Home Articles Trust, compassion, clear communication: effective leadership in the time of COVID-19

Trust, compassion, clear communication: effective leadership in the time of COVID-19


By Yaniv Bernstein

Organisations are systems of interconnected individuals

I come from a software engineering background, and that gives me a certain view of the world. Building good software over the long term requires you to have an understanding of what systems are and how they work.

Nearly everything an engineer does comes down to managing the complexity of a system, making sure different parts communicate properly with each other, that they have a shared understanding of what’s going on.

As I moved more and more into people leadership, that perspective carried over with me. An organisation is a system too, and as it gets larger and more interconnected, many of the same challenges arise as for software.

How do you make sure that different parts of the organisation can operate autonomously, yet in concert? How do you make sure all the parts of the system have the same understanding of goals, or how to interact with each other, or even what words mean?

Organisations are systems that are composed of human beings, of course, and that makes them more complicated and more fascinating than any piece of software I can imagine.

Taking an engineering approach to organisations doesn’t mean ignoring the personal, human element. On the contrary, a well-designed organisation is one that accommodates the humanity—both collective and individual—of the people that make it up.

Animate your organisation with trust, humanity, and delegation

In fact, like any analogy, the areas where it no longer applies are as instructive as those where it does. People are capable of so much more than machines, and also have a range of needs – trust, loyalty, identity, compassion, love – that are completely absent from the process of building software.

It is impossible to effectively lead an organisation without caring about and being curious about people. The more you expect from your teams, the less it is possible to separate the personal and the professional. I expect my teams to be creative, determined, autonomous, ethical, accountable. Those expectations can never be met by treating the people in them like machines.

I care about each person as an individual, and am curious about them as a human being. I also take great pride in being authentic. It’s pretty easy, actually, once you let go of the need to project a certain image.

Managing appearances is exhausting, so I much prefer to be honest about who I am as well as what’s happening within the organisation. Who I am at work is the same as who I am outside of work, and the relationships I build with my team are real human relationships.

People are capable of so much. Many minds can achieve much more than any single mind. The most important part of building a scalable organisation is to have mutual understanding as people. Mutual understanding leads to trust. Trust leads to empowerment. Empowerment is a necessary condition for creativity, determination, accountability. High levels of trust are essential to effective delegation.

I’ve always referred to delegation as the management superpower. This fits in well with the engineering approach to leading an organisation. Well-designed organisations become efficient and scalable by virtue of having well-defined interfaces and minimal bottlenecks.

They lend themselves naturally to high-quality delegation, where the function of a leader is to make sure that everybody on their team has the context and direction to know what they should be doing. The more a leader trusts their team and creates a culture of ownership and accountability, the better everybody can get their work done.

Kindness and compassion as tools for high performance

Leading a team in the time of COVID-19 brings a number of challenges. First of all, the external environment is changing at an extraordinary rate. It turns out that the fixed points we all thought we could rely on were more fragile than expected, and we are living through this amazing time of uncertainty and acceleration and deceleration all at once.

As a leader, you have to make a lot of decisions very quickly and without the guidance of those old truths. You also have to take your team on a journey of understanding, and keep a high level of cohesion through all this. And of course, you’re all probably working remotely, in many cases for the first time.

There has certainly been a silver lining in terms of how old resistances have been swept away. It turns out that employees can largely be trusted to be productive when working from home, for example. Tools available on the cloud make it much easier to recreate the work environment from home. We have made a decade’s worth of progress in mere weeks.

At the same time, the human factor becomes even more important. People are struggling in all sorts of different ways. Some of them are facing financial pressures, others worry about their elderly parents, or have to deal with school-aged children being kept at home.

Many suffer from social isolation. And that’s before we even get to the anxiety and actual risk around the virus itself. Managing the mental health of your team is now a core responsibility.

As an example, we have scheduled a “Recharge Day” (a company-wide day off) to allow people to decompress and relax. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also smart business. I expect that net productivity will increase, not decrease, as a result of allowing people the time to tend to themselves and their families

As a leader it is absolutely essential to be compassionate and accommodating during this time. Ask people how they are (and listen to the response), encourage others to do the same. Be proactive in offering flexibility, in offering support. Be kind. This is not a normal time, and pretending that it is will not help anybody. Your team will get through this together, or not at all.

COVID-19 intensifies everything. When I look at the effects of the pandemic on the workplace, the value of a strong organisation stands out more than ever. Strong organisations (well designed, good communications and sense of mission, high trust, deep sense of humanity) will thrive and survive, while poorly-organised, low-trust teams will struggle more than ever.

Here are 4 takeaways for other leaders navigating the pandemic

1. Have a plan (and make sure people know what it is).

The key role of leadership is to set context and direction. We have used the planning “W framework” to work with our Airtasker teammates to develop a shared understanding of what is important to us as a company. This enables quick and coherent decision making across the company, which becomes even more critical through extreme change.

2. Build a culture of trust.

Trusting our teams by default and giving them ownership has been the foundation of how we do things at Airtasker. This culture of trust has allowed us to overcome the challenges of remote work to collaboratively and transparently build a revised strategy.

3. Remote work, works.

The sheer variety of cloud-based tools is breathtaking, and creating the toolchain for remote work is easier and more affordable than ever. Understand your needs, and select the right cloud tools. If you can imagine a tool, it probably exists so don’t settle for something that doesn’t support your workflows.

4. Be Kind.

Dealing with COVID-19 is a marathon, not a sprint and so it is important both at a human level and a business level that our people are able to go the distance. I believe that looking after each other and being kind is the best way to ensure our teams are effective not just this week, but for the difficult months to come.

Yaniv Bernstein is COO at Airtasker – a local services marketplace that connects people who need work done with people who want to work. Prior to his appointment as COO, Yaniv was VP Engineering at Airtasker for two years. Before this he held senior engineering roles during his 10 year stint at Google across Search, YouTube, and Google Maps. Yaniv holds a PhD in Computer Science from RMIT University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science from the University of Melbourne.

When he wants to seem interesting, Yaniv pretends that his hobbies include skiing, hiking, cooking, and travelling the world. In reality he passes the time by watching Netflix, engaging in grammatical pedantry (Oxford comma coming right up!), and making dad jokes with his five-year-old daughter.

Founded in Sydney in 2012, Airtasker’s mission is to empower people to realise the full value of their skills and has established fast growing communities in Australia, UK and Ireland. Airtasker has grown to support more than 3.6 million members across Australia, with 30,000 monthly active Taskers and over $130 million in annualised gross marketplace volume.

Yaniv Bernstein Airtasker