Episode 158 – Keep it Together – Managing Team Culture

Episode #158
Original Air Date: 08.01.2022

40 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Colin D Ellis

Over the last couple of years, company culture has undergone significant transformation. The fact is every person on a project team has an influence on the culture. As project leaders, we shouldn’t take our responsibility to team culture lightly. We’re talking with culture expert Colin D Ellis about in-office culture, remote culture, and hybrid culture. Colin encourages leaders to shift our mindset from where we work to how we work.

For employees and team members that are returning to the office, Colin explains how their expectations have changed, and why some people are reluctant to return. Are you sensing a breakdown of culture? Do you need to rebuild trust? Are you struggling to get people engaged? Listen in as Colin offers advice on how a leader can impact culture and create a space for safety where everybody succeeds. Other topics Colin talks about are psychological safety in remote teams, connecting new hires to a team culture, proximity bias with team members, and obtaining buy-in from upper management.

Colin D Ellis moved through the ranks from project manager - to program manager - to PMO - to heading up large project departments - and sponsoring projects, in both private sector and government - all this in three countries: UK, New Zealand and currently in Melbourne, Australia. He is also an award-winning professional speaker and best-selling author who helps organizations around the world to build delivery cultures that everyone wants to be part of.


Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"So hybrid work is a different way of working.  And so it’s crucially important that managers fundamentally understand what the differences are, what the risks are, but also what the opportunities are so that they can do it properly."

- Colin D Ellis

"...if you spend time working on your culture, and you hold each other to it, then you get higher engagement, higher productivity, reduced physical and mental health issues.  You get lower attrition.  You become a more attractive employer."

- Colin D Ellis

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The project management podcast by project managers for project managers brought to you by Velociteach PMP exam prep. Culture expert Colin D Ellis talks about in-office culture, remote culture, as well as hybrid culture, and how we can shift our mindset from where we work to how we work. Hear about managing team culture and creating a space for safety where everybody succeeds.

Table of Contents

02:25 … Defining team Culture
03:20 … Everyone has a Role in Culture
04:38 … How a Leader can Influence Culture
06:26 … Managing In-Office Team Culture
11:02 … Why are People Reluctant to Return
13:31 … Rebuilding Culture
16:10 … Managing Remote Team Culture
19:36 … Engaging Remote Team Members
21:50 … Psychological Safety within Remote Teams
24:07 … Connecting New Hires to the Culture
27:37 … Managing Team Culture in Hybrid Environments
30:06 … Even the Playing Field
32:49 … Learn a New Skill Set
34:54 … Getting Buy-In from Upper Management
33:30 … Advice for Younger Project Managers
37:58 … Get in Touch with Colin
39:16 … Closing

COLIN ELLIS:  So hybrid work is a different way of working.  And so it’s crucially important that managers fundamentally understand what the differences are, what the risks are, but also what the opportunities are so that they can do it properly. 

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  My name is Wendy Grounds, and we’re talking with Colin D. Ellis.  And Colin has been a guest of ours in the past.  On Episode 89, Keys to Success and Being a Good Human, Colin joined us from Melbourne, Australia.  And he’s joining us again today.  Colin has more than 20 years’ experience building and leading teams in public and private sector organizations.  And he just loves helping people to be their best selves and bring that to work each day.

We’re going to be talking to him about company culture.  There’s been so many changes in company culture over the last couple of years.  And so we’re going to address in-office culture, remote culture, as well as hybrid culture and how we can shift our mindset from where we work to how we work.  Colin and Bill are both joining us via Skype today.

Hi, Colin.  Welcome back to Manage This.  It’s so good to have you back.

COLIN ELLIS:  Thank you, Wendy.  It’s lovely to be back.

WENDY GROUNDS:  What have you been doing in the interim, since we last spoke to you?  What’s happening in your life?

COLIN ELLIS:  Oh, I mean, where do you even start?  It was like, things have been pretty normal, I haven’t really done anything.  Yeah, things have been just a little bit crazy.  I think like everybody else in the pandemic, especially those people who work for themselves, there was that period of uncertainty right at the start, like, oh.  What do we do about developing our staff?  Let’s just put everything on hold.  And that was, you know, the way it was for me.  We dealt with some pretty severe COVID issues back with our family in the U.K.  And we kind of got through that.  And then all of a sudden the work came roaring back.

I think for someone like me, who does a lot of work in workplace culture and still keep my hand in in the project management world, I think what COVID did was really shine a light on either some of the things that were broken within cultures or else some of the things that just needed to be tweaked to make sure that people could keep delivering and keep being as productive as they can be.

So, you know, what’s changed in the sense that I did more virtual work than I’ve ever done before, but I was well set up for it, so that was a relatively easy transition.  And just enjoying being back amongst people again.

Defining Team Culture

WENDY GROUNDS:  Well, we want to dig into talking about company culture, and you were the person we thought would be an expert to give us some great advice.  But before we head into talking about company culture, could you give us just a really good definition?  We know it’s not the mission or the vision or the goal of the company.  It’s something completely different.  How would you define it?

