7 Ways to Maintain Team Culture During Stressful Times

Every support team inevitably has its moments. Whether it’s a rocky product launch, bottomless tickets, the battle to get a seat at the table, or a dramatic shift in team or company strategy, your team culture can determine how you and your crew weather the storm.

In times of stress, nurturing team culture can feel like work you don’t have time for. I’d argue that during times of stress and uncertainty, being intentional about your team culture is vital. Last summer, we learned this lesson the hard way.

In August of 2016, Moz laid off roughly 28% of their staff. This was an incredibly emotional time for the folks we lost, and for those of us who remained when the dust settled. While we’d weathered challenges as a team before, we’d never experienced anything at this scale. We struggled to maintain our sense of self as we navigated uncertainty and change and rediscovered what our team looked like after August.

Our Help Team has a culture of curiosity, innovation, and experimentation. We always stop to ask why?, we’re always excited for a new challenge, and like a tight-knit family, we always have each other’s backs. Looking back on the past several months, I’ve distilled our hard-earned learnings into seven tactics anyone can use to maintain their team culture when the going gets tough.

1. Ask yourself, ‘How am I showing up today?’

I used to teach toddler gymnastics. One day, in the span of 10 minutes, one child got bit, and another pooped his pants. It sucked. Part of me knew there was no amount of screaming on my part that was going to un-bite Kid One or magically clean up Kid Two’s mess, but every part of me wanted to yell and bolt out the door. Instead I smiled (through clenched teeth), found some help, and got to work.

That day I learned an important lesson: You control how you show up every day. The attitude you choose to bring to a messy situation will affect you and the people around you, so make it count. There’s no attitude that will magically make cleaning up poop a fun job, but it can make a world of difference in the lessons you take away from a situation.

Asking yourself how you’re showing up is fairly easy, but doing something productive with the answer can be tricky. One of the most important lessons we learned as a team in August is that it’s OK to take space to be upset. If a situation has you feeling discouraged, talk to someone you trust about it. If you’re feeling inspired, share that with your team — you might inspire them, too! Just remember it’s better to take some space to collect yourself rather than spread a toxic mindset to the folks around you.

If you bring a negative attitude to a situation, it’s likely that you’ll get nothing but negativity in return. What if you tried to see the positive instead, even if the positive is this can’t last forever?

Chances are, if you bring a positive voice to a stressful situation, it’ll be contagious.

2. Take breaks

We’ve all had those moments where we’ve stared at something for so long we convince ourselves we’ll never have a creative thought or clever response again. Those feelings are signs it’s time to take a break.

Step away from what you’re working on and grab coffee or lunch with your team. Take a walk. Find a space to go offline for awhile.

It might feel like you’re too busy swimming just to keep your head above water, but that’s usually a perception in our own heads. That lunch, coffee, or walk might inspire a creative solution you couldn’t see before. Even if that break just reminds you that there’s a life outside of the challenge you’re facing, take it. Encourage and support those around you to do the same. The work you’re doing won’t go anywhere. Promise.

3. Leave space for fun

It’s OK to acknowledge that sometimes work is hard, but it’s important to still find moments to have fun. Maybe you and your team need to work through lunch to get through a backlog of tickets. What if you moved to a conference room for a change of scenery, ordered pizza, and put on a mindless movie you’ve seen 100 times while you worked? What if you all agreed to work a little late and regardless of what you finish, end the night with a quick board game to lighten the mood? What if at the end of a hard week you brought cookies for your friends to thank them for busting their buns?

Making time for fun can save you and your team from hating everything. It can also dramatically change your answer to the question “How was your day?”

At Moz we started adding weird themes to the slide decks for our weekly team meetings. These themes range from “hardcore metal” and “bad fan art” to “unlikely friends in the animal kingdom” and “Twilight themed Valentines.” As a team, we all get our weekly dose of relevant information, and the themes never fail to crack us up. It’s a small thing, but I look forward to the surprise every single week.

