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From the inside

Human(e) Management in times of COVID-19

Posted by Romain Lerallut |

Things we’ve done or discovered while managing our teams during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Crazy is the new normal”. Those were the words of our CTO when we entered the isolation phase in our R&D offices on March 13th. And boy, was he ever right.

We are Criteo, an online advertising company operating globally, from France to the US to Japan and all the countries in between. Even though our production is mostly done by servers that couldn’t care less about a (biological) virus, we had to adapt our way of working and living to the pandemic. This is a story of things we’ve done to weather the storm.


“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can choose how we respond to them” (Epictetus)


Forewarned is forearmed: The first thing is not getting caught with your pants down. I say this figuratively although, in this new world of video calls from home, it is also a sound advice to take literally. Thankfully, being a global company with existing infrastructure for working from home and a decent habit of videoconf meetings, helps tremendously. So does having the internal IT support for VPN, etc, allowing us to work from home with all services available.

Safety first: Because our first concern is the health and safety of our employees, we progressively started encouraging everyone to work remotely and closing down offices before official lockdowns were in effect. In France, we, therefore, had a week to prepare for strict isolation, so the transition was not too abrupt.

Managing the storm

After the curfew hits, what can you do as a manager to help your teams? The key challenges to watch out for are: People at home with too little human contact, people at home with too much human contact, anxiety, exhaustion, demotivation, and many more. From the business perspective, loss of productivity is a thing, of course, but it comes waaaaay behind those people-centric issues.

Be flexible, be creative: The main recipe is that there is no recipe. Every person’s situation is different. Every team is different. Every manager will have to handle things the best way for their own given context. We encourage people to think on their own and find answers that best fit their needs. Empowerment and trust are key values for us and never have they been more relevant than right now.

Reduce mental negative load: One of the most important aspects is that everyone will feel tense and stressed. As a manager, our role is to help reduce those negative emotions in our team members. For example, it’s okay if someone’s kid pops up to ask for their parent’s attention in the middle of a meeting. “We are a family” often says our CEO Megan Clarken, so consider it nice to meet the nieces and nephews! Come to think of it, it’s also okay if that parent has to skip the meeting altogether. We are living in extraordinary times and work is not our top priority. Health and family are and that’s fine. Let’s not stress people into acting “professional” and pretending work is their top concern. On the contrary, tell them we acknowledge the extra load for them and are grateful for their efforts.

BBC reporter being interupted by his child
This 2017 meme is now our daily routine

Maintain rituals: Conversely, and subject to the limitations stated above, it does help to maintain a healthy routine. Both individually as well as collectively as part of a team. As much as possible, follow your usual routine. Get dressed to “go to work” even if your workplace is now only 3 meters away from your bed. You can stay in your pajamas during the weekends, not during the workweek.

As a team, keep the routine alive. Do your morning standups using Zoom, so that you all see each other in the morning. Share coffee breaks after lunch, as you usually do. Similarly, we try to keep to our usual workflow: Jira tickets get assigned and worked on, OKRs (Objectives and Key Results, i.e. 3-month plannings) are planned and discussed, etc.

Provide professional help: One of the earliest things Criteo did was to provide access to private counseling and psychological help to all employees. We are going through difficult times and it can feel good to talk about it with professionals. This is true regardless of the situation, by the way, but in this context where everything has been set upside down, I believe the need is even stronger.

Sharing is caring

Whether people are alone in their apartment or living with their family in a house with a garden, they need to talk to other people, give and receive ideas, be part of a wider community. We are social beings and we need our social interactions.

Socialization: Friday drinks were a big thing in my team and the weather now would be perfect to have them on the rooftop. Well, too bad, we can’t access the office but we kept the drinks (enjoy responsibly). It’s a great way to mark the end of the workweek to have a relaxing drink with colleagues.

Still Friday drinks!
AFTER: Still Friday drinks!

Creativity: Some teams organize contests, like the best (or worst !) home office setup. The craziest Zoom virtual background, etc. It keeps the connection between people. Especially those that find it hard to find time to join a social event. Our internal communications team is very active and creative in that area.

The best internal Slack channel we have at the moment is called #menudujour. It used to be where the day’s menu for the company restaurant in Paris was posted (in French, auto-translated to English as well as a language randomly picked every day).


AFTER: Everybody posting pics of the culinary talent on the same Slack channel

So it seems some of our colleagues are gifted cooks on top of their usual job and they are proudly posting pics of their cooking (and sharing the recipes). As a global company with people from all over the world, even in our Paris office, we get to see lots and lots of examples of foreign specialties. Yeah, it does make us want to travel again, right? Be patient.

Other joint activities include sports, fitness, or yoga classes, some even taught by Criteo employees. The #videogames Slack channel is also very active! :) Everything people enjoy keeping in shape, both physically and mentally.

Fighting back!

When times are hard, people take comfort in gathering their strength and, whenever possible, fighting against the cause of the trouble. Unfortunately, we are not microbiologists, or nurses, or doctors, or any of those who are on the front line. As a company, we are a key actor in the online economy but we wanted to explore what we could do more specifically to help fight the pandemic.

Stay at home: This goes without saying but the single best thing to do is to actually do nothing. I know, I know, it goes without saying but it still needs to be said.

Folding@Home: We have a massive computer infrastructure and very quickly, some of our SRE and Infra people offered that we dedicate some of it to helping medical research understand the virus. The easiest way was to deploy the Folding@Home client on our servers. It was relatively painless and it felt very good to help fight back the epidemic.

Some of those servers are modeling protein folding to help understand SARS-CoV-2
Some of those servers are modeling protein folding to help understand SARS-CoV-2

Ads against COVID: We have a decade of experience in online advertising. So we decided to use that expertise to show ads for the common good. In France, we show ads to ask for donations to medical research. In the US, it’s to encourage people to practice social distancing. Depending on the way the pandemic goes, we’ll see in the future what to show, where, and to whom.

medical research banner
If you see this banner, click on it and donate to medical research

Individual fundraising: On top of that, most offices have set up fundraising initiatives for employees to support various causes, from medical research to the care of homeless people (who need help now more than ever).

Parting words

The last, and perhaps the most important, thing to do is to thank your teams. You don’t know what they are really going through, despite your best efforts to keep the connection real. You have no idea how hard it is for them to juggle it all, family, work, isolation, concern for loved ones, uncertainty about the future. Yet here they are, in the middle of the storm, on deck with you and with the team.


Romain Lerallut

R&D Vice-President

The Future is Yours.

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