COLIN ELLIS:  Yeah, culture is the sum of everyone’s attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, traditions, skills, and stories.  Wendy, it’s the agreements that we make between each other to treat each other like human beings, to be productive in the work that we do, to make time and space for new ideas, and to celebrate the successes and learn from the failures.  You know, culture runs through everything that we do as a business.  And if we take our eye off the ball, it can stop us being a business.  So it really is the most important determinant of team and organization success.

Everyone has a Role in Culture

BILL YATES:  It reminds me how important it is in the hiring process and the onboarding process to make sure that we find people that fit that culture.  And I love your definition because again it emphasizes that.  It drives home that key point that everybody has an influence on the culture.  So we shouldn’t take it lightly, especially during this time where resources are so hard to get; right?  There’s such a demand for people.  But we need to not just jump at that first person who’s qualified, to make sure that it’s really the right person that we want, we want them to influence our culture because we all make it up. 

COLIN ELLIS:  Yeah, Bill.  It’s something that I’m at great pains to point out to people, the fact that they have a responsibility.  I think often we look for leadership teams.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  Leadership teams through their actions and behaviors can destroy culture, and they can elevate culture, you know, you have this kind of dichotomy.  And leaders are often like, oh, so it’s not my culture.  It’s HR’s culture, I think.  Yeah, that’s – it’s really not.  Everyone has a role to play in culture.  And I think once people really start to understand that, they recognize that actually I can put my stamp on this in a way that’s positive, that generates emotional intelligence and empathy, you know, where we can really create the space for safety where everybody succeeds.  So yeah, everybody does have a responsibility when it comes to culture.

How a Leader Can Influence Culture

WENDY GROUNDS:  What are some tangible ways that a leader can influence the culture or create that culture? 

COLIN ELLIS:  Well, some really simple things, Wendy.  You know, and in all the work that I do, everything that I teach I’ve done myself as a permanent employee for 30 years.  And again, it’s something that I tell people.  It’s what I became known for.  I became known for building teams that people wanted to join.  And the things that I was doing, you know, 10, 15 years ago are still relevant now, is actually making time to get to know each other as human beings.  I think what often happens is we’re just thrown in this melting pot that we call “work” or “team.”  And we’re just expected to figure it out as we go along, Wendy.

So, you know, something I used to do with my teams, I used to take them offsite for two days.  We’d do a little bit of work around personality.  We’d understand different communication styles.  And we’d understand different working styles.  We’d agree how we were going to work together.  This thing called “collaboration,” you know, it doesn’t just happen by chance.  It really comes when we actually sit down and say, okay, well, what’s the right way to get the best out of each other?  And in order to do that we need to communicate really effectively, and that recognition that everyone consumes information and presents information in different ways.

And one of the things that we used to do as a team, or I used to do as a team, on Friday afternoons we used to make space for creativity.  We used to make space for innovation.  What we never wanted to do was stagnate.  And I think when you mix all of these things together, getting to know each other’s personality, agreeing how you’ll work together, agree how you’ll behave, and making time for creativity, actually you start to give structure, not only to the way that you interact as humans, and the way that you get the best from each other, but actually give structures to your week such that you actually look forward to going to work.  And I think that’s the ultimate measure of culture is how happy people are in their jobs.

Managing In-Office Team Culture

WENDY GROUNDS:  We’re going to look at culture in different scenarios with in-office or remote or hybrid.  We want to pick your brain on all of that.  But let’s start with in-office culture.  And so for employees that are returning to the office, how have their expectations changed?  What’s changed for those employees?

COLIN ELLIS:  Yeah, I’ve been talking a lot about kind of hybrid cultures and in-office cultures.  I think what employees want more than anything else is clarity.  They want certainty.  And I think in-office they’d want flexibility.  Wendy, now, no one’s really doing hybrid that well.  There are a couple of companies in the U.S. who have been remote-first, you know, the example I always use is Zapier.  They’ve been a remote-first company for years now.  Everyone else is kind of making it up as they go along.

And I think the organizations that are really thinking differently about in-office culture are people like Dropbox, you know, Dropbox have said they’re not doing hybrid.  They’re moving to remote-first.  And they’re going to reconfigure their office space to make them collaboration and meeting spaces where people can kind of meet, do the watercooler thing, or they’ve got spaces where they can collaborate when they need to.  So I think what employees expect is a different experience than they had before.  And I think the flip of that is what managers expect is discipline.  They expect delivery.  I think as well they expect a lack of selfishness.

What do I mean by that?  At the start of the pandemic, we had heaps of empathy; right?  Everyone was really concerned about everybody else.  Then our empathies really started to wane.  It’s really noticeable now, where people are like, “Well, I don’t want to come into the office on Mondays and Fridays.  I want to work from home.”  And it’s like, “Dude, it’s not about you.”  You know, it’s about the team needs.

So I think what managers want to do is to trust employees.  But I think we have a trust gap that exists right now, and it’s really preventing people from getting over their, well, the right way to work is in the office five days a week.  It’s like, oh, it really hasn’t.  That’s changed forever.  And the sooner people wake up to that, the better.

