Whenever someone new joins the People Team at The Athletic, whether they report to me directly or to someone else, I always take the time to lay out the same set of expectations and ground rules:
In addition to these baseline expectations, I ensure that my entire team understands exactly what is expected of them each quarter by setting clear goals (we use OKR’s to measure our progress.) We print our goals and stick them on the wall for the entire team (and company) to see. If a member of my team isn’t sure about their priorities, I tell them to check the wall. If it’s up there, it’s a priority. If it’s not up there, it’s a luxury to focus on once our priorities are met.
This is how we’ve operated every single day at The Athletic for almost two years, and then the pandemic hit. Like so many other managers, I worried how I was going to manage my team from my living room couch. I wondered if productivity would plummet and if I’d even be able to notice. As it turned out, my team maintained their focus and completed the majority of our goals for the quarter, even in the middle of a crisis. We also rolled out our OKR’s for Q2, but instead of posting them on a wall, we created a shared post in Slack and Google Docs.
The point is, I always assumed the office environment, our 9 to 5 structure, and my literal presence played a major role in creating an effective team. In truth, the fundamental components that allow us to work well together came home with us. Everyone continued to understand how to behave as team members, and we all marched in the same direction thanks to our clear and ever-present quarterly goals.
But like so many other teams in companies everywhere, we were all pretending that nothing about our work lives had changed. We became more productive and less distracted as a team, yet we still behaved as if we were working a 9 to 5 job. My employees have accomplished everything I expected from them, yet they still acted as if they needed to put in the “face time” by having the little green dot next to their name in Slack (myself included.)
This gave me the opportunity to run an experiment with my team. I let them know that the “old ways” aren’t serving us right now. To put it bluntly, we can all stop pretending. I have put in place a brief window of core hours where we are all expected to be present and responsive. This is the ideal time to hold team meetings and stand-ups. If you need to reach out to someone on the team, this is the best time to do it. We also won’t hold any People Team meetings after 3:00pm.
What do I expect in return? I expect my HR business partners to deliver the same (or better) quality of service to the staff we support. I expect our work quality to be the same (or better) that our staff has come to expect from our team. Basically, I expect everyone to keep doing what they’ve always been doing. We follow the ground rules and work towards our OKR’s for the quarter. If someone outside of our team needs something, we will make ourselves available. If we prefer to work on projects at night, that’s fine. If adhering to a 9 to 5 structure keeps us sane, that’s fine too.
We have our core hours when we need to truly engage. We have our goals. The rest is just noise.
Will we “return to normal” once everything opens back up or is this change permanent? We’ll see. We may end up seeing a dip in productivity once we all return to the workplace. I imagine my team and I will be excited to get back into the office, but elements of our experiment will survive. For now, we’re monitoring our new approach closely. At least we can stop pretending it’s business as usual for the next few weeks.
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