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On November 8, 2018, project management software Basecamp went down for almost five hours—the company’s largest outage in a decade. But instead of losing their heads, co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson saw it as a “stress test” of the very thing they promote in their book, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, and had been practicing all along: calm work.
In the Rework podcast episode that details the ordeal, the Basecamp team describes feeling proud that they were able to resolve the outage with grace, organization, and calm. No one even had to put in extra hours that day.
That’s because, when you do calm team management right, the way you run your team stays the same whether your organization is in crisis-mode or not.
Eschewing the Silicon Valley ideals of hustle, high pressure, and growth at any cost, Basecamp adopts an attitude of growing steadily, staying small, and maintaining composure. And it seems to be working: Basecamp has 3.3 million user accounts and has been profitable every year since its inception, without any outside funding.
With the COVID-19 crisis forcing many to work from home amid the pressures of an economic recession and the fear of falling ill—your team needs calm more than ever. And it starts with you.
If you think workplace stress has nothing to do with you as a manager, consider that in a Korn Ferry survey, 35% of employees cited their boss as their number one stressor in the office. Yikes.
So how can you be a source of calm for a team in crisis? Below, we’ll analyze how Basecamp and other companies practice calm team management to help their employees feel and perform their best.
Harvard researcher Amy Edmondson coined the term “team psychological safety,” which she defined as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
As part of Project Aristotle, Google researchers set out to find what makes a team effective, and they discovered that psychological safety is the most important key dynamic. According to their research, people on teams with higher psychological safety brought in more revenue and were less likely to leave the company.
So how can you cultivate psychological safety in your workplace? Based on its research, Google suggests the following:
If your team is afraid of being punished or belittled, they’re unlikely to try new things or speak up when they notice something’s amiss. That means they’re less likely to discover innovative ideas or help you solve problems.
The key to calm team management is creating a safe space for your team to take risks, innovate, and even fail. A workplace that cultivates psychological safety ensures that team members can bounce back more quickly when things don’t go as planned.
Whether it's Hangouts or Slack, we love our chat apps. They provide a sense of immediacy—but that’s a double-edged sword. How many times has a colleague sent you an instant message, interrupting you mid-task and causing you to forget what you were doing?
Science backs up the idea that we shouldn’t allow our work to be constantly interrupted by messages, if we want to achieve our goals.
Let's dig into some of the science:
Naturally, this type of work fragmentation (especially when working on complex projects) has been found to result in a low level of accomplishment.
It’s easy to see how that 'quick' question in Slack can derail any worker’s productivity (Let's be honest: we’ve all heard “it will only take 30-seconds I promise!” only to find ourselves 20-minutes later struggling to get focused again.)
'Always-on' communicating doesn’t only hurt your team’s productivity levels, it’s also harming your team’s stress levels.
This happens when you ask your team to achieve big goals that require focused work and creativity, but you have an always 'available' policy that means everyone is constantly interrupted or distracted. That means you're setting the bar impossibly high — most humans are just not wired to work this way.
Outcomes become even worse if you continue to work this way during times of high external stress, like the COVID-19 crisis. Adding more pressure to your team’s already high level of stress is a quick recipe for burnout.
There’s a better, calmer way of communicating: asynchronous. Instead of the deluge of chat notifications and the pressure of needing to reply ASAP, you reply when you have time.
Doist, a fully remote software company, uses asynchronous communication by default. As CEO Amir Salihefendic explained in his keynote at the 2018 Running Remote conference, real-time messages and the ensuing pressure to respond instantly just weren’t working for his company. After becoming frustrated with chat apps, they built their own app, Twist, to promote calm communication.
The research is clear: asynchronous communication is the way to go if you want to create a productive, low-stress environment for your team.
Just like chat apps, meetings aren’t bad in and of themselves; they just need to be used wisely and at the right time. Interrupting your team’s work to drag them into an unnecessary meeting will leave them feeling haggard and could make your company lose money.
According to Doodle’s State of Meetings Report, the U.S. loses an estimated $399 billion a year to poorly organized meetings.