BILL YATES:  I think you’ve hit on a key there. There was heavy empathy at the beginning of the pandemic, and it’s almost as if it’s shifting too far.  And a tangible example that I think of is individuals who are part of a smaller team within their organization.  And the team comes together and decides, okay, we need to be in the office two or three days a week.  Let’s pick those days together so that when we’re in the office we can actually collaborate. So they want to be practical about it.  You still have the flexibility of a hybrid setup, but you’re going to be focused working with your team and collaborating. 

And then you can plan your weekly work around, okay, if I know I’m going to be in the office on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday with my colleagues, then let’s do our meetings there.  But then to your point you have some people that are pushing back, going, yeah, but on Tuesday that’s when it’s more expensive for me to drop my dog off, so I’d rather not.  I’d rather do it on Monday.  It’s like, okay, people, let’s remember the purpose.  We’re trying to get this project done, et cetera.  So I see a bit of an awkward dance as we figure out how to come back to the office and work in that environment.

COLIN ELLIS:  Yeah, Bill.  So true.  It’s a bit of a standoff in some instances, as well.


COLIN ELLIS:  I spoke to a CEO a few weeks back now, and it’s like, “How do I get people back into the office?”  I’m like, “Okay, well, let’s start, you know, why do you want people back into the office?”  He’s like, “Oh, no, I don’t know.  I’m thinking of a different model.”  I’m like, “Okay, cool.  So, you know, you could go a forced flexible model.  You’ve got to come in Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”  He’s like, “Oh, not Tuesday to Thursday?”  I’m like, “No, not Tuesday to Thursday.  Because Monday we actually get to set expectations face to face; and then actually, if you’ve got high trust, you can kind of figure out your week from there, you know, and that might mean not coming in a Wednesday.”

But you’re right, what that requires is it requires trust both ways.  And also it requires that people recognize that they’re part of the team.  I did a speech for a client in Europe last year, the end of last year.  And I had a question at the end, caught me off guard.  And this lady said, “I never want to go back into the office again.  What do you recommend?”  And I was like, oh, wow.  There’s a question I’ve never had before.  And I just said, it’s like, you know, “I recommend that you start your own business, become a sole trader, maybe making candles, you know, in your house and shipping them around the world.”  And, you know, there’s a few laughs.

And I was like, “The nature of teamwork is you have to meet with people from time – some work is still best done face-to-face.  Not all work, but some work is still best done face to face, and you might have to interact with other humans in that way.”  And I think, yes, it played for laughs, but also there was a serious point there that actually, when it comes to teams delivering, it’s not about you, it’s about what’s best for the team.

Why are People Reluctant to Return?

BILL YATES:  That’s good.  I think it leads naturally to a next question, too.  What do you think is the main reason, the reluctance that people have to returning to the office?  What do you think?

COLIN ELLIS:  Well, I think people got comfortable, Bill.  I think that they recognized that they could kind of settle from home.  And I think for most people, particularly those of us who live in cities, you know, I live in Melbourne in Australia, Greater Melbourne, there’s 6 million people.  So the commute can take, you know, it’s not L.A., but it can take a while.  And so people are saying, “Oh, well, why should I sit in traffic when I can be working?”  And I totally understand that.  I totally get that.  I think that’s justifiable. And I think what organizations need to do is be smarter about kind of work in hubs and how they find ways of bringing people together that isn’t their 40-story office building in the middle of the city.

But I think the flipside to that is, you know, people naturally assume that their conditions are everybody’s conditions.  You know, I spoke to someone in the first year of the pandemic, and she was like, “I’m getting so sick and tired of this, ‘We’re all in it together.’”  She’s like, “I live in a house share with three other people who I don’t like, who are really loud, really noisy.  We don’t have a communal area.  I’m sat on my bed with really rubbish WiFi.  And my boss is sending pictures on Instagram going, ‘We’re all in this together,’ when he’s sat overlooking his swimming pool with his superfast WiFi.”  And again, there’s that kind of empathy gap.  She’s like, “I’m not in it with that guy.”  I was like, “Yeah, I know what you mean.”  So I think there’s a flipside to that.

But I think the other reluctance about coming back into the office is they’re still set up for extroverts.  And there is a narrative that played out at the start of the pandemic that, oh, the pandemic’s really good for introverts when it comes to work.  And that was kind of true, but only to a point because as human beings we’re still hardwired to want to be with other human beings.  It’s the nature of who we are.  However, what introverts got from the pandemic was this sudden realization that actually they weren’t getting interrupted.  They didn’t have to put headphones in to block out the noise of open plan offices.  They weren’t being asked to sit in meetings for 60 minutes a day and all of those kind of things that we do.

And even now we’ve got organizations who are like, “Oh, we’re going to change our office layout.  We’re going to go to hot desk.”  I’m like, oh, you’ve learned nothing.  That’s still an office set up for extroverts; you know?  So I think the reluctance largely is around the commutes, and cost of the commute, and the fact that we’ve proved that we can work away from home, and the technology works, and it always did work.  And that people have created a space where they could be more productive that isn’t actually in an office, Bill.

