John Mac Pherson, Managing Director and SQL DBA at Shifttech part of Rank Group Plc, says that while the global pandemic has been tough from a business perspective, it has helped him and his team realise that interacting with each other as human beings is the key to winning during this difficult time. He shares how engaging with each other on a more personal level has helped them connect and maintain momentum.
Like many companies operating during the current crisis, Shifttech, as part of the Rank Group’s digital division, has had to think smartly about where it focuses its spending. While working this out has of course been a priority, John says that what stands out for him is how the company has also taken the initiative to put its staff first.
“As a business, there’s a lot of pressure to keep the lights on and the revenue coming in – we recognise that as a short-term goal to achieve. As a long-term goal, however, we want to make sure that the people doing the work are okay – that they’re healthy and coping.”
As someone who oversees quite a large tech team, John has started doing the following things to help his team navigate the ‘new normal’ in as positive a way as possible:
- Setting up check-ins as a space to talk openly
- Using Slack to streamline communication for better visibility
- Actively prioritising mental well-being at a company level
Here’s what these look like in more detail.
Setting up check-ins as a space to talk openly
Before the team went remote, they checked in with each other regularly through daily standups and weekly sprint reviews. However, without that direct ‘facetime’, John was concerned that his team would start feeling disconnected and not sharing as openly online as they did in real life.
To help this, he’s set up one-on-one chats with everyone in the team to provide that space for each team member to be open about any worries they have: “I admit that I’m not perfect at making sure this happens to the minute every week,” John says, “but I’m trying to make them a standing thing. I want my team to know that I care about how they’re doing.”
He keeps these check-ins as informal as possible, so that the team doesn’t feel like they’re under a magnifying glass. “I know some people on the team enjoy face-to-face conversations, so I’ll send them a calendar invite with a video link,” John explains. “Others prefer talking over Slack, so I’ll shoot them a quick ‘How are you doing?’ DM – I don’t want it to feel pressured in any way.”
He’s found that many people struggle to open up about problems that they’re facing in a work environment, because doing so feels ‘unprofessional’. To help get around this, John focuses his check-ins on the person: He asks how their family is doing and how they’re adapting to working at home, how their kids are doing, and whether they are keeping up with learning online.
This makes it easier to break the ice and open the conversation up should there be any problems the person wants to raise.
“It’s easy to talk about work stuff – maybe your code isn’t running, or there’s a delay that you’re struggling with – but I really believe that you bring your full self to work. So, if something isn’t right in your personal life, it’s going to affect how you perform every day. With so much going on, people are bound to be struggling, so I want to make it as easy as possible for them to let me know so I can help,” John says.
The team has also organised a weekly ‘team social chat’ so that they have a chance to check in with each other and discuss things that aren’t work-related. “No topic is off limits,” John says, “and the conversation often goes on for an hour and a half plus.” While this might seem like a big chunk out of the day, for John, actively building in those breaks is important for keeping his team motivated.
Using Slack to streamline communication for better visibility
Another way the team is staying connected is by improving how they share information through specific Slack channels.
These channels have always been accessible by the broader team, but until everyone went remote, people didn’t prioritise visibility the way they’re doing now.
“This was something I noticed the team taking initiative to improve on,” John says, and by better organising their communication, he’s seen his team get a lot closer as a group. “Now everyone is involved – everyone can see everything and that really helps when you’re trying to navigate this new thing and you don’t have people around you to turn to,” John explains.
Because he’s part of a broader management team, having this type of surface area also makes it easier to relay information to other leads about what’s going on in his team: “I have a lot of things to keep track of at the moment, so the way the team is interacting with each other on the forum is really helpful, because I can see where everyone’s at and know what issues need to be addressed with other managers.”
Beyond making workflows smoother, John’s favourite thing about the team using Slack in this way is the sense of community it has brought: The increased communication has led to them getting to know each other better and having more fun. For example, one of John’s team members came up with the idea to organise a Pictionary challenge on Fridays during lunch using MS Teams, so they could connect and have some fun. “It’s awesome,” says John. “It’s great to see everyone enjoying themselves and just taking a break.”
Actively prioritising mental well-being at a company level
As a company operating in many different countries, Shifttech, as part of the broader Rank Group, has had a few staff members directly affected by COVID-19. “We have teams in London, South Africa, Mexico and Mauritius that we have to check in with. We’ve had people get really sick,” John says, “and of course, they’ve had to deal with all the emotion that comes with that, amongst other things.”
John wants his team to be able to cope with the situation as best they can. He acknowledges how scary it can be to hear of a colleague who has contracted the disease, and how that anxiety can ripple through teams.
When Rank Group arranged a hotline through Be Supported, which offers online health and well-being guidance, advice on professional and personal matters like work, legal and financial concerns, and counselling for emotional and psychological support, John strongly encouraged his team to make use of it if they needed. Although it’s based in the UK, it’s free for international team members to access 24/7 through the ‘call me back’ service, and open to family members too.
“The best thing about this service though – for me at least – is the compassion that went into setting it up. When the Group HR notified everyone that it was up and running, they signed off their email with, ‘Finally, don’t forget to check in with each other because some of us are alone and a simple, ‘Are you okay?” could mean so much.’” John shares.
On a similar note, in the newsletters that the company sends out every month, there’s a section dedicated to updating everyone on what the different teams are working on and acknowledging people for their contributions. “I like this because recognition goes a long way in boosting morale, which is something I think we all need during this period!” John says.
In last month’s newsletter, South Africa made the front page and covered what charities team members were donating their petrol money to, how they’re helping underserved community outreach groups and fostering shelter animals, amongst other things. “Efforts like this that highlight the humans that make up our company really stand out for me,” John shares. “They set the tone for how I want to lead my team, both during this crisis and going forward.”