Practical Advice for Leading Your Team through Today’s Turbulent Times

This article is part of a series from the Los Angeles chapter of All Raise providing guidance and advice to startup founders. All Raise’s mission is to accelerate the success of female founders and funders to build a more prosperous, equitable future.

Photo by Jacob Lund from Noun Project

The stressors of a raging pandemic, political unrest, and reckonings with systemic racism and inequality have pummeled us all in waves over the past year. It is during these turbulent times when people need strong, thoughtful and supportive leadership the most, whether that’s at the top of government or at the helm of a company. And that is exactly what women CEO’s at some of the best LA tech companies are delivering by offering flexible schedules, covering the costs of childcare and home offices, and supporting employee’s mental and physical well being.

Here are 5 things every CEO should be doing to support their team right now:

Keep Your Team Connected

During times of unrest and uncertainty, it is more important than ever for people on your team to feel connected to each other and the company’s mission and vision. The easiest way to accomplish this is to bring your team together with regularly scheduled virtual meetings.

“Since the very beginning, it was important to me to build a company culture rooted in connection and community” — says Ariel Kaye, Founder and CEO of Parachute — “With the start of working remote in March, we implemented a Monday morning check-in via Zoom for an informal team touchbase. It’s nice to see everyone’s faces, share organization updates, and open up the floor to employees to share what’s on their mind whether it be about business, current events or a new favorite recipe. I look forward to this time together each week.”

This can also be a great time to start new company traditions. When Tradesy had to shut down their office at the beginning of the pandemic, they created a Tradesy Virtual World — “a set of events, clubs, and support groups that keep us social and connected,” says CEO and Founder Tracy DiNunzio. A new tradition we’ve implemented at my company Noun Project is to host virtual get-to-know-you storytelling sessions with 4–5 teammates when new employees join the team — it’s been a fun (and enlightening!) way to break up the monotony of the day and get to know our teammates on a deeper level.

Outside of virtual meetings and hangouts, teams can also connect around a greater purpose, something that Shiza Shahid, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Our Place, has brought to her entrepreneurial journey from co-founding the Malala Fund. “We try to learn and grow together through conscious activities including volunteering to feed voters at the polls and hearing from speakers on food justice and anti-racism,” says Shiza. Her team recently exemplified their commitment to using the Our Place platform for social action by taking over billboards in crucial swing states to drive voter turn-out, showing America’s family portrait alongside some brilliant marketing skills.

Image courtesy of Our Place

Increase the Frequency of Communication

When the world is turned upside down, it is paramount for leadership to communicate openly, frequently, and honestly. People want to know what’s going on, and as a leader this is your chance to build long-lasting trust with your team. In the early days of the pandemic, one of the most beneficial things we did at Noun Project was to host weekly State of the Union meetings with our team to share what we knew about the state of the economy, our company’s financial health, and our commitment to shouldering any financial losses together as a team instead of conducting layoffs.

You should also encourage your team to stay in frequent communication with each other and make sure that text-based communication like Slack and email is supplemented with regular virtual connections. The inability to see each other in person can create a disconnect between just about anyone, and we all know how easily text can be misinterpreted. Now, layer on top of that the external pressures and stressors everyone is experiencing simultaneously, and the smallest of misinterpretations can result in explosive feelings. Seeing each other, even virtually through a video call, provides much needed space for shared stories and human connections, those gems that often get lost in asynchronous communication.

Don’t forget that what actually bonds people together is not their day-to-day tasks, but the social interactions that are so critical to building a cohesive team. Those little interactions that happen effortlessly around the lunch table or while grabbing coffee require their own virtual space in the work-from-home era. You can encourage your team to share and connect by creating Slack channels like #watercooler (for interesting Reddit finds and weekend stories), #babywranglers (share all the baby pics & parentings tips you want with other parents), and of course #cuteanimals (no explanation needed.)

While providing your team with a way to connect is critical to building your internal community, keep in mind that sometimes the news can get overwhelming, especially while trying to actually focus on work. That’s why at Noun Project, we created separate Slack channels for #politics, #COVID, and #antiracism. Posting to these channels rather than #general has enabled our team to take a break from the news when they need it, while ensuring they have a community to connect with when they want to engage.

