By Crystal Eisinger - Founding 50 Member of the School of Marketing
I’ve taken this week off as holiday which may seem strange but I took the decision when my writing retreat was (quite rightly) cancelled due to Covid. I’m not the person who can do a full day of work and then burn the midnight oil writing so I’ve taken a week’s break with the explicit purpose of feeling less like a fraud and putting some of the thoughts in my head down on paper to set them free into the world. Here are some of my reflections from having built a remote team over the last eight weeks in which the entire norming, storming and performing cycle has been compressed and intensified. I have no magic formula, just some early thoughts and reflections.
The context: five people, three separate teams, no prior experience of working together with limited to no exposure to each other personally or professionally pre-lockdown tasked with creating an editorial team.
The first few weeks we fumbled along, everybody was very kind and forgiving. There were many “I don’t want to step on any toes” or “sorry, I didn’t realise you wanted me to reply to that email” moments. The time came, about three weeks in when I sat down and forced myself to articulate the purpose of the upweighted team and formalise the roles and responsibilities across our team. It felt a little uncomfortable especially given the new and potentially temporary nature of the team (who knows how long we’ll exist) but then I reflected on the times where I’ve been most productive in my career and that often starts with complete clarity over why a decision has been taken and clear expectations of my role and how it fits in to the broader team. So I put together a document in which I showed how our new team fit into the broader Covid response, how it ladders up to our CEO’s vision around being helpful and some principles around how we’d operate. I then put names in boxes, created a good old RASCI, labeled it as work in progress and shared it with the group for feedback.
I was nervous to share it to be honest. The team would not have come about without Covid and I had no formal mandate and didn’t want to come across as Mrs Boss Bitch among a group of people I hadn’t worked with before. I could also sense some anxiety from the original team members who were uncertain about what the addition of more team members meant for them and their roles.
Fortunately, the response was positive, especially from the less tenured members of the team who appreciated the clarity and formalisation of everybody’s role. Assumptions and ambiguity are dangerous, especially in the context of a new team running at a hundred miles an hour attempting to do something that hasn’t been done before. Clarity and detail prevent things from falling within the cracks. The document has not only served the purpose of giving us clarity on our role but has been a really useful resource for us to share with other teams so they know how we work and who to contact.
This quote is my husband’s favourite leadership quote and comes from the CEO of LinkedIn himself I believe. When a team comes together without knowing or having worked with each other before one thing that does not exist is trust. We all know that email and instant messaging are tone deaf and especially now when resilience levels are more challenged for all of us than usual, building trust is more important than ever. There is so much room for misinterpretation especially where you don’t have a preexisting relationship with the people you’re working with. This made it all the more important to show up, same time, every day.
I set up a daily morning editorial meeting (start up folk would call these stand ups, I’ll call them wake ups) which we’ve had, without fail, every day for the last 6 or so weeks (which lets face it feels like about a year). For some, this is the first part of their day, for others they have been working a couple of hours already, but this provides a routine to all of our days which is important at a time where the usual timelines of a given day seem more optional.
Of that 30 minute meeting we often spend at least ten minutes asking how we all are. But we mean it.
As a bit of an effective meeting stickler this isn’t something I was used to, nor expected. I am a fan of a tight agenda but now I couldn’t think of a better way to use that time. Some days one person feels low, it may be the weather, it may be worry for a loved one, it may be the death toll, it may be caused by nothing at all but we’ve created an environment where it’s ok to have off days and say how we really feel. Whether that would have happened pre-Covid I’m not sure, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to be honest about mental health on a day to day basis because my goodness I was lying about it the whole way through the first quarter of this year.
One approach I like in particular is the guidance in Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s Option B: I intentionally alway try to ask “how are you today” (rather than how are you, to which it’s quite easy to say ‘fine’) finding that it does yield more honest answers. I still see a divide in the willingness to be open about mental health on a day to day basis between our more senior folk and the rest of us. Of course we’re lucky to have jobs, of course we’re lucky to be healthy but these gratitudes, as important they are, prevent a level of vulnerability which is a key part of building trust and creating psychological safety within teams. There is clearly a difference between talking about mental health and role-modelling vulnerability.
Another aspect of building trust that I’ve worked harder at with a remote team is putting in dedicated time for coffee or tea catch ups. I tried to have a couple of ways of working conversations early on but they felt forced and a little awkward so I’ve found that putting in 15 minutes here or there for the kind of chats that would previously happen while queuing for coffee or waiting for a lift in the office has been a helpful way to get to know the people I’m working with better.
I love to think about our combined work as a tapestry. When there are multiple weavers it no longer becomes possible to attribute a particular piece to an individual. As a team, we are still on this journey but our editorial process currently is that one person might provide the raw material for a given social post, it might then be edited by another member of the team and then tweaked once more. As the leader of this team, success for me looks like us creating helpful, engaging content in a tone of voice which is true to our business, agnostic of its author. We’re still in a mindset where we talk about “Team member A’s tweet” or “Team member B’s tweet” but as we all strive towards the same goal as a team I hope that will fade away. I suppose this takes us back to a version of the ship of Theseus (or in the world of social perhaps I should rename this the ship of Thesaurus, sorry!) if a tweet has all of its words replaced is it fundamentally the same object, what relationship does it have to its original form. In a high performing, high trust team I hope that behaviour disappears and we are able to bask in our collective success and hit our objectives and key results.
The one thing I am missing this week, my virtual team. I miss our daily check ins and I feel more attached to this team than I have perhaps any other despite our contact all being through a screen. We haven’t won yet. I don’t even know if the team will exist this time in 6 months but I’ve learnt a hell of a lot in the process and am grateful for the opportunity to build a team in this unusual context.