To create a calm work environment, before calling a meeting, ask yourself the following:
Your team will feel less harrowed and more productive when they’re not constantly interrupted to attend a meeting they didn’t really need to be at.
At Basecamp, status meetings are forbidden as they are a waste of time and usually disruptive (especially when you have a remote team working in different timezones because what is a good time for a chat for one person might be extremely disruptive for another who is 'head down' in a complex project). Plus, it's easy to forget something a team member mentioned in a call.
For better outcomes, status updates can be done through your project management tool of choice; whether that's Basecamp, Trello, Asana, or even a dedicated Slack channel, that way it's easy to search for a question or comment that needs to be revisited later.
Note: if you have team members who are highly motivated for ‘group environments’ (you can find out by taking the F4S assessment), those team members might need additional face-time to stay motivated while working remotely.
If that’s the case, it’s a good idea to schedule optional virtual team building activities for these people to attend when they need a dose of human contact! But be sure to keep them non-mandatory, otherwise they'll become just another catalyst for work fragmentation and stress.
Boundaries are good, especially in times of turmoil. They reduce anxiety by helping everyone know what to expect and what is expected of them. It also helps you achieve that coveted work-life balance.
To help its employees stay well-rested and lead a fulfilling personal life, Basecamp sticks to a 40-hour workweek (32 hours in the summer). Software company Wildbit also enforces a 40-hour workweek and only hires remote workers who have a dedicated workspace.
A chaotic workplace demands hustle from its workers, causing work to bleed over into personal life, causing them to forfeit much needed time to spend with their families, friends or just relaxing —that’s just stressful, unsustainable and will likely result in high employee turnover.
If you want to practice calm team management, establish clear boundaries between work and personal life so your employees don’t burn out.
When it comes to managing your team, do you lead by example, or is it “do as I say not as I do?” If you want to practice calm team management, opt for the former.
For instance, Wildbit co-founder Natalie Nagele and her husband and co-founder Chris make sure they follow their company’s 40-hour workweek rule so their team doesn’t feel pressured to work longer.
“I think that’s really important because even though we’re a close team, seeing Chris and me go home helps people feel like, ‘yeah, we can go home too,’” Nagele told the Groove blog.
This is especially true during times of crisis when your team will look to management more than ever for cues on how to respond. Keep in mind, however, that how you communicate (verbally and non-verbally) matters, as not everyone processes information the same.
According to F4S’s 20 years of research on team motivations, people differ in how they show and read emotions in two ways.
Some are affective communicators who pay particular attention to tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions to figure out what you mean. They’re probably the ones who will notice that even though you say that work-life balance is important, your regular after-work-hours emails say otherwise.
Others are neutral communicators who place a lot of weight on your words themselves, and are less likely to read between-the-lines. Don’t expect them to pick up on your behaviors, such as never responding to emails once you’re off the clock, to infer that you don’t want them doing extra work at home. For neutral communicators, it’s better to say or write out your policy on work and personal boundaries.
Calm team management requires accommodating the communication styles of everyone on your team to clearly convey expectations. Also, helping your team to understand everyone’s preferred style of communication can go a long way in terms of diffusing potential team conflict.
Deadlines are a great tool for communicating expectations. They let your team know when they need to complete something so they’re not constantly wondering where the finish line is. But, as Fried and Hansson describe in their book, deadlines do so much more than that: They also improve your product.
How? At Basecamp, once a project scope and deadline are set, the scope cannot get bigger. It can, however, get smaller if that’s what is needed to meet the deadline. That way, no one ever stresses about missing a due date. And, the authors argue, shrinking the scope helps them focus on the core of what matters in a product, rather than getting bogged down in unnecessary features.
Basecamp is onto something here. In a study published in Psychological Science, researchers Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch found that deadlines, especially externally imposed ones, improve task performance.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law, however, suggests there is a point of diminishing returns: A deadline that’s too harsh will cause so much stress that your performance will decrease. (This is probably what Basecamp would consider to be a “dreadline.”)
As a leader or manager, striking a balance is critical. You want to ensure the project gets completed on time and within scope, without causing undue stress to meet an arbitrary deadline.
