What It’s Like to Lead a 100-Person Engineering Team During the Pandemic

May 19, 2020

Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” begins, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Adapting Dickens’ line to leading an engineering team during the global pandemic, I’d say “We’re doing very well, we’re barely hanging in there.”

As Head of Engineering at TradeIX, I lead a team of 100 engineers, combining in-house engineers with engineers from Lohika. We’re living in a Dickensian world in which good is offset by bad and vice versa. 

On the one hand, many of our clients have been hit hard by the 100% work-from-home situation. Their business processes, Business Continuity Plans and even the work-from-home infrastructure wasn’t designed for all their employees to access their VPN at the same time, so they struggled for a while to keep moving.

On the other hand, as we provide a solution that digitizes our clients’ business processes, the current environment highlights the value that we provide to them and has massively increased interest in our solutions.

Everyone’s situation is unique

I have team members who are adapting well to the new world of work, while others struggle and are stressed. Some team members have a dedicated office space with access to a large monitor, printer and other peripherals. Their primary challenge is communicating via video calls all day instead of face-to-face. 

On the flip side, one team member works from a laptop that’s propped atop his baby son’s changing station. Another is working from a small bedroom in a shared apartment with no desk at all. Some team members live in rural areas where the broadband is spotty. Some younger team members are living in near total isolation, which makes for a very lonely experience.

The headlines and the uncertainty make it a stressful time for everyone. So I’m most concerned about the emotional well-being of my team. I have no doubt we’ll deliver on our projects and on our deadlines — in fact, having deadlines is probably a good thing, since it can take our minds off everything else going on right now.

Yet amidst all this stress and anxiety, I’ve witnessed some heartwarming stories.

Spending cherished time with family members

Vatsal, an engineer on my team, returned home to visit family in India in January. When it was time to return to Ireland, there was talk that some European countries might bar re-entry from foreign countries. Concerned about his ability to re-enter, Vatsal asked if he could remain in India and work remotely.

“Of course,” I said. 

Vatsal has told me he never thought he’d be able to spend this much time with family again. He’s as productive workwise as ever, while cherishing the quality time with family, except for sharing a bunk bed again with his sister! It’s also pretty warm in India this time of year, so the one thing Vatsal wishes he could have is a cold Irish rain shower.

Brendan, another team member, is a citizen of the United States. He flew home to live and work from his parents’ house and has really enjoyed spending time with them again.

Had he remained in Dublin, he’d have been forced to work from his small apartment and been restricted from leaving it for long. His situation in the U.S. affords him far more space and the comfort of being with family members. And again, there’s no loss in productivity.

Another colleague has young children that needed to be home-schooled. She has temporarily moved to her mother’s home in France, where the children have plenty of room to run around and are fast becoming native French speakers.

Her mother was a schoolteacher and is providing the lessons to her grandkids so they are really getting to bond with her in ways that simply wouldn’t have happened on short family holidays. On the other hand, Lorine’s husband has had to remain in Dublin so they haven’t seen each other in three months.

As I said, the best of times, the worst of times.

How I’ve adapted my leadership style

The isolation, uncertainty and anxiety has put a strain on all of us and I think that the lack of face-to-face contact in the office is having an effect on us. Some of the stress is conscious, while some of it can be unconscious and bubble under the surface.

I am occasionally finding myself being more impatient or short-tempered than is usual. On a video call I might be inclined to snap at someone when I ordinarily would not. I’m really watching out for this. 

I may need to print a big sign saying “Patience” or “No Rants!” and put it above my monitor. Teams look to their leaders for guidance and often model what they see from them. I need to be hypersensitive to how my actions are being perceived at this time.

To lighten the mood and inject a bit of lightness into proceedings, I recently showed my team the back of my head during a meeting. I had let my 12-year-old son cut my hair with an electric razor and ended up with an uneven buzz cut with a couple of steps across the back of my head.

Here’s a picture of the result:

My “shelter at home” hair cut 🙂

Fortunately, the front looks fine and my son promises to be more careful next time! The team got a good laugh at my expense and it’s great for us to remember we’re all human.

The lack of “body language cues” has been a challenge for me. In an office setting, I could often tell a team members’ mood simply by the way they walked across the floor. If someone looked stressed, I’d remember that when talking to them later in the day. 

These signals are gone now. Zoom and Teams meetings (with video) are great, but they don’t allow you to pick up these important cues. In response, I’ve increased the frequency of 1:1 meetings with team members.

I keep them short and I try to steer the conversation away from work. I want to focus instead on how each team member is feeling. There’s plenty of work-based meetings to get stuff done.

Short list of tips for leaders

Here’s a short list of tips for people leading teams right now:

  • Watch out for more subtle cues in people’s moods and step in to keep them buoyed up and positive.
  • Make time for personal stuff at the start and end of meetings to keep us human, but be very focused in between. I’ve consciously separated the metrics reporting and the detail around the metrics into two distinct parts of our team meetings to ensure we stay on track.
  • Make sure that the quiet folks in the team have their voice. It’s more pronounced in the remote setting, so consciously make this happen.
  • Increase your individual 1:1 meetings, but make them about the person and not the work.
  • Avoid micromanaging: it’s even more about trust when you’re remote.
  • Don’t forget about yourself! Keep a careful watch on your own mindset and mood and what you’re projecting. You cast a long shadow.
  • Be as flexible as you can with everyone. It’s really tough out there.

About the Author

Shane O’Flynn

Shane O’Flynn is Head of Engineering at TradeIX. An inspirational software engineering leader who relishes driving innovation and spearheading organizational change, Shane is passionate about motivating and empowering individuals and teams to achieve their best.

Shane has extensive product and program management experience that allows him to thrive in both multinational and high-growth start-up environments.