Here at =mc we encourage every participant we meet on our programmes to get in touch if they have specific issues they want to follow up on. From this we hear some common problems, issues, challenges, and worries. In this regular feature we share some of those challenges, and our advice, for dealing with them.
This time, the issue comes from a Campaigns Manager in an international charity . The =mc consultants offer advice on a difficult issue which you may well identify with: working with a virtual team you have never met before.
Hello Management Centre, I am hoping you can help me. I’m a Campaigns Manager in an international charity, based in Central London. I’ve been in my role since March 2020. As you can imagine, it was a strange time to join a new organisation. I had one meeting, on the 10th March, with the whole team (there are five of us in total) and that was it. We haven’t all been together since. When lockdown 1 hit, I relocated back to my hometown in Newcastle to support family with childcare, and have not been able to get back to London. I feel a bit cut off and just haven’t formed the bond with my team that I would have expected by now. Don’t get me wrong, they are all very capable, and brilliant at their jobs. I just don’t feel a personal affiliation to them. Our team meetings are a bit flat, and very task focussed. We don’t have that gossipy check in, talking about real life, highs and lows etc. As the manager this really worries me – I should be pulling them together. To compound things, I have also hired another team member, just a few months ago. I have never, ever met them in person. They however seem to be getting on with everyone better than me. This is feeding my imposter syndrome no end – do they just not like me? Help!
Oh dear, this sounds a tad uncomfortable for you, and I’m sorry to hear you are finding things tough. There are a lot of people who have joined organisations they have never physically visited in the last year – a very odd experience I’m sure. We all know how enjoyable it is when we work within a close and supportive team. A team where people know and trust each other, where energy is high and the team solves problems together, spots opportunities together and creates new approaches together. However, with more people working remotely, the physical distance can make it harder to create an energetic climate. I recommend you seek ways to involve the team in thinking forward, and planning what the future for your team could be. By engaging them in this, you’re getting them to focus forward which will liven the conversation up a bit. Try encouraging people to contribute their thoughts, reflections and ideas. Don’t try and solve problems or challenges by yourself, instead get your capable team to work together with you being their facilitator. Your role for example could be to set some ground rules to make the conversation effective e.g., listening to others’ ideas, building on others’ suggestions, not dismissing ideas too quickly etc. Ask them what they would add. Get them talking about the future, and they may just open up a bit.
Hello Campaigns Manager. This is a very strange situation, and it is helpful to remember it’s weird for them too. Building rapport and forming a personal connection with your team takes time and it is absolutely normal for teams to go into ‘super polite’ mode when a new manager comes in. With the physical distance, that is of course going to take even longer. You just don’t have those ‘collision’ moments, when you can have a natter about life, TV, and what you just saw on twitter. Are there ways in which you can build these moments into your interactions with them? It is important to build trust with your team, and think about ways you can strengthen your relationship with each person. Consider the individual needs of the four people you are working with, get to know their reality. Try asking questions like: what is your home set up like? What has been good about working at home? What do you miss about working in the office? Ask them what their unique challenges are. Share some of your own with them. Help them to understand your perspective, how you think, and what you still need to learn more about when it comes to this organisation. As trust builds, barriers will come down and you will feel more connected.
I totally agree with Charlie and Laura about involving the team and connecting with your colleagues. I would add however that as the manager, you may need to accept you are not there to be their friend. This isn’t about not being liked – everything is easier when you and the boss get on! But it isn’t helpful to compare yourself to the other new person. They have a different relationship, and so will be experiencing a different process of settling in. People are naturally going to be on their best behaviour with you, and less relaxed. To help move things along, try focussing on strengthening the team bond all round. You can take the lead on this, by looking out for opportunities to celebrate results, effort, people going the extra mile and values driven work. Help people to feel that their contributions are essential and valued. Try injecting (not forcing) some fun into your team meetings also. Lighten the mood and you may well enjoy yourself a bit more too.
There is a lot here about your relationship with your direct reports. I wonder also about how you are bonding with your peers and other managers across the organisation? Doing so could help you feel more connected and part of something. Is there a network you can join? Or regular meetings you can be part of? Perhaps you could even buddy up with another new manager to share your experiences and insights together. We see managers coming together on our courses, often for the first time and they really love that time to get to know other people, realising they have similar challenges, and creating a peer support system. If you’re nervous about reaching out, ask your HR contact to set something up.
If you’d like to explore ways of handling for situations like this, contact us online or call 020 7978 1516 to discuss similar challenges and how we might be able to help.
Finally, if you’re facing a challenge you’d like some advice on in the next issue of the Safe Space, email us on firstname.lastname@example.org. While we can’t promise to publish all the requests we receive, we will offer advice by email as a minimum.