Again, it’s helpful to understand each team member’s motivation style. Are they more excited by goals or do they get fired up by challenges and avoiding problems?
The F4S assessment can shed light on this, but keep in mind: during very stressful times, it’s better to stick to motivating your team through goals (rather than consequences), because they’ll already be dealing with too much stress outside of the workplace and adding to that can have negative consequences for motivation, productivity and health.
One company that espouses radical transparency is SEO software provider Moz, co-founded by Rand Fishkin. Managers often feel like they must hide negative things to protect their team, but concealing problems creates more stress.
In his book Lost and Founder, Fishkin explains why he is such a supporter of transparency: "You may think you're keeping them safe by keeping them in the dark, but some distorted version of the truth always leaks. Misinformation stokes fear and resentment in your team."
Fishkin learned this the hard way after a round of layoffs that he failed to prepare his team for; it came as a surprise to most.
“Of all the missteps and poor decisions,” writes Fishkin, “the one I regret most is the lack of transparency our leadership team, myself among them, showed in the months leading up to that event."
Though it may seem counterintuitive, if you want to bring calm to your team, consider bringing problems to the light. Instead of hiding issues from your employees, invite them to work with you to come up with a solution. That way, they won’t constantly wonder what you’re keeping from them, and you’ll show that you trust them enough to be upfront with them.
Ken Weary, Hotjar’s VP of Operations, thinks a key part of their success is making everyone 100% remote. He says that if you have some people working remotely and some people in the same office each day, it creates two different company cultures and the remote workers will tend to be at a disadvantage.
But that doesn’t mean you should forgo all face-to-face contact. Hotjar only hires people who are willing to travel 3-4 times a year for company meetups. These meetups don’t take away from personal vacation time (which is so valued at Hotjar that each team member gets a €2,000/year personal holiday budget!), and are an essential component of their team building strategy that keeps their remote team feeling tight-knit and closely bonded.
When things get chaotic and you’re not sure what to do, revisiting your values will always guide you home.
When email marketing company ConvertKit announced it was changing its name to Seva, the news was met with backlash. The main criticism? The word “seva” is sacred to Sikhs, and many followers of that religion felt that using the word to forward a business was wrong and hurtful.
Instead of lashing out at the naysayers, ConvertKit scheduled calls to listen to people who felt a deep connection to seva as a spiritual practice. In the end, the company decided not to move forward with the name change.
Why? Ultimately, it came down to what ConvertKit professes on its mission and values page: “Our unfair advantage is that we care more.” And as a company that cares more, it couldn’t move forward in good conscience.
In an open letter that is still public on the ConvertKit blog (yay for transparency!), founder Nathan Barry apologized and wrote, “If we really believe in our mission to help creators from all backgrounds and cultures earn a living, there is only one way to move forward–as ConvertKit.”
When crisis strikes and tensions are running high, that is not the time to decide what your values are. If your company hasn’t yet gotten together as a team to define your core values and mission, do so now. You’ll be grateful for it later.
Tolerance (the ability to co-exist with people who have different ideas, expectations and rules than your own) is one of the 48 work motivations we measure in the F4S assessment. In our research we've found that a medium-to-high motivation level for tolerance is important for leaders, particularly if you are building a highly diverse team (which you should).
This article explores the benefits of a team with high tolerance, but some of the key points are:
Tolerance is a key component of calm team management, since having a 'my way or the highway' attitude adds stress and crushes creativity. If your regular management style doesn't typically involve much tolerance, simply drawing awareness to this can go a long way in changing that. It is even more critical during times of crises, so logging into your F4S results to see how you stack up for tolerance is definitely a good idea.
From Basecamp to Wildbit to ConvertKit, there are plenty of calm companies to look up to. By following their best strategies, you too can cultivate a company culture that can withstand even the toughest of times.
But remember: These calm team management practices are not just for when your company is in crisis. They’re for everyday use. Keep at them, and they’ll become habitual. Stress will lower, and trust will increase.
So when your organization inevitably encounters a problem, large or small, your team will be able to tackle the challenge at hand while keeping a level head and high morale.