By: Andreea Mitran, Drew Schantz, Jill Thompson, Kelly Freiheit, and Megan Campion on November 17th, 2020
Working on Working: How to Make Deliberate Decisions that Respond to the Needs of Your Team
The Education Elements team, like the rest of the world, has been adapting to life-during-COVID-19, striving to serve our partners and our mission with a set of unplanned-for constraints. In short, we have had to walk the walk – living by our own New School Rules and practicing our best New Team Habits as we have tried to find ways to connect as a team and with our partners through times that, on a good day, could be described as turbulent. We’ve experimented with how to best operate in a virtual world, and want to share with you five lessons that we’ve learned in adapting to life during COVID-19.
1. You have to determine the true north
It is important to determine your true north as a district because it will provide you with your purpose and allow you to determine strategy. Having a true north also allows you to align your decisions because you can use it as a tool to determine if you are moving in the right direction. For example, at Education Elements our true north is, “Schools Grow When People Grow.” When we make a decision, it should always align with our true north. If it doesn’t, then we need to reevaluate the decision.
At Education Elements we had to acknowledge the brutal truth of our calendars during this pandemic as they were looking very different, causing many of us to feel more tired and drained. We knew as a company we needed to figure out why. We took a look at our calendars before COVID-19 and the data showed that we traveled a lot, but when we were on site with districts, we were focused primarily on our work there. We also had downtime with colleagues during lunches and dinners. When we looked at our calendars during COVID-19, we noticed calendars were full of back-to-back meetings with different clients from different states in addition to internal meetings. Seeing this was eye-opening, as we could now start to pinpoint why we were so tired but working approximately the same amount of hours.
At Education Elements we had to acknowledge the brutal truth of our calendars during this pandemic as they were looking very different, causing many of us to feel more tired and drained.
We knew we needed to make the implicit explicit in order to start to plan for change. The first thing our company did was share out what we knew implicitly, but needed to be heard explicitly, which was that we were in charge of our calendars. For us, that meant we needed to add in breaks, lunches, and thinking time blocks between clients on our own calendar. Explicitly stating this norm helped us make the plan for change by taking back control of our time.
Beginning of COVID-19
2. Set the stakes and express gratitude
Like just about everything in 2020, our organization has had to come up with creative solutions that do not harm our true north. With experts anticipating we are in this current reality for the long haul, our organization has adopted changes to our weekly routines to better meet the current needs of our employees. Starting in July 2020, our team started to implement “Zoom holidays” twice a month to mitigate Zoom fatigue. You might be asking the question, “What does a Zoom holiday look like, exactly?” It’s a commitment as a team at Education Elements to avoid scheduling any meetings involving Zoom. We implemented this creative solution to provide more space for employees to find time for their passion projects as well as think time. Overall, these were the results one month after implementation.
These holidays have allowed our team to experiment with other meeting structures. One team started to implement a meeting that starts with solo think time prior to coming together. The meeting calendar is held for the same amount of time, but the first 30 minutes is completing the agenda asks prior to convening as a group for the last 30 minutes. We were inspired by this article shared in early August.
Our annual Education Elements Summit was canceled in May, which caused our organization to think about how we create more authentic experiences for district leaders. Over the years, a team of individuals at Education Elements has been passionate about doing races together as a way to bond and build habits. This is how the Distance Learning Road Race or #DLRoadRace came together. It’s a virtual event to bring together friends and families across the Education Elements community to join our team as we continued to promote mental and physical wellness, model best practices in distance learning, and give back to our community. This challenge allowed all participants the chance to remind themselves to seek time outside each day and build community virtually through the weekly challenges posted in the Facebook group.
3. Manage expectations
When conflicting information seems to be bombarding us from multiple angles on a constant basis, it’s hard to keep track of what’s true, what’s not, and how to process incoming information in general. Processing new information is sometimes like drinking out of a firehose, so as leaders, managing expectations for what information to prioritize among your team is a critical step to avoid certain pitfalls like the spread of misinformation.
As members of a team, we are both providers and receivers of information. As providers, our M.O. is to figure out the best way to engage receivers, while as receivers, we need to pay attention to the information according to its purpose, ask for more information, and seek clarity as needed. Think of the game “telephone.” When you can only hear a (potentially distorted) message once and perhaps misinterpret that information, the perpetuation of misinformation could result down the line.
