Agile Leadership

Create a Joyful and Healthy Culture for a Fully Distributed Team

Interview with Scrum Alliance’s Alex Arbuckle on supporting your employees during COVID-19

Editor's note: This article is one of a series designed to be At Your Service as we all learn to connect with one another even while we're remote. Because together we are not alone.
 
We interviewed Alex Arbuckle, Product Owner for the Team Member Experience team at Scrum Alliance, to learn about how organizations can support their employees during these unique times. Alex shares her insight into how organizations can create a joyful and healthy culture for a fully distributed team. 
 




Solly: Hi! I’m Solly Poprish, I’m an Education Coordinator at Scrum Alliance. Today I’m talking with Alex Arbuckle, Product Owner of the Team Member Experience team at Scrum Alliance. 
 
Alex will be talking to us about how organizations can support their employees during these unique times. She’ll share some insight into how organizations can create a culture of engagement and connection, even remotely. 
 
Alex, thanks so much for talking with me today. Let’s jump right in!   
 
Alex, can you tell us about your role and what it looks like at an agile organization?
 
Alex: Sure! As the Product Owner for the Team Member Experience team, I set the vision for the team that drives all internal-focusing initiatives including People and Culture, HR, IT, Accounting and Facilities. In other companies, I might be considered the Director of People and Operations, but at Scrum Alliance I’m a servant leader who collaborates closely with my team to make magic happen. In traditional, hierarchical organizations, people systems are created for bosses and managers to make decisions for and about their teams.  At Scrum Alliance, our teams are much more involved in decision making. They don’t have bosses or managers. We create systems and processes that empower our people and teams to be able to make decisions on their own. In addition, we have an internal community advisory team that gives us feedback about the solutions we bring to the table and if it’s not the right solution, we pivot. 
 
S: The world has really changed at this point with COVID-19. Could you talk to us about some of your main concerns and considerations when Scrum Alliance went remote in the middle of March? 
 
A: My ultimate goal is always to provide the team members at Scrum Alliance with the tools and support that they need to be happy, healthy and taken care of while working. As COVID-19 began spreading, our decision making became a careful balance of taking the steps we needed to protect our people, while also ensuring that people remained confident in the organization and connected with one another. Before COVID-19, the entire organization worked remotely each Friday, so all of our team members have some experience working from home. However, having a fully distributed team in the middle of a global health pandemic means that we have to be more intentional about connection, communication, and the different ways that we’re supporting the diverse needs of our teammates. 
 
S: It’s definitely unique having us split up across the world. You mentioned how important connection and communication is, and I’m wondering if you can talk about the activities that you’ve been implementing during this time, and what you’re learning through them?
 
A: One of the first things we did as an organization was to institute a “Take What You Need” time off policy. This allows our folks the time and flexibility that they need to take care of themselves and their families, which is especially important during this difficult time. 
 
We also have a rotation of big and little activities that help boost morale, keep folks connected and engaged, and show support for one another. 
 
Every day, we send out a fun riddle and share uplifting and funny pictures in Slack that allow folks, if even for a second, to think about something else than the scary things happening in the world. We also do weekly Happy Hours and a Pub Quiz, yoga led by one of our employees, impromptu dance and dj sessions (kids welcome), and other virtual events that foster creativity. 
 
We’ve learned that the key to success is having a little something for everyone and making it easy to participate, especially for those working at home with kids. 
 
S: I love how the focus is on inclusivity and it sounds like there’s an activity for anybody.  So, what do you have planned for the future?
 
A: We’re actively working on a giving back opportunity where our team members can come together to support those in our various communities most impacted by COVID-19. We’ve also got a “Nailed It” baking challenge in the works and are cooking up some weekly meditation sessions as well.
 
S: With all these changes that have been happening that have lasted some time now, how do you envision them impacting the future culture of work and what happens next? 
 
A: Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of debate in organizations and in the people and culture world about remote work. Two of the biggest barriers that I’ve seen for organizations in creating space for remote work are lack of trust in employees from leadership and the emphasis and value of in-person, face to face interactions. COVID-19 has, in many ways, forced the hands of many folks who were previously hesitant to open up their cultures to remote work. Moving forward, I think this remote pivot will more normalize the practice of working remotely and will change the conversation about what connection can look like. 
 
S: With these changes that are happening, what do you see as the responsibility or role of Leadership and HR within organizations? 
 
