It's not as hard as you might think.
Disclaimer: We usually write from the “we” perspective here at the Tako Stand because our blog is a shining example of our collective experience, expertise, and wit. Breaking with tradition, I’m going to write from the “I,” but don’t worry, I’m not being sneaky--all of my views and suggestions have been reviewed and approved by Tako’s CEO.
Hey, hi, hello--Emma here, COO at Tako. 👋
I’ve worked for a lot of start-ups, meaning I’ve worked for a lot of companies whose “HR department” consisted of a dusty policy Google Doc (“last edit was 5 years ago”) and whoever was willing to onboard new employees, mediate squabbles, or dole out disciplinary action at the moment.
Sometimes, it didn’t matter. Others, it mattered a lot. One would think: we’re all adults here--we can always communicate and keep the peace and maintain our trajectory without the help of a meditating figure, right?
One would be...wrong.
It’s not necessarily that we need the workplace equivalent of a babysitter (although, some of the things I’ve seen… <shudders>); humans--particularly those in an environment where infinitely variable personalities have to collaborate in order to reach common goals--simply need structure and communication.
It’s on company leadership to bake consistent policies, procedures, and communication practices right into workplace culture. That includes things like:
- Keeping policy documents clear, up to date, and stored in a logical manner (in a place accessible to all)
- Ensuring everyone sticks to those policies
- Nominating point people for important functions, like mediation and onboarding (yes, it might be “everyone’s responsibility” but like...someone has to actually be the person)
- Making sure everyone in the company--top to bottom--knows who those point people are
- Creating an environment where employees feel safe asking questions and proposing new ways of doing things
Once leadership has created a foundational structure of consistency and open communication, it’s time to get to work on the interpersonal stuff (otherwise known as “the hard part”).
Behold! Ahead, 3 critical tips for keeping the peace in a work environment, even if you don’t have an HR department.
Embrace the Hierarchy (But Don’t Be a Dick About It)
It’s been said that hierarchies, though flawed in many ways, fulfill our deep need for order and security.
It’s very kumbaya, in theory, to adopt a more egalitarian structure, but it just doesn’t work at-scale. As a company grows, it’s important for decision-makers to be installed and for everyone to know who has the final say.
Does this mean collaboration is dead and whoever’s at the top squashes the dreams of everyone below?
Nay; this isn’t Capitol Hill.
If you’re doing hierarchy right, it simply creates a series of large, open-air channels in which team members can form new ideas and push them through for the next group to vet and ask questions, and so on, until those ideas reach the group at the “top,” which is really just another way of saying “the people who know most about the company, inside and out.”
In short, hierarchy isn’t about creating an authoritarian regime. It’s about structure. Not everyone will have all the information necessary to make decisions that impact the way the company functions. What’s more, team members will become confused and feel adrift if they don’t know who to go to with questions or obstacles.
Calling back to our human need for order, hierarchy creates consistency and predictability (which is not always a bad thing). You know who to go to for Question X and, generally, what they’re likely to say.
Hierarchy also encourages team members to own their roles. It becomes much more difficult to pass the buck on difficult (or boring) decisions when it’s clearly defined as being X Person’s role to handle them.
So long as decision-makers (at the executive and department levels, where applicable) keep egos in check, bearing in mind the success of the company and the welfare of all team members, the hierarchical structure helps establish the order and security we all need.
Team Building (Even If You Hate Team Building)
I, personally, despise classic team-building exercises. Games and happy hours with people I know only in a work context make me feel like a lab animal where the trial is forced friendship. It’s awkward.
Especially for remote teams, “team building” usually means a Google Meet happy hour at 4 p.m. on a Friday in which everyone yells excitedly over one another for an hour and I stare blankly at the new-millennium Brady Bunch layout (usually looking at myself, which I hear is totally normal) and wishing I was dead.
ALL OF THAT NEGATIVITY ASIDE (I am a very positive person, thankyouverymuch), it’s important to find ways for your team to create connections in a way that feels genuine.
We’re a pretty darn well-connected group at Tako, but we still toss around ideas for monthly team-building. It’s helpful for strengthening existing bonds, as well as bringing new employees into the fold. Team building that’s actually fun gives us the opportunity to get to know our teammates outside of a strictly work context, which makes it easier to build emotional bonds and empathy, which in turn makes conflicts at work less likely to happen in the first place (and more likely to resolve quickly and peacefully if they do).
Lately, we’ve been exploring collaborative online strategy games. Despite my general distaste for games (stop judging me, I’m fun) this idea appeals to me because it creates a situation in which Team Tako can, in a totally low-stakes way, do what we do Monday through Friday: work strategically to reach a common goal, no doubt belly laughing all along the way.
Another idea: members of our core team took this free personality test and then discussed our results during a team happy hour. That felt like a meaningful way to learn about each other because we each addressed not only the things we felt the test got right, but also where we didn’t identify with the results at all.
To sum up, team-building can be weird, and if not done well can actually leave members feeling disconnected and alienated. Poll your team and see what they’d like to do to feel better connected in the workplace. You’ll get some great ideas and your team members will feel validated and included in the process.
