Guiding Your Startup Through COVID-19

Tips to keep your team engaged and positive in turbulent times

Real Ventures
Real Ventures


Real’s “WFH Footwear” contest. And pets. Pets always win.

The world feels as though it changed overnight and the new reality has real-life consequences for all of us. We understand that the greatest fears of many in our community revolve around the health and safety of both their teams and companies. What is key at this point is to keep a cool head and make sound decisions that will help your company stay safe and afloat — or even prosper — through this unforeseen moment.

If you haven’t already read them, there have been some great startup survival guides published in the past few days. What we’re focusing on in this post, however, is how best to help your team through this rapid change.

Take care of each other. As an early-stage startup, your team is your lifeblood. You need to do everything you can to continue to foster a positive culture and show your employees how valued they are. As this is an area where we’ve been getting a lot of requests for advice, we’ve laid out some ideas below on how to preserve your team’s culture and keep everyone feeling positive and connected while working remotely.

Make sure everyone knows the facts. COVID-19 is an unprecedented healthcare emergency and may affect your team members and their families directly. You can find comprehensive information about the symptoms and what to do if you get infected here. Social distancing is urged by the Canadian government — which means only going out for critical needs (like grocery shopping) and avoiding large gatherings. Anyone returning from abroad is asked to self-isolate for 14 days to help stop the spread.

Communicate! Now is a crucial moment to make sure that you are keeping both your teams and investors apprised of your latest decisions and thinking. Some companies will already be seeing negative effects from the rapid changes in spending and the markets, others will find that this crisis presents new opportunities. Whichever situation applies to you, we urge you to be transparent and proactive. This will help you build trust. A weekly email to investors is encouraged (see template here) — even better, make a point to schedule calls with your investors more frequently.

Maintaining a positive team culture

Step into your leadership

Strong leadership is the compass that will keep your team on course. You will inevitably have to make some tough decisions in the upcoming weeks. Delivering news in a timely, compassionate and clear manner is the only way to keep morale high and quell any fears.

The founders and executive team are role models for your employees. Work on being self-aware and recognize when you’re struggling. Take time to meditate, exercise and breathe when you feel the pressure rising. Be honest and transparent about the situation, and try to keep your fears in check. You don’t need to give your team a play-by-play of your emotional rollercoaster. Show them that you’re working to make the best decisions possible and that you likewise trust everyone else to play their part.

Clarify roles and responsibilities

At this point, you’re likely a few days into working from home. If you haven’t already, designate one or two people as the “go-to” experts who will lead efforts on communicating changes to the working environment, internal policies, and overall business preparedness. This could mean updating your WFH policies, added flexibility for parents, setting realistic “core business hours”, communication with your board, and proactively addressing customer concerns. It is a good idea to have “living” documents that are consistently updated by the same individuals.

We also suggest you keep your team up-to-date on these changes (including recent announcements in the news) via email, at least once a week. While you’re likely communicating via Slack or video chat with many of your team members, we suggest sending these new policies and major announcements via email (from the same person) so they’re easier to refer back to.

Keep your team feeling connected

Employee engagement and motivation are especially important to monitor during these challenging times. We recommend using pulse/engagement surveys (such as Officevibe, CultureAmp, 15Five) on a weekly basis to track employee engagement and address areas of concern.

If you do not have access to an engagement tool, a simple Google Form will do — some of the questions you might ask are:

  • On a scale of 1–5, how are you feeling this week?
  • Are you satisfied with the frequency of your 1:1 meetings with your leader?
  • Are you satisfied with the company’s communication tools?
  • What do you love most about WFH/ working remotely?
  • What is your biggest challenge when it comes to WFH/working remotely?
  • Any comments or feedback on the team’s approach in responding to COVID-19?

Increase the frequency of your one-on-one meetings. Leaders should be especially sensitive to individuals who are struggling with being isolated and ask how they can best support them. A great template to follow is asking three simple questions:

  1. What’s working well?
  2. What’s not working well?
  3. Are there any tools, resources or support that I can provide to help you?