Rebuilding Culture

WENDY GROUNDS:  Thinking about a scenario, if you have a team that has gone from being remote that has now moved back into being in-office, and say now things have kind of broken down, there’s a been a low morale or distrust within the team, how can they rebuild or reset that culture, now that they’ve come back into the office?

COLIN ELLIS:  It really is as simple, Wendy, as getting together and talking.  You know, it sounds so obvious when I said it, it’s like, oh, oh, great, thanks for those valuable insights.  Oh, we hadn’t thought of that.  This guy’s a genius.  Yeah, can’t wait for his next book.  But it’s true.  Again, we still  expect culture just to evolve naturally.  The organizations that thrived during COVID, the ones that came together really early on and said, whoa, hang on a minute, the nature of the way that we get stuff done has really changed, you know, 40 to 60% of the way that we work has changed.  So actually we need to agree how we’re going to do this thing called “work” in this environment when people can’t be together.

I’ve run a lot of those workshops.  I’m doing a lot of those workshops now just to reconnect employees.  Talk about, well, what’s the good stuff that you do?  And then talk about, well, what are those opportunities for improvement?  Trust has played out really strongly in all of those workshops so far as you’ve got this, almost this trust gap, what I mentioned, you know.  And there’s two elements to trust.  There’s effective trust and cognitive trust.  Essentially effective trust is how good of a human being are you?  You know?  How much empathy do you have?  Are you able to be emotionally intelligent?  Cognitive trust is basically how well do you know your job?

But I think if you’re a good human being that knows how to do their job well and has got good discipline and courageous when they need to be, trust should always be assumed, always be assumed.  If you think the best of someone, that’s what you’ll get.  The flip of that is if you think the worst of someone, that’s also what you get because what that will do is it will literally pour out of you in your behaviors because you simply don’t place your trust in someone to do the right thing. 

So you’ve got to come back together.  You’ve got to reestablish those bonds.  You’ve got to talk about what you learned about yourself.  And you’ve got to kind of talk about, well, what kind of culture do we need going forward?  And then how are we going to sustain it when we’ve got different people in different locations doing different things?

The argument, Wendy, just around this point, I always get is, “Oh, well, we can’t spend two days offsite.  You don’t understand our business.”  I’m like, “Oh, yeah, here we go.”  Last week I worked with a team of doctors and nurses from emergency rooms, and they took two days offsite to talk about what they’d learned about each other, what they’ve learned about the way that they did stuff, and they made a commitment to change the way that they work going forward because they were out of that kind of harum-scarum COVID where they just had people in corridors everywhere.  So if they can do it, anybody can.

Managing Remote Team Culture

BILL YATES:  I want you to make the argument for us, Colin that a team culture is just as important when we have a hybrid or a remote setting as it is when we’re face to face.  I think some people think, okay, well, I’m working remotely, so culture is kind of up to me.  It’s kind of up to me to be accountable to myself to get up, to login, to be connected, to get the work done.  But I know it goes deeper than that; right?  Culture impacts all of us, and our way of working has changed.  So talk to us about what you’ve seen where remote teams have worked well, where they’ve captured some secret sauce in developing their culture and maintaining their culture.  And what do you learn from them? 

COLIN ELLIS:  Probably midway through the pandemic, I’d worked with about three of the big tech companies.  And those guys know how to do culture.  They recognize that kind of hybrid is harder to do.  And it is.  But of course what the tech companies don’t do is they don’t put it in a bucket that says “Culture Change Is Hard,” and they go, “We’re just going to leave that over there, and we might come back to it.”  They’re like, “Let’s empty the bucket.  Let’s talk about how we do this thing.”

And so some of the things that some teams have done, I’ll give you some examples of clients that I work with, is their agreed almost code of the things that they would say and they wouldn’t say in this thing called “hybrid working culture.”  So especially now we’ve got people back in the office.  So really thinking about, well, what phrases can I use because we don’t want to alienate anybody.  We also want to make sure, particularly for managers, that we don’t have proximity bias.  Because I can see Bill, I think Bill’s the hardest worker, or he’s going to get all of my attention.  And it’s much, much harder.  In the same way that Agile delivery is harder for projects, you know, than waterfall.

It’s the same with hybrid.  It’s much harder.  Which is why Dropbox aren’t doing it.  Dropbox aren’t doing it.  They said, their words were, “It’s an uneven experience.”  I completely agree.  It is an uneven experience.  But you can still do it.  You’ve got organizations like Atlassian, who produce JIRA and Confluence there.  They have a really strong hybrid work culture at the minute because they make those agreements.  So things that you can’t say like: “Oh, if you were in the office you would.”  “Oh, we’re off out for lunch now.  What are you doing?”  “Oh, we’re having morning tea.”  All of these things.

I was even with one organization, and they’d organized for the people in the office to have lunch delivered. There was about four people of the 50 people who weren’t in an office.  And this one lady said, “Well, what are we going to do?”  I just straight away as the facilitator, I said to the CEO, “It’s like, yeah, what are you going to do?  Because all of a sudden you’ve got one rule for everyone here, and four people left out.”  It was like, “that’s why we’ve having the workshop, isn’t it?”  It’s like, “Yeah.  It’s kind of the point”.


