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How to Keep Employee Morale High During the Holiday Season

A desk with a laptop and festive items on it, boosting employee morale during the holiday season.

The 2020 holiday season is here, and the Diff team is working hard to help clients meet growing consumer demands. According to McKinsey, the flight to digital and omnichannel will be prevalent during this year’s holiday season, with 30-60% of consumers across countries reporting an intent to shift online for holiday shopping. 

To meet increased online shopping demand, Differs are helping clients prepare and create engaging shopping experiences that result in happy customers, stronger brand loyalty, and increased sales. And given the chaos of Q4 logisticsproper planning is becoming more important than ever for a successful holiday season too. 

We interviewed Hai-Long Nguyen, Diff’s Director of Engineering and Delivery, to discuss how he keeps the Systems Integration team’s morale high as they help prepare merchants for peak shopping periods. We discuss strategies for celebrating employee achievements, overcoming high-pressure situations, and tips for increasing team collaboration while working from home.

Read on to learn how Hai-Long is preparing the Systems Integration for a holiday shopping season like never before.

What is your role and how does it fit in with the rest of the team?

I’m currently Director of Engineering and Delivery, or PMO here at Diff. My day to day is hard to describe because I wear multiple hats. In my position of leadership, I have the ability to positively influence my colleagues. I rely on my personal principles and beliefs to guide my leadership approach and help my team align with Diff’s values. Ultimately, I hope to inspire excellence in everyone I work with.

Diff has a reputation for getting stuff done well. In my role as a consultant, I’m very much involved in ideation, understanding client needs, and bringing in the experience I’ve gained over the years to consult with clients. In the role of Director of Delivery, I oversee the project management office. These are people on our team who are client facing. I give mentorship, training, and coaching that they need to have conversations with clients. All of my work is in support of upholding our reputation for quality. 

Diff’s project managers are multi-functional. They do business analysis, account management, and coordination. They have a strong understanding of the Shopify platform, they are solutions oriented, and they have basic technical knowledge. Our project managers execute project plans, while consulting with clients and bringing their personal expertise to the project. My role is to coach and mentor them to be the trusted advisors that our clients rely on.

As Director of Engineering I provide a high level direction, guidance, coaching, training to department managers for storefront implementations and commerce operations. I make sure people are aligned on interesting projects and are set up to do their best work. By shaping software development at a high level I aim to strengthen culture, talent, and develop professional software teams.

The holidays are notoriously busy in retail ecommerce. How does your team keep morale high during peak shopping periods?

This time of the year is our busy period when many launches happen. Merchants rely on us to support them in preparing for the holiday season, when they expect the most sales. It’s also the time of the year when workloads can become overwhelming.

This year, we’ve taken extra steps to make sure we’re prepared for the holiday period. We’ve aligned our project workload so people are busy, but they’re not working above capacity. We know that some clients will ask for last minute help before Black Friday – so we’re taking unplanned work into consideration, and forecasting resources accordingly.

Managing people’s workload is an important responsibility at the management level. It’s a tricky puzzle about understanding the strengths and areas of development of all of our employees. Then we can assign them on projects where they’re the best fit. 

We have a goal of engaging and endearing our clients to develop long-term relationships. A space that allows our people to provide their input on best practice in software and technology development helps engage and retain clients for a long time. The reality is that after Black Friday, we start talking about our goals for 2021. By not overworking employees come December, they will have energy to contribute to expand our client accounts into the new year.

How does your team celebrate successes and achievements? How do you ensure employees are recognized for their results, and why is this important?

There are different channels to recognize employees, especially during these times. When there are major accomplishments, we encourage our employees to share their work in our weekly department meetings. This includes what they’ve done, who they did it for, and why they did it. 

Department meetings are a place where we highlight and showcase our work, significant releases and recent launches. In the future, I would like to see our employees demo their own work to their department. This will also allow participants to pick up presentation and communication skills.

What are some of the biggest sacrifices your team has had to make to support projects?

Some peace of mind is sacrificed for supporting our clients when they need it. For example, sometimes software needs unexpected support. When people go above and beyond to support our clients, they do so because they are proud of their work. This sense of work pride is something we want to strive for in all of our employees. Ideally, an employee should help because they want to, not just because they are being asked.

What strategies do you use to create a space where your team members feel comfortable communicating honestly – for example, if they disagree with a decision?

