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Ask the questions, listen to the answers, and normalize checking in on your team's wellbeing – because your people are important.

As a COO, I think I’m only doing a good job if the company is succeeding and the team is happy in their work. The first is pretty easy to assess by looking at your growth and the balance sheet, the second takes more work to examine but is, in a way, equally straightforward to monitor. It may seem like an oversimplification, but the most effective way of measuring your team’s health and happiness is to ask them, listen to their answer, and be open to that answer being no.

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We all love data, right? At The Scale Factory, we use automation to ask for regular feedback on how everyone is feeling. We have an anonymous Slack poll that simply asks how your week is going (from 1 to 5 – where 1 is terrible and 5 is awesome) that pops up every Wednesday morning. Once you know the base level, you can see any peaks and troughs in overall happiness. On weeks where more people are having a bad week than a good one, we pay more attention to what’s going on around us and make sure it’s not part of a bigger trend. Tracking this very straightforward metric over time has given us a lot of insight into what we need to watch out for and what we should be doing more of.

For more detailed data on team health and happiness, we use a Slack-integrated tool which asks a range of calibrated questions around the wellbeing of the team. The team can choose whether or not to be anonymous and can give feedback on how supported they feel, how valued they feel, their team relationships, and their overall wellbeing. Over time you can track changes and react accordingly. As well as quantifying how folks are doing, we ask questions like ‘What ensures that you don’t become overwhelmed at work?', ‘What could we do to make you feel more valued?’ and ‘What are the causes of stress at work?’ Then we take the answers away and discuss them in a regular team wellbeing meeting. If there are patterns that emerge, we examine them and look for solutions.

Ask often

Asking about the wellbeing of your team in person should be routine and comfortable. A good first step is to ask how people are as part of your everyday work. It might feel awkward at first, but it will quickly become a habit. A couple of years ago, we introduced the idea of starting all internal meetings with a check-in protocol. We use a version of ‘mad, sad, glad’ that we have adapted to suit ourselves. There are other models that may suit you better, but the key thing is having a ritual where at the start of a meeting everyone can give the group an idea of how they are feeling at that moment. By starting meetings this way, we build a space where it’s easy to let everyone know you had a terrible night’s sleep, or that you’re energized but keen to get out of the meeting and back to what you were doing before. It’s helpful for folks to hear that their manager is tired and distracted because their neighbors were drilling at 6am, not because you’ve done something wrong. By knowing how everyone in the room is feeling, you can calibrate to each other and it normalizes talking about what impacts your mental state both in and outside of work.

Listen to the answer

None of this works if you’re not prepared to hear that your team might be unhappy or struggling. Most days all of us will ask someone ‘How are you doing?’ without actually expecting a real answer to that question. I think the same is true of a lot of workplaces. We’re looking for validation that we’re doing everything right so that we get a gold star as a ‘good’ company and can carry on as we were. Don’t ask the question if you are not willing to listen to the answer and use that information to help make things better if you can.

If a chunk of your team is reporting that they feel stressed, overworked, or undervalued, listen to that. Don’t get defensive or take it as an attack on your decisions or your management. Examine the reasons why that might be and do what you can to mitigate it.

As a company grows, it gets harder for senior managers to hold a close relationship with everyone on the team. This is where a solid 1:1 structure is really important. By making sure everyone is getting consistent 1:1s, that cover both their work and their wellbeing, it means that everyone has a close relationship where they can raise anything that is impacting their work. But you also need to make sure anything raised has a space to be escalated, and that the folks performing 1:1s feel empowered to champion their reports and feel safe to raise any issues. Invest time in listening to the folks who are listening to everyone else.

Normalize not being OK

One of the most impactful things you can do as a senior manager is to model behavior: prioritize your own wellbeing, and encourage others to do the same. I’m always happy blocking time out during the workday in my diary for therapy and admitting if I’m having a bad day. The days where a leader needed to be an inscrutable automaton are thankfully gone. A team is just a group of humans and sometimes humans are not OK. By being open about how you are doing, you can build a culture where other people feel safe enough to also talk about their own struggles.

Making help accessible is also important here. We have an EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) and health insurance with access to talking therapies available to everyone. Even just making it clear that you consider the mental health of your team as much of a priority as physical health is a good step in the right direction.

In uncertain times, step it up

When COVID-19 hit in March this year, we scheduled a few deeper check-in sessions on Zoom where the team could talk about how the pandemic was impacting them and their lives. We held space for each other to talk about the challenges of those who were suddenly homeschooling, or co-working with their partners, or if they were worried about their parents. As ever, it was optional to talk, but it was inherently useful to create a place where we could all get an understanding of the extra pressures different team members were facing. This kind of session could be equally relevant under any uncertainty or change.

It’s also important to be aware that world events and politics are likely to have an impact on some of your team more than others, and it’s important to be willing to listen and learn from those with a different lived experience. Anyone who thinks you can keep politics out of the workplace is coming from a place of extreme privilege. Be willing to hear difficult truths, check your own privilege, and don’t assume you know what other folks need from you.

Make team health a priority

This stuff is important. Your people are important. Keep asking the questions, keep listening to the answers, and make the health and wellbeing of your team a priority.

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The health of your business depends on the health of your engineering team
Episode 02 The health of your business depends on the health of your engineering team