COLIN ELLIS:  But this is a new set of skills that people have to learn.  I wrote in “The Hybrid Handbook” about kind of management skills.  They need to be different.  You need to set expectations in the same way.  You need to kind of check in in different ways.  And you need to make time for the so-called watercooler conversations. 

Microsoft caused a bit of a stir in 2020 when they said “Innovation is reduced 16%.”  And yet you’ve got some people who are being kind of creative about the way that they do those watercooler conversations.  And they’re like, “Yeah, no, ours didn’t decrease.  We’re good.”  Because we actually found a way to do it in hybrid.  It’s much, much harder to do, but it’s much, much more rewarding when you do it.  And not only that, Bill, and I think you alluded to this before, you create competitive advantage because all of a sudden you can hire people from around the world because you have this culture that’s aspirational for everybody else.

Engaging Remote Team members

BILL YATES:  That’s true.  People see it, they see the excitement of the team and that they figure things out.  They want to be a part of it.  Absolutely.  Just advice for those leaders.  Let’s say a leader has remote team members, and they can sense that they’re just disengaged.  And they’re struggling with trying to figure out, those individuals, how do I get them engaged?  What’s some advice that you have for them?

COLIN ELLIS:  Yeah, the pressure’s really on, I think, for managers, Bill.  You know, I talked just briefly then about that skill set.  I think what happened in the past when everyone was in the same place, managers felt that they had this element of control.  One of the people that we’re seeing a pushback on hybrid working is, is management loss of control.  But partly they could make sure that people had the discipline.  In a hybrid world, what we require is human beings to be supremely disciplined themselves.  And we live in a generation where we’re the most distracted humans ever.  So managers not only have to set expectations clearly so that people understand.  They have to check in regularly sometimes to make sure that people are on track for delivery.  That was the same in the office.

But because we can’t see people, we want to make sure that the people are sticking to the things that they’ve done.  Where people aren’t performing, then we just need to check in on their mental health.  I mean, that was one of the things, the positives that came out during COVID.  All of a sudden we’re starting to focus much more on mental health than we ever did before.  Physical health was always the priority.  And it’s not that it’s not important.  But, you know, there are more days lost in our working lives around the world through mental health than there is through physical health. 

So managers almost have to kind of check in.  They have to be counselors.  Are you okay?  Is there anything you need from me?  They have to be empathy-out.  But they also have to make sure that people have the discipline to get stuff done.

And that comes back to setting those clear expectations and then building a culture where team members actually drive each other.  That comes back to the responsibility is everybody’s at the start, Bill.  So then we have this sense of camaraderie, but the sense of continuous momentum.  And it’s not that we don’t want the people to take a break.  We absolutely do.  But there has to be a natural end to the workday so that we’re not in front of screens all of the time so that people feel refreshed and ready to go again the next day. 

Psychological Safety within Remote Teams

WENDY GROUNDS:  Another important part of that is also cultivating an environment of psychological safety, making sure that people feel safe even within a remote environment.  So what’s a good way to ensure that, to ensure that your team members are feeling psychologically safe?

COLIN ELLIS:  Well, I think when you give everyone a voice in the definition of culture, that’s the start, Wendy.  I think, you know, talking about behavior, talking about what it means to be a good human being, and it’s so great to actually see all of those things now.  Even on the airlines now we’re having to remind people to be good human beings.  I mean, I never thought I’d see that day.  However, I think what we want to do is for managers to call out behavior that prevents other people from speaking up, that prevents other people from sharing their opinions.

We forget, Wendy, you know, even though I’ve been talking about this stuff like three, four, five years, and people like Daniel Goldman have been talking about it for 20 years, emotional intelligence is the key to connection.  It’s the key to relationships.  It’s the key to working together as teams to get things done.  And so providing an environment where people are able to be the best of themselves is crucially important.  Which means that managers can’t walk past poor behavior or make excuses for poor performance like they have done in the past.  And I think generationally what we’re seeing is cultures are moving that way now where people are – they have a greater courage to speak up when they see inefficiency, inequality.

You know, we see employee activism.  I wrote about this recently.  Employee activism has really become a part of our cultures.  And what organizations need to do is to nurture it, to welcome it, not to push back on it.  I mean, Walt Disney Company was the latest about three or four months ago where staff wrote an open letter, you know, about what was happening in Florida.  We’d never have seen that 10 years ago.

So organizations really do need to evolve and grow with the times.  I still think some of them are stuck in the past.  Every time I hear, “Why do we have to work in the office, the only place that we can work?”  I’m like, you know, we’re going back 30, 40, even 50 years there.  So I think those are the kinds of things that undermine safety, as is kind of denial, denial of flexibility.  And organizations will very quickly lose the people that they need to not only maintain a vital culture but also to be successful in the future.

Connecting New Hires to the Culture

WENDY GROUNDS:  One last question on remote teams.  When you’re onboarding a new team member, how can you connect that person to the culture?