4. Remember your self care

Self care, like breaks and fun, can feel like something we just don’t have time for when we’re busy, but this is when it’s most important. Self care doesn’t have to be a whole spa day or expensive vacation. It can be reading your Kindle on your commute, binge watching Netflix, a delightfully early bedtime, knitting, a long run, or dinner with people you love.

Neglecting to care for yourself is a recipe for burnout. If you aren’t taking care of you, how do you expect to support those around you?

Every Thursday, our Support and Success teams go and get sandwiches for lunch. They pick a different spot, take a walk, and make it a point to eat together. This built-in self care gives them a delightfully delicious break every week just to catch up or have a laugh.

5. Tear down and rebuild your processes

I love process when it simplifies my life. I loathe it when it gums up my workflows with unnecessary steps. Your team will change and evolve every day. Remember that what worked for you a year ago might not make any sense now. Even if a process used to be fantastic, don’t cling to it if it doesn’t work for your team anymore. Instead, acknowledge that process for how it helped your team, set it to pasture, and create a new process that works for you today.

A time of crisis can be the best time to re-create and streamline processes. Taking a little time to make a workflow more efficient now can save you some time tomorrow.

During the layoffs, our Community Team saw some major changes, so Support absorbed some of our social channel coverage to help lighten their load. The team was having a hard time juggling phones, live chat, social coverage, and tickets all at once, so we re-evaluated our process. Our customers are able to submit tickets from almost anywhere on the site, so we decided to try an experiment and cut our live chat program. The results blew us away. We hit our best median first reply time ever despite some record breaking ticket volumes and outages. Our customers are able to get answers faster, and our team is less overwhelmed. This new process might not work forever, but for now, it’s great!

6. Don’t get stuck in the weeds

I’ve had moments in my career where I’ve been so focused on the fire that’s in front of my face, I’ve completely dismissed my long-term growth and career goals. Sure, we all have moments where we need to focus on the present rather than thinking towards the future, but make sure you don’t stay so zoomed in to the problem in front of your face that you don’t give enough attention to your long-term goals.

Post-layoffs, our team members became experts at giving each other tactical, day-to-day feedback, but we stopped having meaningful check-ins around career growth and development. Once we realized it, we went into high gear to write new documentation on career growth and re-invigorate our check-ins. Now even when times are hectic, we still have ways to keep the big picture in mind.

7. Have honest conversations, even when they’re hard

I love moments when a team pulls together to overcome a challenge, but I get worried if I see my team make similar mistakes over and over again. In addition to celebrating when you’ve conquered a hurdle, talk with your team as a group. Ask yourselves questions like “How did we get into this situation?” “Given what we know now, would we handle things the same way?” “What did we do well?” “What could we have done better?” “How can we avoid these pain points down the line?”

Sometimes these conversations can be light and fun. Other times they might be a little heavy. It’s OK to acknowledge that as a group you’re going into a difficult conversation. What’s important is that you stay honest in those conversations. Tell your truths, and take the time to hear others. Apply what you’ve learned the next time things get tough. Sometimes the hardest conversations build the most trust.

Last fall I had all the teams I manage go into a conference room and do a Festivus-style “airing of grievances” about what happened in August. My managers and I just listened and took notes. Just having space to vent was incredibly healing. Eventually, the conversation turned, and folks started to acknowledge what they could do as individuals to address some of what was bothering them at Moz. We turned a corner that day, and we started healing.

Whew, let’s take a deep breath

I’m a novice gardener, and I recently started teaching myself to prune my roses. My grandma told me to focus from the center of the bush and work my way out from there. I’ve found myself thinking about team culture in the same way: It starts with you at the center, and spreads out to your team from there. Take care of yourself, and be intentional with how you treat your team. Just like me and my roses, you won’t get it right every time, and that’s OK. Keep trying. Keep talking to each other. Keep trying new things.

Last summer reminded me that it’s impossible to control most situations. All you can control is how you react, where you put your energy, and the intention you bring to your work. At the end of the day, team culture begins with you. Do your best to keep it awesome.

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