14 May

Leading a team through mandatory work from home: the Facebook experience

In this exclusive guest post, the first in a new series from Facebook’s head of brands and marketing legal, Mike Yaghmai explains how the brand team responded to the ‘new normal’ of remote working and offers leadership tips for those managing teams though the current coronavirus climate.

Guest analysis

In early February, I was starting to question whether it was wise for the team I manage, Facebook’s Brands & Marketing Legal team (BAM), to participate in this year’s annual INTA conference. This is a very important conference for our team, both for connecting with our global counsel and also for team members’ professional development. But at the same time, the news out of the region was not getting any better. So I started to have meetings with teammates to communicate my concerns. I also started to ask peers at other tech companies what they were thinking. By mid-February, I had made the decision that we would not be going to Singapore. It felt like the right decision, and INTA itself eventually postponed the event; we had to decide earlier as continuing to plan for the conference impacted our budget and bandwidth to support other company initiatives. Socializing the decision with the team helped get everyone on board and aligned, and that helped us move forward quickly. What began to unfold in rapid succession afterwards was less anticipated.

As a company, Facebook did an amazing job of partnering and communicating with government agencies and health organizations from the outset. The leadership was very transparent with employees and regularly communicated about how things were progressing. It was becoming clear to me that we’d likely be instructed to work remotely for a period of time, so I started having conversations with BAM managers about our preparedness and what a transition would look like. Of course, as a leader, you can’t plan for all scenarios, especially something like a global pandemic, but you can consider what your team should do in the event of disruptions and how you’d continue to handle company business.

Considering the complexity of our programme and the size and value of our portfolio, we long ago invested in a solid business continuity plan and tools to ensure our program was manageable remotely. Upon taking over the team, I also pushed to stand up an Operations & Analytics team with a deep understanding of trademark law to oversee and stress test our tools and programs to make sure we were running a tight ship. This team proved pivotal to our ability to quickly and successfully transition to remote working. Over time, we had also fostered and built strong relationships with our coordinating outside trademark counsel. As a team, we invest heavily on maintaining solid working relationships with our go-to firms and those teams played an important role in helping us seamlessly transition our work to remote locations. And so we transitioned to work from home...

As the team lead, I was determined to help the team not lose its flow. Fortunately our company already had implemented videoconferencing (VC) technologies long ago and for us it was second nature to participate in remote video calls. I was hoping to leverage that and do my best to help the team feel connected. Over the first few weeks, I can best describe our experience as moving along this spectrum:

  1. Excitement to work from home: no commute to worry about; discovering a new situation; can get away with working in home clothes and possibly not showering; parents excited to spend more intermittent time with kids during the day.
  2. Shock: reality begins to set in; people started feeling more lonely and isolated; it was no longer exciting not to get dressed for work; parents felt overwhelmed by their kids’ constant demands and unable to escape to work or rely on daycare.
  3. Settle in for a longer haul: people began to realize we will need to make this work for an extended period of time; at-home workspaces began to come together, and people started to embrace this new norm.
  4. Resignation: people sense long haul really means LONG haul, and they start to feel down at the prospects of how long this can really go on; more important than ever to stay engaged, stick to your routines, ask for support whenever needed and embrace others.

Out of the gate, we made a strong effort to help people take our office momentum home with them. I held a meeting with BAM managers on the very first day and a group-wide meeting in the following days encouraging everyone to not cancel meetings with peers and clients, to treat this period like business as usual.

On a one-to-one level, I tried to connect with each team member via VC, chat, or calls to make sure they were situated and feeling okay. What I began to realize quickly was that, while we had all the tools we needed to succeed, this was not business as usual and people were facing important and valid challenges as they adjusted to this new norm. Fact is that our team’s workload was steadily increasing as we were in the middle of supporting some very important business initiatives, but people were rightfully stressed about the climate and COVID-19, balancing their home/work lives which had meshed into one, and caring for children, elderly parents and relatives, while attending to urgent work needs. We had to pivot and acknowledge that team members needed flexibility and that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work.

Some team members needed the regular interaction with others and for them, having regular meetings and virtual happy hours was great. Others needed any time they could find to unwind or to deal with family matters. The right thing to do was to embrace those who needed the interaction by creating team outlets and ways to interact while, at the same time, being explicit that participation was entirely optional so that others did not feel additional strain by having to come along for the ride! Over time, we found that these two camps can coexist nicely.

Beyond that, it has all been a wild ride with day-to-day challenges that we have worked our way through, and by the looks of it, our long haul will likely see us navigating these challenges through the end of 2020 from our home offices. And so here is the advice I can pass along to other leaders who are feeling challenged by the current climate, and I’d love to hear about your experiences as well:

  • Focus on understanding what is important to your team members. Don’t assume you already know, as you likely have lots more blind spots than you realize. Ask them and be willing to listen. As the old saying goes, you have two ears and one mouth… you should spend twice as much time listening than talking. Then act on what you hear.
  • One size will not fit all. Different people have different challenges and needs. Your team member who lives alone and whose life is mainly focused on work will have different needs than the team member with three kids. That’s an extreme example – there are many more nuanced different needs and as a leader, you have to account for those.
  • Empathy, empathy, empathy. It is worth saying it three times because it's that important. If you’ve been meaning to focus on being more empathetic, now is the time. Your team will appreciate knowing that you are there for them and care about what they are going through. That can make all the difference!
  • Be honest and vulnerable. We have this false narrative in our minds that leaders must be rock solid and not show any emotions. These are hard times and it is okay to struggle and feel overpowered by everything this world is throwing at you. For me, that’s being a single dad with a sixth and ninth grader who feel stuck at home, chronic back pain from past injuries, and also caring for my father, who is in his 90s. You better believe that sometimes it feels as though I’ve reached the last straw. It’s okay to be open about these struggles and seek your team’s help. I love that I can share my vulnerabilities with my team and they embrace and support me, and I try my best to return that at their time of need. That’s what makes our team so great.
  • Reach out to your network and seek advice. Another weakness many leaders have is the inability to face the fact that they don’t have all the answers, or that someone else may be doing something better than them. One of the most valuable tools available to me at the Facebook IP department is my manager and VP, Allen Lo, and the other team leads within our department. We make it a point to discuss our successes and help share best practices. We also ask for help and guidance and that makes the group truly amazing. In times like these, it is wonderful to have allies to turn to for help and guidance, and if you're depriving yourself of that, you are losing out.

I wish you well as we continue to battle through this together, and urge you to share your thoughts and advice with the WTR community. Until next time…


Mike Yaghmai

Author | Head of Brands & Marketing Legal, Facebook

Mike Yaghmai