leading a team through ambiguous times: COVID-19 week 1 learnings

22 March, 2020 6 minutes read

My team and I were ready for the coronavirus crisis, or so we thought.

Working for a children's hospital we were definitely on top of the news, progress and flow of information but it almost seems like one afternoon a big red switch flipped and we went from "working while a crisis is in the background" mode to full on crisis management when the outlook for the future is fuzzy at best.

I'm writing this blog post after a first full week of spending time in unfamiliar territory with the team. We all have good experience with crisis management but this one felt different: While transitioning to working 100% remotely was fairly easy from a technology perspective, the challenges revolve mostly around people and in this post I'm going to document some of my learnings around team management and how the team and I approach them.

two types of behaviors I've seen people adopt when facing an uncertain situation at work

Right of the bat, while the circumstances for this crisis were very different it had an odd sense of familiarity: Working in the startup-tech world I had the privilege1 to witness companies shutting down, sometimes first hand and how different people react to working under ambiguity and uncertainty. From what I've seen there are two special behaviors people adopt that are very different than how they normally operate -

1. Hustling out of their mind

Read any article about work culture and self improvement and they'll go in depth explaining how #hustle is a bad idea. What you should be doing is understanding your self worth and assign value to your work - working 16 hour days, responding to emails as soon as you get them and jumping on any task in your wheelhouse is bad for you and is your highway to burnout at work, right?

Well, you take a quick look at /r/CoronavirusRecession (please don't), read some articles about the financial impact and people mentioning the 'F-word' and channel that anxiety into the need to prove your worth to the organization. You'll do everything, get involved in every project, work any hour and make sure your name is in every inbox and mentioned in any meeting so people know that you're contributing.

2. Shutting down

The opposite of the people above. Drinking from the firehose of information, charts, news on top of all the ambiguity and anxiety mentioned above makes very productive people channel all their knowledge into consuming and trying to make sense of all the information which gets them into overdrive and they shut down.

Those people will fall off the grid, won't contribute and become very reactive - they will wait until some mentions their name and put something on their todo list but otherwise just float around in space.

how do I cope

My team and adjacent teams I work with are full of amazing, talented people who are very good at what they do and their skills aren't suddenly taken away by a crisis. Based on that assumption and the fact that there is currently no end period for how long we will have to work under uncertainty, I decided that my team's (and the people around me) mental health is the most important factor that will have an impact on (a) how people will be performing day to day and (b) the state that people will be at when the crisis ends.

I was fortunate to anticipate change where I work on on T-1, a day before the crisis fully changed how we work and got people to the state of ambiguity I prepared a three bullet priority list that will be the framework on how people that I manage will operate under. When people are thrown into a state of uncertainty a thought through framework is like a safety net under a tightrope walker - it's something to lean on as they figure out the 'what's now' and the 'where to start'.

Here's my personal three 'support' list I delivered:

  • Support of the team managing the crisis
  • Support important initiatives that are currently in flight
  • Support each other

The first two bullet points relate to how we deliver software and technological outcomes using agile and maybe I'll get into it in a future post. I'll say that it was very interesting seeing how crisis act as a catalyst for software delivery and how quickly we managed to establish a new process and then rally and organize around it.

The last bullet point, supporting each other is the one that I'm putting the most weight on. Here are three points I was delivering to our team during one of our update meetings this week. I think they encompass most of what I think on managing a team's mental health during this crisis and am making an effort to live by these days.

1. Empower people around you, delegate

Instead of hoarding tasks, jumping into every possible call and building a 16 hour workday does three things: It's your quickest way to burnout, it's coming as a cost to people around you (significant others) and it's creating anxiety among team members who want to contribute.

Empathize. Imagine how a team member (who is talented and really good in what they do) feel when you're in a meeting saying how crazy busy you are and name dropping all those people you are in meetings with. Instead, delegate more than you think you should, reach out to people with "hey, I could use your help".

Making team members feel viable, including them in the conversation and allowing them to contribute during times of ambiguity is invaluable - you them, and ultimately for the team leader and organization.

2. Home work time ≠ office work time

There are about 2,334,836,927 articles about teams working remotely around the web right now so here's my humble contribution to the pile of tips and advise: I don't expect my team members sitting next to a computer 8:00am-6:00pm being 100% productive.

I expect people to have a routine where the job gets done but the time spent working is fluid and full with breaks, taking care of other people living at home, exercise and life things in general. We have process on how to communicate urgent things and outside of that, allowing people the space they need to find the new work life balance.

3. Talk to each other

Out of everything here, if you had to do one thing - talk to each other.

Find a person, have a video conversation with them, ask them how they are coping, what does their work day look like ("working from home too? Wow, so innovative!") and keep that human to human touch going. Listen to each other, ask what you can do to help and get through it together.

If you need to someone, I'm here for you - here are all the ways to you can reach out.

Stay healthy out there!


  1. I use the word privilege here because in retrospect the lessons I learned during that time were invaluable with not much personal risk. Also it's very easy to use the word 'retrospect' here because it certainly did not feel easy or 'learning' back in the day.