This article is about how to collaborate working from home. Henrik and Caroline are fictive people. Their names and circumstances have been anonymized and changed.
Henrik has a challenge. Before the pandemic he was part of a team of five where they were very effective and had a really good time together. Although Henrik is not very talkative and actually thrives on workdays at home, he now waits for the Corona pandemic to be over so everything can get back to normal. The collaboration with his colleague Caroline has gone off track, and this has major consequences for the project, the team and Henrik:
- They’ve lost their commitment.
- They don’t get much done in the project.
- Their funding is at risk due to a mistake that Caroline has made – at least if you ask Henrik.
- Neither Henrik nor Caroline thrives – and the others in the team can feel it too.
Henrik is Technical Project Manager in a team of five. So he’s an informal leader. He depends on the others doing their job. Because he is responsible for the deliveries and the project. But he doesn’t have hire/fire responsibilities.
Usually, the collaboration with Caroline is fine, but for the last two months Henrik has started doing Caroline’s work instead of delegating it as he should as a project manager. But he doesn’t feel like he can count on her anymore. It’s easier to do it yourself – “and then we also avoid unpleasant mistakes like the one she made to the steering committee”: he told me in a session. Henrik has also stopped talking to Caroline like he used to. Now, working from home, it is easy to avoid her. But they still have the regular project meetings.
The conflict culminates
One day it became too much for Henrik. He’s pretty patient, not the kind of guy who loses his temper. He went as silent as the nature before a big storm and lost the last thing he had left for Caroline. Even though he didn’t say anything and that they were together virtually on TEMAS they could all feel it. Henrik couldn’t take it anymore. He also thinks that some of the others are thinking about quitting.
“Tell me what happened,” I asked – we were in a coaching session virtually. It is key that there is full presence in the sessions and hence, it almost felt like we were together in real life. It takes presence and chemistry to open up, gain new insights and deal with problems like Henrik’s. Especially when you are a relatively quiet and closed person, as Henrik is. But through time and handling several problems before, Henrik has learned that it works when he opens up to me – his coach. That’s the only way I can challenge his prospects until he finds new solutions.
The meeting was the last he had that day. That day, Henrik had had one meeting after another – nonstop. Lunch was also skipped, which all affected his mood and energy. In addition, his boss had babbled away in the meeting before, so they had finished too late, and he had entered a project meeting on the back edge. In that meeting he heard again that Caroline had not done what agreed. That was the last straw. And He thought he was going to tell her to pull herself together. But he had just been sitting there quietly and hadn’t said anything. Afterwards he was annoyed and blamed himself that he hadn’t done or said what he wanted to. Sometimes, other people are frustrated that they have had a little too quick action in such a state of mind or that they have raised their voice or say something very harsh.
But Henrik replied to me, that It was just too much. Henrik had been mentally hooked. So, he wasn’t able to do or said what he really wanted. Henrik’s colleague, Mathew, later described it as Henrik’s breathing became more powerful. He turned red in the head and went completely silent. Caroline got busy explaining herself. But no one listened, they all looked at Henrik – there was that weird vibe.
When your brain is hooked, it means you don’t have a mental surplus to act at your best. You react inappropriately in affect. Being mentally clear means the opposite – that you react appropriately and have as good a mental overview of the situation as possible.
Complex problems require multiple solutions
Besides the fact that the situation – understandably – was too much for Henrik, and he had been hooked, Henrik had not been organized optimally either. That is why we tackled the problem with four interventions at different levels. Cooperation problems are inherently complex and there is rarely only one reason for the problems to arise. Hence, they need to be solved from multiple angles:
- The meetings were shortened down to 45 minutes. Instead of spending 60 minutes talking input, which then after the following had to be structured and assembled. Then, before the meeting, Henrik started sending out an agenda and a link to a working document where colleagues could fill in their input before the meeting. The meeting was then used to revise the input.
- Henrik had to stop taking Rikke’s assignments and instead help Rikke get better at solving them. So Henrik and Rikke came to the conclusion that Henrik should act as a professional coach for Rikke. I trained him on how to coach her.
- Henrik put in fixed breaks during the workday. To avoid him sitting in front of the screen the entire day.
- I trained the team in better collaboration through fearless feedback. This includes building psychological safety and not just following the steps in the feedback model. That they listened collaboratively and could sense whether the situation is to give feedback or not – just as they could actually feel the bad atmosphere when they were having a difficult time.