Work-Life Balance + General Stress Management
Part of maintaining peace in the workplace is maintaining peace within the individuals who make up the whole. It’s well-documented that overwork is horrible for people and the companies they work for. Preventing the downfall of both is a collaborative effort between company leadership and the individuals they lead.
The Company Leadership Bit
Leadership is responsible for creating a culture that emphasizes people over product. Yes, we have to meet expectations and deadlines and milestones, but those results should not come at the cost of our people’s sanity. Contrary to America’s obsession with being busy, science says employees are just plain more productive when they aren’t overworked. Some ideas for keeping your team well within the margins of an adequate workload:
- Make sure they know they’re valuable, but things won’t burn to the ground without them. This is a delicate balance, but it’s worth striking.
Story time! In November of 2020, my life had completely unraveled and I poured everything I had into my job, convincing myself that I just. had. to. keep. working, lest the whole of Tako burn to the ground in my absence. (It’s not an ego thing--just a casual, albeit potentially lethal, obsession with achievement.)
Now-CEO Grace (being my team lead) noted my overwhelm and assured me that, although my contributions were valuable, my mental health was of greater concern. She basically mandated time off...which I accepted, because I am the picture of pliancy. (Ahem.)
- Back it up with policy. If you can afford it, offer paid mental health days, particularly for full-time employees. Once a month, twice a month--whatever makes sense for your business. Putting your money where your mouth is punctuates the value you say you place on your people.
- Have a backup plan. Make sure your procedures are well-documented so that you’re not up Shit Creek without a paddle if someone needs to duck out for a day--or five.
This is actually an arrangement Grace has been relentlessly working toward for years. She calls it the Mack Truck Theory, and it’s the idea that if someone on the team were to be hit by a Mack truck, everyone else should be able to continue on as normal. (Outside of, you know, the concern that their colleague was just...hit by a truck.) It means that no one person is the “keeper of the keys”; no one holds all the information.
Not only is this excellent for efficiency, but it enables a goal that I suspect is even more important to Grace: being able to take vacations. 😎
Taking a vacation (and actually disconnecting from the workplace while you’re gone) can be difficult -- or downright impossible -- if you’re worried that your absence is significantly blocking someone, that people won’t know what to do if XYZ situation comes up, and so on. The Mack Truck Theory focuses on information dissemination and responsibility delegation (and overall ~ organization ~) that allows team members to fully disconnect without worry when they want to.
- Make it crystal clear that you are there to help team members organize their priorities. When I come into work and the My Tasks pane in Asana is about as long as the list of people Gordon Ramsay hates, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Grace is always open to reviewing my tasks and helping me see what’s truly on fire and what can wait. I inevitably feel more ready to take on my day afterward.
- Be cool. If something goes wrong, have confidence that it can be fixed. Reacting to every bump in the road with a massive meltdown makes it very difficult to keep the peace. A note from our CEO on keeping cool:
A colleague several jobs ago always reminded me when something went sideways, "If nobody died, it can be fixed." At the time it seemed a bit macabre since we worked in elder care, but it's true and has brought me a lot of peace over the years when faced with mistakes (mine or others').
Frankly, it's been harder to hold on to that motto as I've moved higher and higher up the chain (and thus become responsible for many more things and people, and deal with bigger mistakes that come with heftier consequences) but I have it written on a Post-It note stuck on my computer to remind me. In the grand scheme of things -- as in life as a whole, NOT just work -- as long as nobody died, we can fix it somehow.
The Individual Bit
It’s not all on our leaders to make sure we are well-balanced and fulfilled at work.
- Drive it home that work is not your everything. If you love your job (hi, it me)--or if your position is particularly demanding--it can be easy to let it edge out other things in your life. As with anything else, work-obsession can create a one-dimensional mind, forsaking productivity and innovation in life. Yikes.
- Accept that you are disposable. No matter how integral, how genius, how boundlessly creative you are--you can be replaced. That’s not to diminish your value, but to remind you that the world will continue to turn, even if you take a little break when you need it.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There have been times when I refuse to delegate simply because I’m a control freak who wants to make sure it’s done right. Don’t be like me. People like me burn out. (Don’t worry--I, too, am learning to not be like me.)
- Be open about your mental status. Even if it’s just with one trusted team lead, be open when you feel you’re burning out. If they’re worth their salt, they’ll work with you to make a plan to get your “batteries” charged. (After all, it’s in their best interest, right?)
- Know when it’s time to walk away. If you are consistently overworked and/or undervalued, in the words of the unflappable Lizzo--walk your fine ass out the door. Easier said than done? Hell yeah. But there are lots of resources to help you navigate the process (ta and da!) and your sanity will thank you later--promise.
Pro tip: do not wait until you are one Slack ping from leaping into high speed traffic to do this. Waiting until you’re up to <here> with your employer almost guarantees you will not leave on the best terms.
There you have it! Keeping Peace in the Workplace 101, from someone whose job satisfaction is (finally) 10/10, thanks to Tako’s ability to put people over product, value clear and honest communication, avoid burnout like the Plague, and enact consistent, well-documented policies and procedures.