Scaling a business during the Covid pandemic – a dozen lessons I learned

2021 has been quite an interesting year and I have alternated between “will this year ever end?” and “Whoa – are we in December already?” . Both from a business perspective as well as from a personal perspective – I had to learn new things and act differently . I thought I will share what I learned , with the hopes that perhaps some of it will be useful to others

1. Every step-change will break things where you least expect it

I was very proud that we were able to shift thousands of people in the team to work from home last year with zero difficulties because we have a strong business continuity plan that we trained for and implemented efficiently . So I had a false sense of confidence that it will be equally smooth when adding more people to the team . I was wrong – everything from courier service to background checks to laptop availability failed to scale at a certain threshold . These are all things I took for granted all my career . Thankfully we have such a great team that they sorted it out extremely fast !

2. Over communication is mostly a bad idea

When we started remote work, the instinct was to checkin with all the teams frequently . But very soon – the teams adapted to the new norms of working , and we didn’t tweak the “checking in” frequency. It became a diminishing returns investment of effort and leaders started burning out faster with the extra time spent on an activity that could have used a different cadence . Same with mass emails , all hands calls etc . Less is definitely more !

3. But you do have to over communicate some times

What works with people who have been in the team for a long time doesn’t work for people who are new to the team . That was true in the past too – but scale puts a spotlight on it quickly ! Questions that would get asked to someone sitting next to you in office would now often need a manager to explain the answer . Mentoring younger colleagues coming from university online is not the same as mentoring an experienced hire online . We had to learn to segment and tune our approach every time we detected a pattern . Again , we also need to learn when to ease off with the new team . I do wonder if these problems will get addressed by HR Tech at some point

4. Free form feedback is way more useful in uncertain times

As an analytics guy by training, I measure everything . That didn’t change during the pandemic times either . But I did learn after a couple of quarters that standardized questions are very limited in these times to address issues and opportunities with the client or my team . Free form feedback is where the useful information was mostly available . I read every comment that my team and client make in the surveys – and we talk about addressing them in our leadership meetings . I also use sentiment and tone analysis with ML to get a gauge of the aggregate as well

5. Invest in leadership ranks ahead of scale

I am a firm believer in leaders at every level making fewer but higher impact decisions compared to their team if they have to be effective . In uncertain times , there are hundreds of more decisions to be made even if the business is steady . There are thousands of more decisions to be made if the business is growing . If you don’t have enough good leaders – you will sink faster than you can imagine . Good teams grow because of strong culture . It’s very easy for the culture to go south if scale happens in an unmanaged fashion . That’s another reason why having good leaders are vital .

6. Invest in operations

A highly efficient operations team ( finance , HR, bizOps ….) is the reason why most business leaders don’t die of panic attacks . When they are very good – leaders occasionally take it for granted that they have infinite capacity . Operations have people and processes . Both parts will stretch only to a limit and they they will break . Relook at literally everything that is needed to keep the business growing and invest in operations and redesign workflows .

7. Relook at all communication channels

I hope there is a massive series of studies done on this topic . Slack has been a life saver for me. I over estimated the effectiveness of video . And I rediscovered how effective good old phone calls are . A great example of the change in effectiveness are the quarterly all hands calls . I don’t see a tenth of interaction in those massive webex events that I get on a slack based ask me anything session with my global team .

8. Business Relationship building has evolved

A pleasant surprise for me this year was that unlike 2020 – it is now totally effective to build new business relationships online via webex and email and calls , without face to face meetings . It’s incredible how long established norms of shaking hands and breaking bread as first steps in a new relationship got replaced by talking about children and pets on webex ! No business scales without scaling relationships vertically and horizontally – so this is a very good change in my view

9. Take good care of people – that is one thing that has NOT changed

All business is ultimately about people on all sides . That’s the one constant that did not change in pandemic times . The great resignation is something we need to learn from and act on quickly . Money , flexibility , interesting work – there are lots of reasons why people quit their jobs . You can’t fight the forces of market – you have to adapt quickly and find your own equilibrium . My fundamental view has not changed in pandemic times – I think the key to attracting and retaining good people is to make sure that leaders and their teams feel comfortable in discussing everything openly and being fair to each other . If I look at where I spend most of my time – I think it’s probably 50% on helping my team , 30% with assisting my clients , and 20% on all other things taken together .

10. Increase the focus on learning

Pandemic has caused a lot of grief in the world . I lost friends and family – and I don’t deny I have an amount of fear in my mind at all times . But for business – it has largely created more opportunities . But to tackle these opportunities effectively – you have to be an aggressive learner , and encourage everyone around to do that . On the technology side – I spent my time learning more on Redhat openshift , Ansible and GCP . I also have been reading up a lot about the tech behind crypto currencies . On the non tech side – I have been reading more about WW2 and life during Great Recession

11. Take some time off – don’t make the mistake I did

I am generally good at taking some vacation every year to reset . I did not do that this year and it certainly is proving to be a bad idea . I know I am not alone – and it’s not going well for others who didn’t take the time off either . Almost everyone I know in my team and in my network who has taken the time off are more productive than I am .

12. Do something else outside work

Last year, it was mostly playing cards online daily with my friends . That has come down a lot this year . But 4 days a week, I take my puppy to training for IGP competition which we hope to start competing next year . I try hard to block that time off from all work – and it literally has been the best decision I made this year . It brings a much needed balance . I am sure that if I hadn’t decided on that – and also not taken vacations – I would have completely burnt out half way through the year . I am fascinated by the range of hobbies my friends have picked up new this year- Ironman , wood carving , singing , equestrian etc . In every case their experience mirrors mine – and their businesses have had a positive impact .


Published by Vijay Vijayasankar

Son/Husband/Dad/Dog Lover/Engineer. Follow me on twitter @vijayasankarv. These blogs are all my personal views - and not in way related to my employer or past employers

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