People and culture teams and agile organizations have an incredible opportunity to show up with empathy and creativity to truly support their people and communities. 
 
We’ve already seen studies that people of color, tho se with underlying health conditions, and seniors are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Parents are faced with balancing homeschooling their children with showing up to work. Thousands are getting laid off. People are scared. Agile, people-centric organizations will be the best equipped to support their communities in this changing environment. 
 
Now is the time for people and culture teams and agile organizations to dig into their diversity, equity, and inclusion practices. Understand who your people are and what they need. 
 
Encourage your people to think outside the box. If the way you’ve always worked isn’t working anymore, innovate. 
 
Lean into your organization’s values, and make decisions that are truly aligned with who they say they are and who they want to be. The reality is that people in people and culture organizations are laying people off across the country. It’s an unfortunate hard decision that some folks are having to make. If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of laying people off, make sure that you’re doing so in a way that’s reflective of the values that you stand on.
 
S: It’s definitely a challenging time and staying human and empathetic during this, while also seeing it as an opportunity to innovate, is a wonderful mindset. Can you share any specific advice with organizations that are now supporting their employees remotely, or any tools or resources that have worked for you?
 
Get regular, actionable feedback from your people about how they’re feeling and what they need. Then, take action! There are lots of companies out there with tools specifically built for employee experience feedback.
 
Don’t be afraid to experiment with new ideas and different ways of working. Try something small, test it, iterate, and get creative. 
 
Trust your people. If you don’t trust your employees to work remotely, they probably shouldn’t be working with you at all. 
 
Reimagine employee engagement. Get creative, get funky! Find out where your people are hurting and what they need. Building community and sharing joy help improve mental health, which contributes to engagement and productivity. Crowdsource your teams for creative virtual opportunities for connection that still allow for valuable face to face interaction. At Scrum Alliance, we’re big fans of Slack and Zoom and have used them in all sorts of ways.
 
Assume best intent and hop on a call whenever possible. So much gets lost in quick messages and via text.
 
People really need to be keeping diversity and inclusion front of mind. Remember that folks have different needs and the hard things happening in the world may be impacting us in different ways. Leaders in agile organizations or other organizations around the world and people in culture teams, you can create the types of policies and practices that are going to allow everyone to feel seen and supported. 
 
S: I really loved what you just shared and I have seen face-to-face meetings be really impactful, especially in a time when we are so separated. It creates a feeling of connection. So on the flip side of that question, what can employees do to feel empowered and create more joyful workplaces for themselves? 
 
A: Take initiative. If you have an idea or see an area of improvement, come up with a plan. Find allies. Make your business case to the right stakeholders. 

Connect with your coworkers and don’t talk about work. This allows for closer connections when you do need help with a project or idea. Schedule a fun activity like game time or grab lunch over Zoom. 
 
If your employer asks for feedback, give it! If you’re not being asked for feedback, share your experiences in a respectful manner with trusted individuals throughout the organization. 
 
Create time outside of work to disconnect and do something that helps you unwind. Self care is especially important right now and if you aren’t taking care of you, chances are that you won’t be able to show up 100% at work. 
 
If you’re miserable in your current position or organization, don’t settle. Figure out what you want and work on getting there. Maybe that means getting a new certification or sprucing up your resume. As hard as things are, even in an economic downturn, there are opportunities for growth and joy. 
 
S: I love your perspective of this being an opportunity for something great and to spend time figuring out how to improve your current situation. What would you say is the main lesson you’ve learned? 
 
A: Employees want leaders that they can trust, especially when things are hard. One of the biggest takeaways that I’ve had both as a leader, and observing other leaders, and chatting with folks and employees, is don’t sugar coat things or try to pretend like everything is sunshine and rainbows when it isn’t. Show up with authenticity, empathy, and kindness. Honesty and transparency go a long way.
 
S: Alex, thank you so much for your insightful and honest responses today, and more importantly thank you for creating a culture of connection, fun, and engagement for employees at Scrum Alliance. For those that are listening, thanks so much for listening today.
 
For more resources and information visit ScrumAlliance.org.

Alex Arbuckle is a strategic and creative Human Resources leader with a passion for people. She believes in empowering people and leveraging culture for organizational success. Aside from cultivating joyful workplaces, Alex finds joy in traveling to far off places and hosting absurdly fancy dinner parties. She's probably dancing right now.

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