COLIN ELLIS:  Oh, don’t be boring about the way you do it.  That would be my best advice.  Hello.  This is Bill.  He’s a project manager.

BILL YATES:  PowerPoint presentation.

COLIN ELLIS:  Yeah.  Just read the Intranets for the first three days.  Like don’t be boring.  Bring the team together, you know, have a coffee morning.  Get someone to host it.  Share an interest in facts.  Share something unique.  Mix people up.  Kind of put people in virtual rooms together and get them to share, you know, something that’s worked well, so an opportunity for improvement.  Make sure that new member of staff is given the opportunity to change something.  Give them a project to find something that’s inefficient in the way that you do things in the next three months and get them to present kind of back on that.  You know, find ways to give them access to different departments, different learning, different knowledge.

Or if you just need someone with a pulse to start working really, really quickly, then just make sure they feel welcomed.  Make sure they feel part of the team.  You know, I’m a big believer in sending people a mug or a mouse mat or something simple that says, hey, you’re one of us, and here are some tokens to help you feel connected to who we are.  Nothing beats those regular check-ins, those random acts of kindness, and people saying, “Hey, you good?  Do you need anything?”  I think they’re the things that make people really feel wanted, really feel welcomed, and create those bonds that are then hard to break.

BILL YATES:  I’ve just got to add one thing, too.  I think that’s part of the appeal of the role of project manager is one of the things that you hit on, which is when you join an organization, and you’re just trying to understand how the organization works, and what their products and services are, and what the general vibe is, one of the nice things about being a project manager is many times you get to speed up in that process because you are touching so many different departments.  You really get a sense for, okay, what are the department leads like?  How do they work?  How do they  manage their team?  I think it’s a natural advantage for a project manager quickly to be able to get an understanding of what the overall organization is like.

And so for me if I am a project manager, and I bring a new team member onto my team that’s new to the organization, how can I include them in some of those meetings or give them a chance to have some of that cross-department contact that I’ve had naturally.  I need to include the team in that and share that so that they can really see how people fit into the organization and what they bring to it and what different departments deliver.

COLIN ELLIS:  Yeah, yeah, so true, Bill.  I used to be head of delivery and project delivery.  And when all of my peers were right in project management process frameworks, we were pulling together a handbook on different areas of the organization, what they do, who the key people were, what we could learn from them.  Those things for me were as important as a process pathway.  I’m not saying process is not important.  But actually getting those insights into those other departments.

And I used to have a notebook, I’ve probably still got it in my garage, where I used to write notes about what was good about other people’s cultures and what I liked about what leaders did.  And I was like, okay, I want to learn from all of this and build this into the way that we do things.  So I think that’s a great example of something that organizations can do to give new team members as much access as they can to different areas and different departments, yeah.

Managing Team Culture in Hybrid Environments

WENDY GROUNDS:  Now, I know a lot of project managers work on projects where you have onsite, you have some in an office, and you have some workers who are just working remotely.  And so it’s difficult to kind of maintain a culture between all of those different sites.  How do you really make sure that you have an even distribution of culture amongst those different work environments?

COLIN ELLIS:  Yeah.  So this is a new management skill, and people need to clue themselves up on it.  And so I’ve been asked to talk a lot about this, Wendy, as you can imagine, over the last year.  So hybrid work is a different way of working.  And so it’s crucially important that managers fundamentally understand what the differences are, what the risks are, but also what the opportunities are so that they can do it properly.  There are still too many people out there now who are making an assumption that they know what it is.  Oh, we know what remote work is.  We’ve done it before.  It’s like, yeah, no.  You haven’t.  This is different.  This is different because now people are demanding to work from home, rather than saying, oh, I have to take my daughter to the doctor’s.  Can I work from home?  It’s different.

And so managers really have to kind of fundamentally understand, well, what is this thing called hybrid?  I think what you need is a real strong bond between staff.  You need to make sure that trust exists.  You need to make sure that you’re checking in regularly.  It doesn’t have to necessarily be every day.  You need to make sure that you’re not doing things that kind of drain people’s productive time.  What we don’t want to do, Wendy, is replicate some of the dumb stuff we did face to face.  We don’t want to replicate that virtually.  I already see this, we have back-to-back meetings face to face.  I now see people with back-to-back virtual meetings.

You know, what happened to the good old-fashioned audio call?  Why does every call have to be a video?  Why does everybody have to show their face all of the time?  These are all opportunities that managers, project managers, senior managers have got to really change the game, to really look at the way that we want to work in a hybrid way and say, okay, well, what can we do that’s different?  How do we make sure that tools support the way that we want to work, not get in the way of it?  How do we make sure that we’re not emailing each other, sending each of the Teams messages and Slack messages and WhatsApp group? 

You know, kind of what mechanisms are we using to communicate what and when and why, to whom?  All of these things, you know, they’re all within management control.  They’ve just got to learn, well, what’s the right way for me to do these things, and then work with the team to agree on the how.

