Critical Ingredients to High-Performing Teams in 2020: Part 1, Empathy
Four agile coaches including MATRIX Agile Practice Director Jeremy Wood recently led a roundtable discussion on how to maintain high-performance teams while working remotely. Empathy is one popular topic they discussed.
What is one of the biggest cultural changes you have witnessed around remote working?
Bryan Agosto: What I've seen the most is a shift from ‘what is everyone doing to how is everyone doing?” There's been a lot of focus lately on “is everyone safe and healthy?” Are people
really able to work when children run in screaming? In the past, I've heard people say, ‘Oh, man, it was so unprofessional. Someone had their child screaming in the background or did you see their significant other walk behind in the video.’
Now it’s a common thing. With the teams and the organizations that I'm working with now, we've gotten more empathetic for different people situations.
This pandemic came on so quickly that some people didn't have the right level of internet at their homes to be able to have videos and they had to adjust to that. Others didn't have a space to work. I work with a senior VP who was working out of hi unfinished basement. He told his team ‘this is where we're at today. This is what we are dealing with.’
Phil Ricci: These are real people. We get so caught up in our team and the work we're doing. Sometimes I've stopped and looked around the room and said, ‘Do we know anything about the people in this room? What their hobbies are? How many kids do they have? We don't know the answers.
Bryan Agosto: I work with a leader that has a leadership call with his senior team on Wednesdays. He's got about 10 directors underneath him. He actually asked his directors to have at
least one family member every Wednesday with them for the call. So he's casting that leadership shadow to his direct reports to say, ‘I expect to see someone from your family with you. And one of the reasons is I want to make sure that if you get sick, you have someone that can take care of you.’ The other reason is, I just want to be able to see that you have a community around you while you're at work. And I want you to know that it's okay if your employees do, too.
That's something that wasn't happening before, when they were still all dispersed and still had to do these video conferences, but they were in their own offices and not at home.
How are leaders responding to direct reports specifically now that people are working remote? How has that impacted groups and teams?
Bryan Agosto: Yes, this is a common question now. ‘How do I lead an organization of let's say 500 people? What is a strategy with everyone dispersed? I used to be able to walk up to one of my managers or talk to a team that I felt wasn't aligned with the strategy and have a good conversation with them. I can't do that now.’
And in many cases, some of this was just micromanagement. Previously, a manager was able to just walk up and see if a developer was there for eight hours. To determine if they were actually in the office and working or if they were throwing their hacky sack around with one of their friends.
Phil Ricci: Yes, some managers felt like they had nothing to do with the teams. And that was great opportunity to help those managers find other ways to interact with a team.
Bryan Agosto: You must trust your teams. These people have lives. Yes, they can work 24/7 because they're working from home. But you're going to get diminishing returns every hour that they work extra. You're going to get bad quality in your code. Do you want that?
What can you do as a leader to support this team? What can you negotiate? I'm having those conversations daily now. And trying to help leadership continue to be empathetic for their employees who are working from home. And give them their space that they should be getting because they are at home.
Jeremy Wood: I would say the biggest wish list I have seen is more from the team level than necessarily an organizational wide stance. I've seen leaders start to shape their working agreements and develop some core hours where everyone is available to one another. If they are working eight-hour shifts, set up a four-hour overlap where everybody is required to be on, say 10am to 2pm.
Outside of that, flexibility is important. Individuals know what they are responsible for and how to get their work done and be accountable. Maybe they start their workday at 10am and work late. Or start really early and wrap up by 2:00. That way they still have the interaction with the team with flexibility for their individual lifestyles.
Phil Ricci: As coaches, we have a responsibility to impact the places we are and to understand the humanity of the situation. While they're figuring out how many points they can achieve during a particular iteration, there is something more important than those points. And we must be able to respect and understand that.
Todd Sussman: Totally agree. When we start becoming remote, it's very easy to dehumanize someone else who is not sitting right in front of you. Maintaining that empathy is of utmost