Managing a team during a pandemic presents several unique challenges, especially if that team has suddenly gone remote. Many of us are now facing both realities at once and for the first time.
I have been managing teams of 2 to 50+ in the fintech and fraud prevention space for the last 8 years, and currently lead the Risk and Compliance department at Melio.
I wanted to share some of the tips, tools and strategies that helped shift my offline team to an online structure as well as adjust several workflows around recruiting and onboarding as we hunker down for the foreseeable future . Some of these are specific to a temporary shift, others will remain relevant even when we return to life as ‘normal’.
Guiding your team remotely
We’ll start at the beginning, on a Friday morning in early March, which is the weekend where I work. We got a text from our company leadership that we would all be working from home starting the following week. My first feeling was one of relief. Going to the office had been feeling increasingly treacherous with each passing day. My next thought was my team. How would I keep my team on track and engaged? How would we continue the culture we had built around deep sarcasm and affable comradery?
I spent the weekend poring over think pieces and listicles on the subject, looking for the intersection between buzzwords and reality. I thought about what parts of our team cadences and workflows could be easily translated to online and which were going to be more complicated. I want to share here what worked for me, an Ops manager with 3 direct reports, and a sister dev team of 2.
Our work focuses sit in the middle of Operations and R&D. We support a set of transactions that are manually reviewed each day, as well as design and define the system our dev team builds to automatically score our users and their activity.
Implement a Daily
The first step to aligning ourselves was to implement a Daily. Developers have used this tool in person and online for a while, but our team had never needed something so structured. We sat together, assigned shifts and tasks in our weekly and that was enough. The goal of the Daily is to align on what we are working on throughout the day, set expectations around availability and let others know if we are working on something that might overlap or block anything else. The secondary goal of the daily is to check in, see each other and say hello.
The operational portion of our role has semi-fixed hours, so it was an easy decision to mimic these hours as a team. These are not a “punch in punch out serious” hours, but it keeps us online for a majority of the same time for ongoing support throughout the day.
Slack is our main communication portal for small interactions. We made a private slack channel so we can keep our irreverent banter where it’s understood. We also made a point at checking in during key intervals throughout the day; when we come online for the day, when we are going offline for any longer period and a goodbye when we go offline for the evening. As a company we use emojis to display our general availability:
🗓 in a meeting
🍽 on a break
The importance of 1 on 1
Now for a deep dark confession… (mysterious music plays in the background)
When we worked in the office I had fixed bi-weeklys with each team member. I had a very bad track record about keeping these meetings not because I don’t think these meetings are important or not worth my time, but between our weekly team meetings, sitting in close proximity, and multiple lunches a week, other urgent meetings always seemed to get scheduled over these one on one’s. In the remote working environment, these meetings have become critical. We no longer have informal moments throughout the day; these meetings are my time to check in, not only on any ongoing tasks, but about the entire situation we suddenly find ourselves in. I want to make sure my team has all the tools they need to do their job, even if it's as simple as making sure their keyboard and mouse from the office are working.
Chat based communications has a time and place
One thing I also learned is that chat based communication isn’t always ideal, especially for nuanced questions. When some questions pop up in my notifications like “Hey, what do you think about this?” followed by a link, I send a video call link rather than get confused in a back and forth. Because my team’s work is so detail oriented, a 5 minute screen share can solve an issue faster and better than a text based exchange that we are both half present for. It won’t feel natural at first but a short video call better replaces shorter in-person exchanges than a chat.
Keep memes going
Our interpersonal relationships aside from our work personas is supported by all of these changes, but team culture is definitely strained during this period. To further compensate we keep the memes going in our Whatsapp group and are planning a game night next week to connect away from work, or at least in a different tab.
The Recruiting Process
Aside from shifting my existing team online, I had been in the middle of recruiting a much needed senior role to join us when we were sent home to work remotely. Since the whole situation was indefinite, it was ultimately decided that I needed to continue recruiting in this new reality.
If you are in the position of recruiting during this period, there is currently a unique phenomenon of applicants who, in regular circumstances, might not be available and are now looking for work, as some companies have had to make difficult decisions in the face of deep economic uncertainty.
When considering applicants in this period or if you are hiring for a remote team in general, some of the characteristics you prioritize might need to be recalibrated.
Minimize “unknowns” for the candidate
Before an interview, it’s important to reduce as many unknowns for the candidate as you can, since we remove a lot of context that naturally occurs with an in person meeting. I send candidates an email ahead of our virtual meeting, explaining the technology we will use for the meeting, specifying that it will be video based and a general outline of the meeting so they know what to expect. I always want a candidate to be in a position to feel comfortable and perform at their best.
Understanding a candidate’s skills
My goals are to understand if a candidate has previous remote experience and if they have qualities that are better suited for such an environment; good time management, accountability, self-starter etc, since these are skills that I value even for an in-office employee. I try to include questions that specifically address these qualities:
- What motivates you at work?
- Tell me about a project you designed and executed that challenged you
- Tell me about a risk you took and failed. What did you learn?
- How do you balance between troubleshooting independently and escalating issues?
- How do you use different communication tools in different situations?
Orientation towards communication skills is also something to carefully evaluate when hiring someone you will manage remotely, temporarily or on an ongoing basis . Not only the candidate’s, but mine with the candidates. Do we understand each other beyond the words and between the lines?
At the end of a meeting I outline next steps of the recruitment process with the candidate in great detail. I do this version of this for an in person meeting as well but in a remote recruiting experience I put an emphasis on demystifying the process and expectations.
Onboarding and training a new employee
This section is more hypothetical at the time of publication, but if I manage to find a candidate that matches what we are looking for in terms of both experience and culture the next big obstacle that awaits me in this process is the onboarding and training of a new employee.
It’s important to understand what your new employee will need to in terms of permissions and logins and to have as much as possible prepared before they join. As their manager, you are their gateway to the entire company and system especially in a remote working environment. A new joiner in this environment will have less resources or understanding about who to approach for what, so it’s imperative to be prepared with the resources they will need, and have all the information and are prepared for what they will need to handle themselves.
The first day at Melio is an occasion, a candidate is asked to arrive at a specific time so we can arrange their desk with their computer and welcome gifts, and set up their favorite song to play as they enter. Our HR team has been incredible about making sure candidates get everything they need to start and are introduced to the entire company, but as their manager it is still my responsibility to make sure they feel welcome to the team and have access to whatever they need. There is a comprehensive employee handbook that introduces the whole gang and our professional structure and common internal language and acronyms and of course an invite to our weekly yoga session, held on Zoom for now.
Once they are online and have had an intro meeting with the team, I need to make sure they have introduction meetings with key people they will need to work alongside. This is something I prefer to let the new employee decide if I should be a part of, or coordinate at all. If someone feels comfortable to approach on their own that’s great but it’s also understandable they would want a guide.
When it comes to learning our system and work, it’s critical to find the balance between structured sessions and independent work. Because we are a team that is responsible for a wide range of tasks and knowledge we don't want to overwhelm someone, nor do we have the resources for someone to spend an entire day walking them through different work elements. As a new employee learns more about the system they will be able to explore more on their own, but as our team is involved with highly sensitive decision making I need to set clear expectations that it will be a while before they are able to work independently, and that’s not a reflection on them but rather the complexity of our system. Shadowing Is a significant part of the learning process for our work flows, both initially and as part of ongoing development, we will have to get comfortable with extended screen share sessions and talking through our work.
Open communication with the new employee will guide a lot of the learning process, since this is new territory for both sides. I want to accommodate them as much as possible while not hindering our team’s efficiencies and development.
Thanks for reading and I hope these strategies are helpful during this unique time.