Even the Playing Field

WENDY GROUNDS:  So another thing that we could come across is you’ll have all-remote or all-colocated environments.  It’s sometimes easier to manage because your playing field is even.  Everybody’s remote.  It’s all the same thing.  But sometimes in a hybrid environment it can be a lot of jockeying and bias because certain people will be spending more time with the boss maybe, and other people will just be remote, and they don’t have that interaction, that connection.  So what can a project manager do within that situation, just to make sure that it’s an even playing field?

COLIN ELLIS:  Well, I think, Wendy, they’ve got to make sure that when we agree our culture as a team, we talk about, well, what are the things that require us to be face to face, and when can we work in a more hybrid way?  You know, I was working hybrid.  I wrote about this in “The Hybrid Handbook.”  I was working hybrid in 2001.  And we were using Microsoft Messenger as our little kind of remote tool, and video calls weren’t very good at all. 

But we made some agreements to each other about when we would meet, when we would get together, when it was appropriate for us to be in the same space at the same time.  And we also agreed that we wouldn’t play favorites.  We also made some agreements about, you know, what we would do to keep people in the loop.  And these are all crucially important kind of tools and ways of working that need to be embedded into the culture.

So I think project managers have got to be really cognizant of the fact that just because I can’t see Bill doesn’t mean that, A, he’s not working; and, B, he’s not capable, or a capable as Wendy, who I see on a daily basis.  So like I said earlier, there’s never been more pressure on managers than there is now, which is why some people are pressing the panic button.  “Back to work, back to work.  And by that I mean the office.  I can see everybody.  This is really hard.”

You know, there’s a real skill set to be learned here about how we kind of bring people together.  You know, a great example is how do you interact socially.  Social interaction is one of the most important things for teams because it means that we connect over something that isn’t work.  But social interaction has always either been seen as something that happens after work – and let’s be honest, after work we don’t want to spend any time with our work colleagues.  We just go and spend time with our friends or our families.  Or else it’s something that only happens when somebody doesn’t die for a whole year, and we celebrate their birthday.  So it’s much more than that.

And what we can do is really think about the different ways that we can interact during that working time to maintain that sense of balance, to maintain that sense of equity and fairness so that people feel that even though their experience might be different day to day, it still feels even and equitable to them in their role.

Learning a New Skill Set

BILL YATES:  That’s so true.  Colin, to me you’ve hit on a key.  This is a different skill set.  Yeah, this is emotional intelligence.  This is soft skill leadership.  But it’s something new for most of our project leaders.  To that end, I would say, okay, if I’m leading a hybrid team right now, then I need some help.  I may have a blind spot that I’m not aware of.  You know, I’m showing proximity bias.  I’m not even aware of it.  I don’t want to do it, but I’m doing it.

So I need to find somebody on my team who I can trust, to bring them in and say, hey, can you help me out with this?  You know, after we have meetings, let me know if I do any of the following – boom, boom – and kind of go down that list of areas that I feel like I need to grow in. 

COLIN ELLIS:  Yeah, I think, you know, any kind of buddy system that you can create.  And, you know, I used to look for people outside my own organization, Bill.


COLIN ELLIS:  Someone who I can trade ideas with.  Even someone like myself, I’ve worked for myself, you know, I get together with two other people who work for themselves on a Monday morning, and we talk about some of the things that we’re doing, the way that we run our practices, you know, what can we learn  and get better at.  So I’ve always been a big fan of that buddy system.  I also think, as well, you know, while I’m on the podcast I might as well be honest about this, HR really need to up their game. 

We still don’t do enough to provide managers with the skills to be able to build teams.  It’s still just an assumed skill.  You know, one of the things that I did, Bill, really, really early on in the pandemic, was I was teaching people how to do virtual presentations.  Like it’s just a basic skill.


COLIN ELLIS:  That everybody needs.  How do you engage, and how do you inspire an audience when you’re at home in front of a screen?  How do you do it?  Well, you stand up, for a start.  Stand up?  How do I do that?  Well, you buy a little extension for your webcam.  Right.  You invest in a green screen.  You do all of these little things.  But there’s no support, and there’s no help for managers.  So in the absence of that, what managers can’t do is throw up their hands.  They could read books, read articles.  And even better, if you can find someone who you know is doing it well, or is on the same pathway as you, and you can kind of work with each other to get better at doing this thing called “hybrid.”

Getting Buy-In from Upper Management

WENDY GROUNDS:  One last question.  How do you get buy-in if you have upper management that’s not really sold on “We need to work on culture, and we need to work on the experience of the team players”?  How do you get buy-in from that upper management?

COLIN ELLIS:  Yeah, great question.  You have to show them how to do it and show them that it works, Wendy.  Now, this is the position I’ve found myself in time and time again, where people wouldn’t invest or questioned why I was doing the things that I was doing.  And I still get it with my clients now.  We had a sales call earlier today, and someone was like, oh, how do I get my senior manager over the line?

So I was like, well, maybe just give him some statistics, that if you spend time working on your culture, and you hold each other to it, then you get higher engagement, higher productivity, reduced physical and mental health issues.  You get lower attrition.  You become a more attractive employer.  And you get fewer risks, fewer safety defects.  I was like, just start with some of those things.  But ultimately, if you can actually spend the time showing your manager, hey, not only have I done it this way, but look at the results that we’re getting.

