Article

How to lead your team through the COVID-19 crisis

Comcast NBC Universal VP of mobile engineering Edwige Robinson, illustrated by Matt Peet

Illustration by Matt Peet

Crisis has become the word of the year. The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered some very unwelcome chaos into the world, for individuals and businesses. Crises can lead to fear, anxiety and doubt that have devastating effects. But they also brim with opportunities to reflect and become stronger. Leaders have honed skills and strategies for years and are now being forced to develop new ways of working practically overnight. How can they evolve to meet the challenge and focus on what’s important in the “new normal”?

The answer, according to Edwige Robinson, is to be flexible, adaptable and human.

“The Coronavirus pandemic is putting all of us in uncharted territory. Rest assured that this tunnel won’t be our resting place; it’s a passageway designed to go through,” says Robinson, the VP of Mobile Engineering Services at Comcast NBC Universal. “People are looking to us to give them guidance. We’re going through this tunnel together. Yes, it’s dark, but we have to continue to walk. We’re going to get through it together ”

Before the global crisis hit, Robinson had been at the inception of emerging technologies such as WiMAX. She has managed major developments and launches with both co-located and internationally distributed teams. Robinson found that the act of leading through critical times such as launching major initiatives, and proactively honing leadership skills has helped her navigate the crisis thus far. 

“We have been prepared for a time like this. All those classes that we took, all those trainings about change and leadership. We are leaders,” she says. 

From being transparent and human with her team to being flexible and pragmatic with her objectives, Robinson offered us some insight into her approach to leadership during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Offer psychological safety through transparency

Robinson stresses the need to provide transparency to her team—both operationally and emotionally—to make sure they feel informed through the process and can go to her with questions. 

“My team knows that COVID-19 is new for me too,” she says. “I am working on getting all the necessary info for them. I am sharing everything I know, and everything I don’t know. I’m revealing my concerns while maintaining calm. This is how I remain transparent with my team. I am listening and addressing the things they want to know.”

Robinson believes that leaders should model that transparency for their team members and demonstrate its benefits. That encourages two-way transparency. And that’s critical right now, because almost no company is operating under business-as-usual.

“People have a lot on their minds,” she acknowledges. “Team members are feeling overwhelmed and anxious about family members’ circumstances related to the virus. So, the acknowledgment that we are not in ‘business as usual’ helps team members talk about their fears. I answer their questions and reassure them about work and other issues that might come up.”

Leaders must recognize the impact of isolation and loneliness on their teams. Those who work with distributed teams understand this phenomenon to some extent—but the circumstances are exacerbated because even employees who were remote before the pandemic are cut off from many of their social support systems. Robinson strives to check in with each team member regularly , not only about their work, but also just to see how they are doing mentally.

“Loneliness can lead to depression and other mental health issues,” she says. “I’m encouraging team members to connect with one another face-to-face, virtually. Even if you can’t touch people, seeing them via video is comforting.”

Team members are also dealing with more than isolation—to varying degrees, they are dealing with fears for themselves and loved ones. Tech leaders can’t do anything to assuage those fears. But they can offer clarity and transparency into other worries: the goals at hand.

“Every person on the team wants to know if we know things that we’re withholding, like, do we have a job past April?” Robinson says. “You need to let them know what we know about their job, and that we will need to continue to push through as a team. If something changes, you can tell them they’ll be the first ones to know. You will not keep them in the dark. And you hold yourself to that.”

Simplify your focus

With most everyone in the industry impacted by some form of stay-at-home order, social distancing or other pandemic response measures, we are swimming in unknown waters. The tech industry as a whole may be well prepared to transition to working from home, but this time still feels awkward, scary and full of unknowns.

Robinson reminds us, while it is scary for everyone right now, it’s important for leaders to embrace the unknown by changing their focus and revisiting what’s important for their business at this very moment.

“Every business should be thinking about how they simplify,” Robinson says. “But sometimes it's one of those things you don’t think about until a stark reality hits you in the face. Until then, you're thinking of lofty goals instead of just the simple human things.”

For her, this simplification is important to focus the team on regaining business momentum through the crisis, to ensure as much stability for the company as possible. For Robinson and her team, this is not a time for moonshot projects that they aimed for last year.

“You don't have to worry about what's going to happen in several months from now, right now,” she explains. “We need to focus on what’s important for the next three months and execute. That's it. That's what the dev teams are seeking to know and do right now because everything else is so fluid. We have to remain nimble and flexible”

If you’re still hoping to accomplish those moonshot goals, Robinson explains there is much more value in streamlining what you’re already doing.

“For example, doubling down on the digital experience should be everyone's focus right now. Even if we go back to some form of business as usual, this crisis is showing us that an amazing digital experience is an important asset to have in any business toolbox.”

Reprioritize your efforts

Since the pandemic took hold, priorities are and have been changing for most of the world as uncertainty continues to loom. Robinson's approach has been to accept that things are in flux and to adjust her team’s workload accordingly.

"Everything's changing so much that I now have my team focus on the needs of the immediate quarter. I tell them the two or three things we need to focus on, and I declare everything else noise. I pause it. We all need to focus on those two to three things—and deliver on them to the best of our ability. That's it."

While some leaders still may be thinking of multi year-end goals, Robinson believes that when in crisis, engineering leaders need to shield their working team from getting caught up in anything beyond what’s directly in front of them. A team focused on priorities delivers results.