Make time to have fun

Continuing to build bonds among team members can help drive employee motivation and engagement. Some ideas are participating in online games (such as online Jeopardy), organizing contests like “WFH lunch of the day” or “best WFH background”, doing your version of MTV Cribs as “home office tours”, exercising together via video (Alo Moves), and group meditation (Headspace). At Real, we strongly encourage people to share pictures of their pets (and other things)!

Today’s “Lunch of the Day” contest. Pick the winner!

Virtual meeting etiquette/management

One of the best ways to keep your team feeling connected is meeting via video. Some of these meetings can simply be check-ins — you may even want to just hang out on Zoom to keep each other company (especially for single people with no pets!). You will also need to hold various meetings via videoconference. Some of the key elements that make a virtual meeting successful are:

  • Turn your camera on for meetings with 2 or more people
  • Designate a moderator whose task is to keep the conversation flowing and draw out the opinions of all participants. This means being sensitive to people who may not always speak out.
  • Use the Magic Meeting Formula or other techniques to make sure everyone gets their turn!
  • Pause for questions (20+ seconds). Our brains need time to switch from receiving information to giving or asking for information, and a long awkward pause is a great way to get people to ask questions they were reluctant to surface.
  • End a few minutes early to give people time to get a cup of tea, freshen up or run around the house before starting on their next meeting.

Boosting your team’s productivity while working from home

Working from home can be incredibly focused and successful if your team feels equipped to make the shift. The keys to getting good work done at home (aside from a reliable internet connection!) are creating routines, identifying priorities and allocating times to let your mind wander. Here are a few tips to share with your teams:

  1. Get up and get dressed! As tempting as it may be to stay in your PJs and work from your bed, you will feel much better and more effective if you shower and get dressed in the mornings. Also, given the likelihood of video meetings, you might even want to put something presentable on ;)
  2. Designate your working area: If you don’t already have a desk or home office, choose a space that will be exclusively used for your work. If you have kids, this will probably need to involve a separate room with a door. If you can, choose a place where there is natural light, as it will lift your mood.
  3. Prioritize: To avoid all of the distractions your home has to offer, make a priority list every evening (for the following day) or morning and share it with your team. By sharing these lists in a Slack channel, it’ll keep you accountable and help you see what your colleagues are up to so you’re not doubling up on work.
  4. Take regular breaks: Everyone needs time to let their minds wander. Set times for eating and doing chores, and add in breaks for walks and exercise to keep your mind fresh. Meditating in the morning and after lunch is also a great way to recharge your attention batteries. By creating a routine that involves time away from work, you’ll be more focused during your deep work sessions and meetings.
  5. Set your work hours: Just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean you should be working all the time. Create a shutdown ritual to keep work thoughts from spilling into your evening. Turn off your notifications and give yourself space to relax. Also, leave your workstation (i.e. don’t just switch over to surfing the web!). You’ll be thankful for the separation of work from play.

Keeping your team feeling positive through this strange time is crucial to the ongoing success of your company. Remember: this will pass! We have no idea what the future holds and things will continue to evolve in ways we cannot predict. What we can control is how we work together, communicate and find solutions to the problems facing us today. The most successful businesses will come out of this with stronger cultures and more refined business models. That starts with focusing on what’s most important today.

This article was written by Lauren Jane Heller and Stephanie McGuinty, with thanks to the rest of the Real team for providing awesome and hilarious photos and helpful advice via Slack — in particular, Shudi Niu and Ricky Fefergrad for organizing the lunch contest and keeping us all laughing.

For more advice for growing teams and managing startups through turbulent times, sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Or read our recent articles below!👇👇👇



Real Ventures
Real Ventures

Canada’s leading early-stage VC firm dedicated to serving entrepreneurs and nurturing the communities in which they thrive.