I had my integrity questioned when I was a permanent employee time and time again.  And then three, six months down the track, when the team was delivering, my boss was like, okay, so we need to know what you did with your team because it seems to be working.  There’s almost this begrudging respect.

I’ll give you one great example.  I remember taking my team out on a Monday afternoon at like 2:00 o’clock to paint each other’s portraits.  So I always believed in social activity needs to take place in working hours.  I was a government employee.  My boss was like, “Where are you guys going?”  I said, “Oh, we’re going to paint our portraits.”  You should have seen the look on his face.  He’s like, “What?”  I said, “We’re going to paint each other’s portraits.”  He was like, “Okay.”  I was like, “Jim, you don’t have to worry.  The work’s on track.  We’re all good.  We’re going to deliver when we say.”  He’s like, “Am I paying?”  I’m like, “No, I’m paying.  It’s absolutely fine.  The taxpayer’s not paying.”

Anyway, we came back at 4:00 o’clock, laughing, joking.  Put up these rubbish portraits.  And three of my peers on the senior management team all took their staff out to do it exactly the same.  So sometimes the best influence is you doing something that generates laughter and doesn’t undermine delivery.  And in that scenario everybody will copy it all of the time.  And what you’ve got to do in that point is embrace them as followers and go, “Hey, listen, I did this really nutty thing.  Oh, and you can do it, too.  Here’s all of the details.”  Because then when you’ve got more followers it feels less risky, and everybody does it.

BILL YATES:  That’s fantastic.  Can we go do portraits, Wendy?  Danny, what do you think?

WENDY GROUNDS:  I want, I know, Danny and I were like, yeah, we want to go do that now.

COLIN ELLIS:  Oh, you should totally do it.  It’s so funny.  So funny.

BILL YATES:  Danny’s got skills, though, that’s the problem.  Out of the three of us, he’ll actually create.


COLIN ELLIS:  The one that I painted, I said that it looked like Picasso had painted with broken arms.  It was that bad, it really was.  It was awful.  But there’s always one, right, there’s always one who does this beautiful Monet portrait.  You’re like, yeah, yeah, that’s good.  You go be you.  Thanks for nothing.


Get in Touch with Colin

WENDY GROUNDS:  Colin, this has been really good.  I’ve so enjoyed this conversation.  If our listeners want to reach out to you, what’s the best way that they can get in touch?

COLIN ELLIS:  They can find me on LinkedIn.  I’m all over LinkedIn, Wendy.  So just search for Colin D Ellis.  They can find me at the Culture Makers Community.  We set up a free community to help people build cultures, so that’s www.culturemakers.community.  They can go to my website, colindellis.com.  Or just find me on YouTube.  There’s loads of free videos there, again, just providing some insights and things that people can do to create a great place to work.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, thank you, Colin.  Thank you so much.  The topic is one that only gets more complex.  It’s like a diamond; right?  There are so many different ways and facets to culture.  And I love your first premise, that each one of us influences culture in our organization.  So there’s no pointing fingers.  It’s like, okay, what can I do today to make this a better place for everyone?

COLIN ELLIS:  Absolutely, Bill.  That’s, you know, that’s a great way of summarizing it.  What can I do?  You know, and someone said, “When will I know when it’s the right time to leave an organization?”  I said, “When you have exhausted all of your energy trying all of the things to do your bit to generate positivity and vibrancy.  When you’ve reached the end of that, then your skills aren’t being respected, and it’s time to take them elsewhere and create something magical in another organization.”


WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s it for us here on Manage This.  Thank you for joining us.  To claim your PDUs which you have just earned by listening to this podcast, go to Velociteach.com.  Choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page, click the button that says Claim PDUs, and click through the steps.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

5 responses to “Episode 158 – Keep it Together – Managing Team Culture”

  1. Tammi B says:

    Seeing that I’m a fan of remote working, this was a fantastic presentation.. Thanks for sharing!!

  2. JJ Hernandez says:

    multicultural teams engagement is crucial part of any project success, so project leaders should focus on this special feature to ensure the harmony between team members

  3. Roy Turner says:

    Appreciated the perspective of this podcast. I currently am in a fully remote position and one of the few people not local to the area I’m working in. I do see a need for more team relationship building efforts to help projects run smoother. At the same time, working from home is great. For years the perspective has always been that the “work day” clock starts when employees get to the office. In a hybrid remote work situation I think employers need to see the commute to the office as part of the work day because it is extra time, miles, expenses, etc. that the employee has to invest to perform the work the employer is requesting/requiring. Employers don’t care about making employees come into the office because it doesn’t impact them or their bottom line. When it starts impacting the productivity of the employee maybe the employers will start to see the same benefits the employees have found in working from home.

    • Wendy Grounds says:

      You make a great point Roy. Thanks for your comment! I definitely appreciate the benefit of not having a daily commute. Yet we do have to be more intentional about our efforts to stay connected as a team, Colin has some helpful advice for us.

  4. MJ Nguyen says:

    Fantastic! Look forward to learning more about hybrid, remote, and in office culture.

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