Offer Flexible Schedules and PTO

As a mom of two toddler boys, I’m keenly aware of the additional challenges the pandemic has placed on parents. Our family has gone from having amazing childcare coverage, to zero childcare, to various combinations of childcare that change week-to-week depending on the levels of the coronavirus in Los Angeles. No parent should ever have to choose between the health and safety of their family and their job security, which is why we’ve let our employees know that the company will do whatever it takes to support them with a flexible work schedule, including additional paid time off.

At Katerina Schneider’s health company Ritual, employees get every first Friday of the month off. Parents also receive a $200 monthly stipend to help cover costs like childcare and access to educational resources. Shilla Kim-Parker, CEO and Co-Founder of Thrilling, has also adopted unlimited paid time off for her team: “If our folks need to take some time to take care of family, or medical issues, or just need a mental break, we trust and support them in making those decisions, and do not want them to feel any financial pressure to keep working. We are very supportive of the day to day needs of those taking care of family at home, or kids, or pets — many on our team will block out time on their daily calendars to walk the dog, or make dinner for their kids.” Shilla says the end result is that the pandemic has actually been the most productive and creative period in Thrilling’s history, where “our employees feel genuinely respected, trusted, and supported.”

Photo by Jacob Lund from Noun Project

Support Mental and Physical Well-Being

From the parents who’ve shouldered the extra responsibilities of childcare, to people whose lives have been uprooted by the inability to connect with friends and loved ones, every single person on your team is currently worried about and directly affected by at least one (if not all) of the current calamities. Most people on your team can use some time off; however, the inability to travel as well as concerns around job security have led to employees not taking PTO days. If you are in the position to do so, try setting a precedent by reminding people of the importance of self-care.

At Noun Project, we mandated the entire team to take Mental Health Days during the unrest and protests that followed the murder of George Floyd and while watching the storming of the U.S. Capitol, to provide the much-needed mental space to process current events and reflect/heal. At Tradesy, Tracy encouraged her team to have open dialogues in their all-hands meetings about how stress, anxiety, and isolation is affecting us all, and supported her employees by revisiting their anti-racism efforts, hosting ongoing Town Halls about race, and changing their pay policies to be more equitable. “We’ve always had a flexible PTO policy, but we made sure to actively encourage people to take time as-needed,” says Tracy.

Since working from home is the new normal (a trend that’s predicted to stay), most companies are helping their employees cover the cost of setting up a home office with an average stipend of $300 to $500 per employee. You can also use what you already have in the office: “Tradesy went fully remote after the pandemic hit, and we’ve done a lot to keep people feeling connected and comfortable. We delivered our office furniture to employees’ homes for free, and gave each team member a monthly stipend to help cover costs like Internet and office supplies,” says Tracy.

Supporting employees’ well being doesn’t need to stop there. “I’m a big believer in self-care so we offer optional yoga or pilates classes online every Wednesday morning at Parachute. This is another opportunity to build connections while we are apart,” says Ariel.

Acknowledge the Challenges

Finally, a critical step in supporting your team (and yourself) is to recognize that it is impossible for people to be focused, motivated, creative, and/or innovative 100% of the time, especially during periods of uncertainty. “It’s important to me that we have a happy, healthy and motivated team, but 2020 definitely brought up some challenges. We tackled these by listening, by communicating that it was OK to not feel OK, and by providing time-off when needed,” says Christine Outram, CEO of Everydae. While supporting your team by keeping them connected, increasing communication, offering flexible schedules, and encouraging mental and physical well-being is important, sometimes the quickest way to bounce back to productivity is to acknowledge the challenges we face, and give ourselves permission to not be at our best all the time.

As a CEO, you can’t control the external stressors put on your team by the pandemic, political unrest, systemic racism and inequality. What you can control, however, is the support and leadership you offer through the turbulence. Anyone can lead during the good times — what shows your true leadership skills are the actions you take to guide your people and company through adversity. Today’s challenges won’t last forever, but how you handled yourself in these trying moments will be forever remembered by those around you.

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Sofya Polyakov

CEO & Co-Founder of Noun Project, COO & Co-Founder of Lingo, Founder of Kindred Collective. @spolyakov