In the early days of the pandemic there was a lot of speculation and rumor going around our company:

“I heard that she has to quarantine at home for 14 days because she just flew back from another country.”

“Did you know his manager asked him to go home because he was coughing, and, you know… coronavirus?”

As the confusion increased, it became obvious we had to bring together a dedicated team to coordinate Atlassian’s global response to the pandemic.

Assembling the response team

One Friday afternoon I got a meeting invite to my inbox. The timing was odd. A tactical, get-shit-done meeting late on Friday afternoon? It would already be the weekend for my teammates in Sydney, who would have to wake up early on a Saturday morning to join the call.

And that’s when the title of the invite really registered in my brain: “COVID-19 Core Response Team Daily.”

This kick-off meeting represented the official coming together of our global crisis response team, or Core Team.

In the room and on the phone was a cross-functional group of Atlassians effectively representing the entire company. And all of us knew we were about to embark on some serious fire-fighting work. But instead of frantically rushing to assign tactical to-dos, we first paused and took a collective breath. Then we discussed the rhythms and ceremonies needed for what we sensed might be a months-long crisis response effort.

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We understood that there were four big topics that required our immediate, collective attention:

  • Physical offices. Do we close them? Go global work-from-home?
  • Events. Would we cancel Summit, Atlassian’s annual user conference?
  • Travel. Would we shut it down?
  • Internal communications. How would we make sure the entire company could find the right, most up-to-date information?

The decisions we made on these topics, and our early alignment on them, laid the foundation for our Core Team and enabled us to scale our crisis response to support thousands of Atlassians around the world.

The majority of Atlassians on this team had no formal training in crisis management, let alone how to respond to a global pandemic. But the past several months have featured some of the most rewarding, intense work I’ve ever done. I know my fellow Core Team members feel the same. Despite burning the candle at both ends for months, the Core Team has remained resilient and hyper-responsive to each other and our global colleagues. We’ve stayed poised and tried our very best to maintain a calm, unified presence to steady the ship.

As a silver lining, we’re better prepared for the next crisis. (Though please, not another health crisis!) And now that the fire fighting, reactive work is largely behind us, I hope that sharing our story and the lessons we’ve learned helps you and your team prepare and be proactive for whatever you might face in the future.

9 steps for your team to follow during a crisis

1. Identify an executive sponsor(s)

It may seem logical that a certain executive be the ultimate decision-maker, but you owe it to yourself, your teammates, and the company to confirm who that person is – or those people – from the outset of the crisis. If the person leading the crisis management team reports to the CEO, for example, there might be a silent assumption that the CEO is the exec sponsor, when in fact the CEO and the COO have agreed that all crisis decisions roll up to the COO. It may be as simple as explicitly asking the question and getting an immediate answer, but doing so will enable the crisis team to work with greater clarity and efficiency. From the outset of Atlassian’s response to COVID-19, the Core Team had a clear, shared understanding that the co-executive sponsors were our Chief People Officer and our General Counsel.

2. Pick a single source of truth (SSoT) for internal communications

Having a SSoT eliminates confusion and empowers those managing the crisis response to focus on the most important tasks at hand. At Atlassian, we created a dedicated space in Confluence with a global landing page for all-the-things related to our global COVID response and then various subsections such as Travel, Hiring & Onboarding, Events, etc. We also created a private Slack channel for the Core Team, which forced us to centralize the real-time back-and-forth conversations, which was a good thing.

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3. Define rhythms and ceremonies

Be clear about the cadence of meetings, as well as communications vehicles such as email, Slack channels, etc. For approximately the first three weeks of our global crisis response, the Core Team met every day, including weekends. When we collectively agreed we had reached our “cruising altitude,” we slowly decreased the frequency of the meetings. Today, we maintain our dedicated Slack channel but otherwise only meet as required by a given situation.

4. Err on the side of privacy

During a true crisis, each person is impacted in a unique, personal way. Provide your people with a dedicated way to ask questions while protecting their privacy by default. The unique project we created in Jira Service Desk (JSD) for all – yes, all – COVID-related employee inquiries was designed to protect the privacy of the individual who created the ticket by implementing tight controls around the permissions. The only people who could access a given ticket were the creator, anyone specifically added by the creator, and the handful of people on the Core Team who triaged the JSD queue.

5. The more cross-functional, the better… at least at the start

Kick off with more people than less, representing all the key functions of the company. It’s always easier to make a team leaner than to beef it up and bring newcomers up to speed.

6. Acknowledge that you’ll be making decisions based on imperfect information

During a crisis, it’s highly unlikely that you will have all the information you want, or need. Regardless, it’s crucial that you embrace the information you do have in order to make the most informed decision possible. In mid-March, for example, there was an Atlassian who was on a business-trip visiting his teammates in Bengaluru. He had flown to India before the world started “shutting down” and was very worried that he would not be able to fly home to Amsterdam. Amid the height of COVID-related travel disruptions, we prioritized his safety and wellbeing (and that of his family in Amsterdam) above “perfect information” and got him on a direct flight back to the Netherlands.

7. Pick your external sources, and stick with them

With so many different sources of information these days, it’s important to pick a few and stick with them throughout the duration of your crisis response. For the Core Team at the beginning of the pandemic, it was less about comparing the information coming from the CDC or W.H.O. or Johns Hopkins, for example, and more about picking one as our go-to source and sticking with it for the duration of our crisis response.

8. Agree on a decision framework

Who’s empowered to make which decisions and which decisions require executive-level approval? At the outset of our crisis response, we agreed that decisions impacting only an individual Atlassian could be made by the appropriate members of the Core Team, whereas decisions that impacted all Atlassians required executive approval. There were, of course, nuances and exceptions. But that overarching decision framework has served – and continues to serve – us well.

9. Establish time horizons

What decisions need to be made by when? What are the consequences if we do not make Decision X by Day Y? It is crucial to continue to ask these questions throughout the duration of your crisis response because it will help you prioritize. Put differently, as new data informs the ever-shifting “crisis landscape,” it behooves you to consistently reassess if Decision A is still the most important decision or if, armed with the new information, Decision B is now a higher priority.

We’ve learned a lot this year. I’m reminded of the famous Aldous Huxley quote: “Experience is not what happens to a person; it is what a person does with what happens to them.” As the Core Team, we made and influenced countless decisions, big and small. So many, it’s now hard to remember them all. But as I mentioned above, though we didn’t have formal training in crisis management, we were diligent in working as a team and applying the teamwork principles we champion at Atlassian. We never pointed fingers, and maintained a calm, unified presence for the 6000+ Atlassians and others, including contractors, vendors, friends, and family.

As of this writing, the pandemic is far from resolved. We will need to make more difficult decisions, as you and your team surely will. Be safe, stay well, and please feel free to share what you’ve learned with us.

Organize, respond, act: 9 lessons for leading during a crisis