Leading Development in a Crisis or Pandemic: How To Lead Your Team Through COVID-19

April, 15 2020

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We’re remote now.


How do we set ourselves and our teams up for success? What changes about the way we work, the tools we use, our lives? How can we stay focused and efficient? 


Let’s start by acknowledging this as a human challenge. While we still have our laptops, our sprint tasks, and our code, what changes is our interaction and the physical and emotional space in which we’re living.


Everybody is experiencing this pandemic differently, so we need to be sensitive to each other more than just as coworkers, but as people living through an extraordinary time. Health and job security are top of mind — and they should be — but parents, extroverts, new-hires, and gym-goers are each living differently than they were just a few weeks ago.


One starting point for staying connected is increasing scheduled check-ins, where appropriate. I used to have bi-weekly 1:1s; now some of those are weekly, and they’re just as much about the work we’re doing as the lives we’re living. I’m starting each conversation with “How are you?” (probably good practice regardless!). We’re also doing org-wide status updates at the beginning and end of every week on Slack.


Keep in mind the cost of this, too. We were already using Slack, but our usage has significantly increased since going remote. And with that, our notifications have spiked. We’re now making a concerted effort to use threads and segmented channels to avoid notification overload. 


What about pair-programming? Instead of sliding a chair over to a coworker, we use a combination of screen-sharing technologies (we lean toward Google Hangouts and Zoom) and VS Code’s Live Share extension. Through Live Share, we can pair as if we were co-editing a Google Doc, as well as share our terminals, and do voice. 


(Sidenote: this might sound weird—but consider staying on the line with your coworker. This happened incidentally the other day between my teammate, James, and myself. Even as we went on to separate tasks, it was oddly comforting to hear the “hmms” and “ahhs.”)


Need a refresher on sprint protocols? Thankfully, we can just ask Talla directly via Slack, and our knowledge base gives us the answer.


We’re keeping those sprint processes. In our case, we’ve landed on a 2-week sprint, and we manage our cards through Trello. We have retros, daily standups (also on Slack) and planning meetings. Our release manager, Holly, keeps everyone (engineers, product, design) accountable while collecting feedback to see how we can improve. This structure is a key counterbalance to the amorphous world situation.


I believe novelty is paramount as well. We’re no longer commuting (yay?), so mornings blend into evenings and weekdays bleed into weekends. Most of us are seeing just a few people (if any) and places. Mix it up. Now’s the time to try that language feature you were curious about (I just experimented with React Hooks) or take a walk down that street nearby you never explored. 


Some of us are trying Discord as a more casual place to chat. It’s basically a Slack/MS Teams cousin for gamers, and has more of a drop-in style for voice rooms where people can chat about code, gaming, and other diverse topics. 


And keep each other going with suggestions. I recently recommended FitnessBlender to a coworker. Other Talla folks are trying online board games. You don’t need to learn French or reorganize your house (though power to you if you do). We’re all just trying to get through this.


It’s okay to laugh, too. I’m working my way through The Office (many years overdue), and we started a #comedy channel in our Slack to share standup recommendations. 


It’s hard to predict when coronavirus will pass and what we’ll even be returning to. Some of us may continue to work remote. Regardless, as engineers we can always plan, execute, evaluate, and iterate. 


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