2020: Lessons in Virtual Leadership

2020 has been a real test in adaptability. We’ve gone through innumerable changes, like working from home into the foreseeable future, not seeing our loved ones, trying to decipher ever-changing COVID-19 protocols and travel rules—and the experience is also changing our expectations towards the workplace in a post-pandemic future.

At Acubed, we prefer to look at this inflection point in modern work as an opportunity to learn and grow. In the earliest days of the pandemic, we tackled the changes it wrought as best we could, testing and trying ways of remaining connected and productive across the organization, and we are now assessing the longer-term impacts and how to preserve our high standards for both individual and team output and well-being while continuing to work remotely.

And what a ride it has been.

The first days of quarantine

When the pandemic started, two things became glaringly clear: most of our employees historically spent a lot of their time at the office where they had access to the computers and labs, internet, colleagues and snacks that fueled their productivity. However, many didn’t have the set-ups, the workspaces, and in some cases, the connectivity to function at high levels once they were required to work from their homes.

We quickly made adjustments. We rolled out a scheme to compensate employees for their monthly internet connections to support the shift to home. And I personally spent two days driving around Silicon Valley, the East Bay, and Marin delivering high-quality desks and chairs to them at their doorsteps. Even if the lockdown had only lasted a few weeks, we wanted our teams to be comfortable and have something familiar to their workdays.

In the process of delivering these office items, I noticed that some of them reverted back to more traditional ways of sharing messages instead of using our ubiquitous work tool: Slack. When I visited someone’s home to drop off supplies, I was often asked: whose house are you going to next? Would you pass along a message to them? Do you need any food or drink for the road? Even in those early days, I could tell that people were already missing the experience of togetherness that offices provide.

Socially distanced human connections?

As lockdown has worn on, we’ve been getting creative about helping our employees connect to one another in more personal ways...and not always successfully, I would add! Company-wide Google Meet happy hours quickly became a mess with scores of people speaking simultaneously. We learned it’s best for those to be organized within smaller teams, as it’s easier to strike a more natural conversational flow that way. Group meditation (where no one is talking)? No problem!

Smaller groups also seemed to be the smartest way to go about trying to re-create serendipitous “water cooler chat” moments virtually. We started randomly pairing employees that had opted-in to the initiative each week, asking them to connect briefly with their matches for a non-work related chat. These random pairings have been a lot of fun, giving us a chance to commiserate, get to know someone new or even come up with great ideas for Acubed to explore! These watercooler chats have also been an invaluable way to collect feedback, including people’s concerns at the moment, questions on future changes to work and benefits and more—all fodder for us to identify new ways to foster well-being and a sense of connectedness.

We’ve leaned into employees’ diverse skills and interests and given them a platform to share with the rest of the organization. Whether that’s a British team member hosting a pub quiz, a whiz in the kitchen leading a virtual cooking class, or having a colleague (and former hairdresser) offer safe haircuts at the office for those in dire need, for better or for worse, the pandemic has helped to get to know one another in unique ways. By giving us glimpses inside our colleagues’ homes, including spontaneous run-ins with their children in virtual meetings, we’ve developed a better understanding of our colleagues as individuals and the context in which they live, well beyond the role they play or activity they perform for the organization.

Taking care of each other, virtually

Over the last nine months, we’ve tried to adapt to both individual needs as well as make meaningful company-wide changes. I’m convinced that we must all work together to keep a finger on the pulse of each others’ mental health and well-being, both now and into the future, as the long-lasting mental impact of the pandemic is truly yet to be seen. So far, we’ve added in optional stress management sessions, classes on navigating the new normal, and we are continuing to add in mechanisms for the remote support of employees; new ways of delivering certain benefits are being built in real-time.

And then there are the traditional end-of-the-year rituals. No annual holiday party at the office? No stress! This year, we’re trying out virtual escape rooms as a way to celebrate the end of the year together in a fun, safe way. We’re also continuing the Secret Santa tradition, this time relying on the good ole Post Office (or Amazon) to deliver a special gift to a colleague.

This year has been hard. It has tested our resiliency as I’m sure it has for countless other organizations. It has also reminded us of the individuality of our brilliant team members and the importance of taking care of each other in small ways to remain a thriving company.

I’d love to hear what’s worked for other organizations and what you have tried. Feel free to reach me at lucie.ravelojaona@airbus-sv.com, and in the meantime, take care of yourselves, and each other.

- Lucie Ravelojaona