3 Tips for Leading Your Team Back to the Office
Leaders need to guide this transition with safety and transparency.
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Last February was a busy time for my company. We had just signed leases to expand into larger offices in two locations, we were on track to double our headcount and the team was getting ready to launch our first commercial satellite.
But like millions of other global businesses, we were given an "unknown unknown" in March.
All over the world, the pandemic has delayed product launches, shut down offices, disrupted supply chains and dried up venture capital investments. In business school, you learn about Porter's Five Forces or how Starbucks entered the Chinese market, but no one teaches you what to do when a global pandemic upends all of your plans.
Due to my company's work with customers in the defense and intelligence industry, we qualified as an essential business, so we had the challenge of safely returning to the office before many other companies began to consider it. My team learned a few important lessons along the way, which can be applicable to other entrepreneurs as they navigate their own return to in-person work.
Build a culture of trust ahead of any crisis
Entrepreneurs need to develop a trusting relationship with their team before — rather than during — a crisis. This is the only way they can arrive at unique solutions and get buy-in. However, trust is not something you can earn in a single day, so you should start building it before you even begin discussing your return plan.
Your entire company should know safety is top of mind and that you are proactively thinking about COVID-19 instead of waiting to see other companies' policies. Make sure that your intention, as well as your strategy and execution, is communicated clearly and fully understood. Transparency and communication are crucial elements in a culture of trust.
But don't get lost in the pandemic either. Trust during a pandemic is about much more than returning to the office. Even while you're working remotely, continue to focus on communication and team-building activities that allow your team members to get to know their leaders and colleagues. On top of bringing the team together and fostering camaraderie, this will help you develop more trusting relationships with your entire team so that you can work on the hard stuff when needed.
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Always put safety first
During a pandemic, prioritizing team member safety means putting business second. We experienced this firsthand when San Francisco, where one of our offices is located, was the first city in the nation to issue a shelter-in-place order. We didn't know how long the order would last or that other cities around the country would soon follow suit. Because of that, we considered moving our manufacturing operations to our second office location in Colorado in mid-March to allow us to continue operating our business. However, we realized that any business continuity had to prioritize our team's safety, and making a move on such short notice did not put our team first.
There is no room for misalignment in public health. Even the smallest mistake can have catastrophic consequences. It's essential for you to be as detailed as possible when creating a plan for returning to the office. For my team, developing a phased approach was the best solution. If your team does the same thing, be sure to set clear metrics, criteria and a detailed action plan for each phase. It might also help decide which team members most urgently need to be in the office first. For us, that meant prioritizing hardware engineers who needed to physically be in the office to work and could not remain productive working remotely.
As you're rolling out the plan, make sure you're implementing additional precautions to keep teams safe when they're in the office. These precautions will look different at every company, but could include restricting travel, requiring appropriate PPE, increasing or decreasing in-office cleaning, establishing social distancing guidelines or offering on-site COVID-19 testing.
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Consider all alternatives before cutting costs
There are only two ways for a pre-revenue company to extend its runway: cut spending or raise money. The venture capital industry was hit hard by COVID-19, making it difficult for entrepreneurs to raise funds. As a result, many startups had to cut costs where possible, and in many cases, conduct layoffs.
Laying people off is never easy, but during a global pandemic, it feels even more brutal. Sometimes, however, it's unavoidable. Every company is different, but my advice is to focus on other measures to minimize layoffs whenever possible. Implementing a temporary pay cut across the board or pausing bonuses and new hires can significantly reduce or delay costs. Talk to your board and the management team, too. You might find, like I did with my team, that many people are more than willing to take a pay cut if it means allowing colleagues to retain their jobs during the uncertain time.
There are also alternatives to consider. For example, don't overlook the possibility of giving everyone options that are close or equivalent to their change in salary or create a company-wide bonus pool that will get doled out after the economy recovers.
There's no rulebook for leadership during a pandemic, and as entrepreneurs we have little guidance on how to keep our teams safe when returning them to the office. Relying on safety, transparency and trust as your guiding principles will help lead your team in the right direction. Ultimately, navigating a safe return to the office during a pandemic is a crisis moment that will determine whether your leadership team's credibility and trust are earned or challenged — so it's critical to get it right.
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