“By simplifying it for the working teams, the rest of the org can continue to focus on the strategy, such as upscaling the architecture or planning ahead for upcoming years,” she says. “But right now, the developers need to focus on the projects in front of them and be locked and loaded for the next six sprints or more.”

The goal of any leader is to maximize their resources to get the best results, and theories on how to get there have been circulating for decades. But Robinson is confident that leaders are only scratching the surface of how efficiency is realized, and the current crisis is revealing it.

“I think we are going to find a lot of opportunities, because everybody’s trying to figure out how to maximize their time together,” she says. “Efficiency is manifesting itself, and this is just the beginning.”

Create accountability and clarity

Even with everyone on her team working from home, Robinson emphasizes that they still have each other to lean on. “We keep each other accountable and focused by keeping the line of communication open and being clear on the actions required now,” she says. “Only then can we move forward to deliver effectively under this new normal.”

The concept of accountability is not lip service. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, Robinson paved the way for her team to do real-time problem solving in meetings, where everyone is encouraged to offer feedback. But for her, the key in team accountability starts with her owning her errors to create a cascade of trust. “When I make mistakes, I won’t make excuses for them,” she says. “I apologize for them. Because my team trusts me, they will understand. And I will do the same when they are in the same situation. I will give them the benefit of my understanding. A leader who is ‘never wrong’ never gets the truth from others. Yet, when a leader timely apologizes for being wrong, it’s a powerful catalyst to build or rebuild trust.”

Accountability is very difficult without clear communication and alignment when business is running as usual, but during a crisis, it is paralyzing. Robinson points to how she adapts both sides of the communication coin—the strategic side, and the interpersonal side—to stressful times like this:

Over-clarify and over-simplify. “I over-communicate, over-collaborate, and over-align on the priorities that lead to the creation of our products and services,” she says. “I simplify the priorities, and then simplify them again, so everyone understands what is needed right now. Too many details can be overwhelming, so I keep people focused on what is needed to get through COVID-19 and support our customers.”

Offer extra doses of compassion. Robinson makes certain to bring empathy and understanding to the table—for her team members and for herself. “I make an extra effort to make every interaction count,” she says. “I listen deeper to hear the unsaid. Our world and our organizations are going to weather this. We will all remember who was there in the smallest moments of this season. We will remember the extra pauses, the extra calmness and the extra thank-you note.” We might be transformed through this time to unveil our better selves, she says—and a touch of extra kindness may well be what helps our teammates weather the uncertainty.

Re-think meetings to maximize efficiency and unity

Siloed efforts can be damaging to productivity and efficiency in development teams; during a crisis, it can be catastrophic. To keep her teams aligned early and often, Robinson has reshaped the way her team holds meetings and tracks toward their goals.

“We’re combining stand-ups for teams that need to work together,” she explains. “Combining stand-ups for the various dev teams provides immediate synergy and reduces a tremendous amount of unnecessary conversations when everyone is not together.”

She also re-focused the daily meetings to better reflect and convey new information as it comes. “We are refreshing the scrum of scrums (SoS) and turning them into a daily chance to re-plan based on the latest feedback, information, impediments or emergent changes,” she says. “Re-planning at the Daily Scrum is always important. It gives the Scrum Team the ability to quickly pivot as needed. And that is invaluable in situations where unpredictability can be the norm.”

Beyond the retooling of daily scrums and combining meetings to bring everyone together, Robinson also uses meetings to bond with her team. “At the beginning of the meeting, someone shares something surprising that they have learned, or something positive they have done since they started working from home,” she explains. She wants her teams to interact on good news and uplifting stories amidst all the strain of the coronavirus. Alternately, her team members share what they are grateful for.

Moreover, this start to the meeting has a secondary benefit. It allows Robinson to wait a few minutes longer than usual to start the official part of the meeting. Not only do people appreciate the lighthearted connection, but they also appreciate the flexibility to cover for the myriad of issues they might face when connecting to meetings on time from somewhere other than the office.

“Your people come first,” Robinson says. “Before talking to anybody about a project, or whatever is going on, it pays tremendous dividends to take the first two or three minutes of any conversation to check on people. Just because we can see each other on the screen as we talk, we shouldn’t dismiss real connection. We are human. We need connection. Keep the connection as genuine and human as possible.”

Conclusion

Because there is no one-size-fits-all route in navigating this global crisis, Robinson’s approach is a mix of being human with your team, flexible with your tactics and deliberate with what you’re working towards.

  • Offer psychological safety through transparency: Everyone is going through uncharted territory, and helping your team during crises is about acknowledging their fears and anxieties, while keeping them up to date on the information they need most.

  • Simplify your focus: It’s easy to get distracted with the priorities you had before the crisis. But Robinson believes this is not the time for moonshot projects, but rather a perfect time to get back to mastering the basics.

  • Reprioritize your efforts: Embrace the fluidity that comes during moments of crisis. While everything is in flux, it’s a great time to reevaluate what’s most important for your team and the organization.

  • Create accountability and clarity: Offer more compassion and simplicity to your communications, so everyone knows what’s expected of them. It’s also just as important for everyone to take accountability for their faults, including leaders.

  • Re-think meetings to maximize efficiency and unity: Retool your existing meetings to adequately address the needs of the world's biggest WFH experiment by combining meetings with cross-functional teams and extending the length of the meeting to talk through issues.

Engineering leaders around the world are searching for ways to lead through the unknowns of COVID-19. The processes and strategies Robinson has implemented are aiding her team and organization to come out of this crisis better than they went into it. “If those things are in place,” Robinson says, “everything else will roll.”