When we go through stressful situations, I jump immediately to problem solving. I don’t ask “Why did this happen?” Instead, I take the approach of just figuring how to solve the situation. I think it’s important that employees don’t feel frightened or scared. In a calm tone, I let them know that the priority is to solve the particular problem.

We need to ask ourselves, “How do we find ourselves a way out of the situation?” And the answer is simple: 1. By not overreacting, and 2. By taking it as an opportunity to learn.

When a mistake happens, we don’t intimidate people.  Intimidation can create an environment where employees might resort to lying. Instead, I focus on creating an environment where my team feels comfortable sharing when a mistake has been made.The best thing is when an employee is able to say, “Yeah, I messed up”. Then we can have an honest conversation so that the whole team learns from the mistake. Having a sense of humor is also important. Having a laugh makes things less stressful, so people can focus on solving the problem at hand.

How has team collaboration changed since Diff’s shift to work from home, and how do you continue to build positive relationships at work?

There are a few things we are doing to bring people together during this work from home period. We’re organizing games, and we have fun, relaxed Slack threads like for example, a channel where Differs post pictures of what they ate last night. At a department level, we try to have weekly video meetings where anyone can present topics and engage the group in discussion. We also try to find opportunities to increase collaboration on projects, like pairing people up to code together. What’s really important has been video conference calls. I’ve found myself doing more videos than I ever have out of necessity to get that human touch. After all, no one wants to feel like they’re talking to a robot on the other end of the phone.

What strategies has your team been using to achieve work-life balance while working from home? How do these strategies differ based on your team members’ individual needs (ex. parents with kids)?

I’m a believer in letting my team decide for themselves what is right – I never want to micromanage. Everyone has their own individual responsibilities at home that are unique to them, and I trust my team to figure out their own schedules. At Diff, we have ultra flex hours so that staff can work at whatever time is best for them. 

Especially in a remote situation, it’s easy to work late in the evening. But we understand that there’s only so much time in a day. We shouldn’t rely on people to work more to get by because that’s not sustainable. For sure, there are cases where we will have agreements with employees to work more to support certain projects. But in the general case, it comes down to planning people’s time correctly to achieve work-life balance. 

Planning people’s time means taking into consideration factors that are not so tangible when we decide who is responsible for what client project for what week. It’s on us to manage their workload so they can then manage their time. 

I have some tips and tricks for managing work hours that have worked well for me. I have a home office – and I am very lucky to have that. To separate my personal life from my work life, I dress up for work, and even put on jeans and shoes to make the mood different. I take my shoes off when I leave my office. I have a door I actually close, and I treat it as an office that I can’t go back to. When the weekend comes, I pack up my computer and cables, and make a commitment not to go back to the office. This helps me create that separation psychologically. 

I have funny stories, like the time I noticed on a Friday late evening that the light in the office was still on, but because of my rules, I couldn’t go into the office to close the lights. I even had a weekend where I forgot my laptop charger in the office, and come Saturday afternoon my laptop died because I didn’t go in to get my cable. If it were a real office, I know I wouldn’t have gone back to get my cable, so it’s the same concept.

What are you looking forward to in the new year 2021 with your team in your career development? Once this holiday season is over? 

At the start of the pandemic, we thought we’d be back in the office in 2 weeks. Here we are half a year later, still at home. This year has been a weird year, and next year will continue to be weird. Knowing this situation will continue for a while, I’m looking forward to planning better. 

Entering the new year knowing we will be working remotely, we have to think about how we can better manage ourselves. In the context of the work that we do, we will be continuing what we’ve always done, and continuing to evolve ourselves. Shopify is rolling out new features and functionalities. This doesn’t mean less work for us, but just more focusing of our energies on new problems. 

Omnichannel is still a buzzword and as we move into 2021, more and more brands will introduce it and more consumers will expect it. Consumers want as much choice as possible as to where they can buy things. And if shoppers buy on different channels, merchants will need their loyalty programs to work on all their channels too. Customer service will also need to be centralized to support omnichannel operations.

I look forward to seeing Shopify subscription APIs, and making subscription models more native on the Shopify platform. The possibilities are endless. We’ve gone so far by integrating systems and APIs, but this will provide us with infinite possibilities.

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Special thanks to our friends at Diff Agency for their insights on this topic.
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