At Education Elements, we recognized early on that we needed to rethink some of our existing structures to adapt to a new way of working. For example, balancing internal meetings and touchpoints with our district partners in addition to actually getting work done was a tension raised by several members of our team. While that challenge had several moving parts, what we could control was the flow of information happening within our organization, so we piloted an “internal meeting day” every Wednesday. This involved switching (and oftentimes shortening) our weekly status meeting and many team meetings to a common block of time mid-week. A positive side effect of this switch was giving team members the autonomy to prioritize the meetings that they would attend on a given Wednesday to make sure they were contributing and gaining the most value possible. To do this, team leads were charged with maximizing intentionality and clarifying the purpose of meetings so team members could make the right decisions.
On the other hand, a challenge that resulted from this switch meant that not every person from a team was guaranteed to be at every team meeting. Since we have been prioritizing the use of video content as a company, we thought it would be wise to put that skillset to use internally as well. Instead of having to attend meetings, many teams opt for asynchronous check-ins accompanied by a video to share information in a clear, concise, and many times, more compelling way. An added benefit to these videos is creating documentation for future learning as new members join the team. They can comb through past videos to gain an understanding of what the priorities of a certain team are, as well as get a feel for team dynamics and personalities before hopping into a meeting themselves.
4. Address the obvious problem
We joke that our animals are living their best lives during quarantine since our team has been grounded with no travel since mid-March. However, the number of Zoom meetings our team was starting to stack up was becoming unmanageable. The term “Zoom fatigue” started to become our reality by the end of the week – sometimes we didn't even realize it was Friday. Our team is continuously working on how we shift to smaller meetings, provide breaks in-between conversations with internal teammates, and share content.
One of our latest successes was experimenting with hosting a mini-conference, consisting of a series of nine-minute videos. It exposed district and school leaders to practitioners for a series of short learning experiences and small group discussions. They explored strategies to successfully implement high quality, equitable distance and flexible learning in remote, hybrid, and in-person settings. Overwhelmingly, this approach of sharing content made it manageable for our internal team and allowed participants a chance to review these short learning experiences on their own time.
Like many other organizations, we are constantly finding ways to build community across our teammates because a lot of that used to happen on the road with each other. With teammates spread across the nation, we keep community-building top of mind by hosting optional activities such as poker and blind wine tasting, and celebrating big events in our organization such as virtual baby and wedding showers. It’s brought a whole new level of fun to our days!
We’ve also been keeping track of the pulse of our organization’s culture through surveys. Through this process, we learned that asking the right question to get the right information is invaluable. Asking the question, “How are you feeling coming out of this week?” just wasn’t enough. Our People Operations team needed to understand why. These shifts in data collection have allowed us to inform our strategy as an organization as we think about the wellbeing of our employees.
5. Promise a singular focus
As we mentioned above, clarifying the purpose of our meetings was a critical step to make sure team members understand what will be accomplished in a given period of time and to determine what role they will play in that process. Promising a singular focus and paring down meeting objectives is a great way to achieve that clarity and avoid meetings with a muddy purpose. For example, a team might shorten their weekly check-ins and cover one particular element of a project during each meeting rather than trying to cover it all at once. This allows for more processing time for complex projects and frees up time for team members to actually get work done, versus just talking about getting work done.
Beyond meetings, promising a singular focus as a company has been important during the past several months. That started by getting a crystal clear understanding of what our district partners need and how we can best provide value to them. While sometimes we like to think so, we can’t be good at everything, so this process of asking questions and deepening our understanding of top-of-mind needs allowed us to focus on where we need to develop capacity and where we can jump in right away based on the skills and talents that already exist on our teams.
We’re not sure what the months ahead will look like, but we think it’s going to be much of the same in terms of work – including many more virtual meetings. How might you “work on working” and change your team’s practices to avoid burnout? You might consider trying a Zoom Holiday, or norming the practice of blocking off “think time.” You might consider other safe enough to try ideas with your team that we listed above. Whichever you try, ensure you make a communication & reflection plan to keep everyone on the same page and monitor effects. And don’t forget to let us know how it goes - tweet us @EdElements or comment below!