvious factors that make our teams stronger in the long run. Every small action can impact someone in a big way, and that makes all the difference. We’re all in this together, and it is together that we will charge forward with vulnerability, yet strength.