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The Question

A few months ago I was hired into a management position at a company that’s working from home during the pandemic. It’s my first time managing a team remotely and I’m struggling with building rapport with my direct reports. I’ve tried one-on-one virtual coffee chats but it hasn’t really worked. I usually get to know my team with informal office chats and taking them out for lunch, but now I don’t have that option. What can I do to get to know my team remotely?

The First Answer

Yvonne Ruke Akpoveta, change management strategist and adviser, OliveBlue and the Change Leadership, Toronto

It’s possible that your predecessor could be affecting your team’s current dynamics. Perhaps they had a great relationship with their previous leader and may still feel loyalty toward them, which translates to coldness toward you. They may be apprehensive about what changes a new manager brings to the team and aren’t quite sure how to act or behave in a first meeting. Their previous manager could have created a very formal relationship with your team which has set the tone for how they interact with you. Be patient in getting to know them and understanding the team culture. Your team may also be taking their time to get to know you before opening up.

What didn’t work about your coffee chats? If they seemed shy or quiet, try asking general questions about their personal interests. If they responded with short, one-word answers, try asking open-ended questions. Be careful not to give solutions as you do not know them well enough.

Consider holding informal group virtual events, like online trivia, that help you observe the dynamics of the team, and how they interact with others. This can help you pick up on their sense of humour, style of communication and what makes them laugh or get excited.

Informal group events can also help you identify common grounds with your team, like personal interests outside work, where they live, favourite movies or hobbies. This will help you connect and authentically engage with them during your next one-on-one.

You could also ask a willing staff member to facilitate the next event. If it’s someone that the team is familiar with, and trusts, participants are less likely to have their guards up.

The Second Answer

Bruce Sandy, principal, Pathfinder Coaching, Vancouver

This is not an uncommon question and challenge for many managers and staff, especially extroverted ones, during this pandemic. You likely derive energy and more connection from meeting with staff or people in person. This is not true for everyone. There are many individuals who like and prefer to meet others remotely.

It will be important for you to shift your focus and your perspective on meeting staff remotely. If you continue to hold the perspective that getting to know staff remotely is difficult then this will likely become a self-fulfilling prophecy for you and your team.

Take a moment to write down your judgments, fears and concerns about working remotely. Once you are aware of your fears and concerns, you can choose what to do with them. Try not to feed them.

Instead, try to hold a neutral and curious perspective about working remotely. Focus on how working remotely is affecting your staff. Use working remotely as a way of discovering more about your team members, their views, hopes, concerns and thoughts. Ask what your staff values about their work and working as part of the team. Ask how the pandemic and working remotely is (or is not) affecting their work as individuals and as team members.

Be curious about how you as the new leader can work most effectively to support them as well as embodying the values of the organization. Indicate that you want to design a conscious, flexible and adaptive working relationship with them as individuals and team members that works both remotely and in person.

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