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March 27, 2024

Virtual Team Building: Managing Acculturation and Interpersonal Relationships with Authenticity

By: David Hinson

I began my journey at Apogee in the summer of 2021, stepping into the role of interim chief information officer at a regional public university north of Kansas City, MO.

This was a big shift for me, moving from a small liberal arts university to a public institution, but also transitioning from university employment to that of a managed services provider – albeit one dedicated entirely to higher education.

Immersed in my new environment, I found not only a new campus organization to assimilate into but an entirely new corporate culture to understand at Apogee. I navigated strange collegial and personal networks while trying to grasp the meta-language of my new colleagues. I stitched together a vocabulary to mask any imposter syndrome I might have felt while projecting a quiet confidence.

Disconnectedness is common for anyone joining a new team. But my transition, barely post-pandemic, came with challenges. The rules of engagement for working, living, and learning were changing. Teaching and learning modalities, and work-life social contracts, were upended. Leaders either reverted to familiar patterns or boldly embraced new strategies for coping in the New Now.

I was facing an acculturation crisis, a feeling I suspected was not unique to me.

Acculturation is defined as the process of integrating individuals from diverse backgrounds into a cohesive team culture. It proved to be a formidable challenge. Not just for me, but for a wide swath of the higher education employee landscape.

I dove in, placing myself in as many formal and informal channels as I could, both inside my new company and my new school. I asked questions and listened intently, drinking deeply from the fire hose.

I sought opportunities to connect to outside teams and gauge how each organization contributed to the success of the whole. It was the grown-up equivalent of taking the family TV set apart and trying to put it together, in working order, before dad got home.

This manifested itself at my new school in interesting ways. I stood up a vaccination incentive program for students from scratch, in practically an afternoon, and followed it up by implementing a new online parking decal system in under 30 days.

Drinking from the firehose, indeed.

That worked fine for me, but what about those I was seeking to bring into the larger organizational fold? How could I strengthen the bonds shared with existing team members, while transforming the structure of our teams to meet institutional requirements that were no longer recognizable?

The answer was three-fold. First, I had to make sure I was equipping those in my charge with the tools needed to succeed in a hybrid workplace, across multiple campuses and time zones: calendaring, messaging, project management, and managed-to systems of accountability, sized to their as-built, fact-dependent situations.

I started gradually with our IT staff, working to manage help desk ticket service level agreements (SLAs) that had been set, but seldom measured, and by advertising to students the computing resources available on campus through LabStats, a package originally deployed by the school during the pandemic to accommodate remote lab access.

IT department staff were asked to use LabStats to record machine and software package usage post-pandemic, against what were believed to be campus needs based on the team’s pre-COVID experience, to accurately normalize and pare down oversubscribed lab spaces.

Second, I needed to provide our staff with a working vocabulary for success: agendas, planning, processes, policies, budgets, practices, training, assessment, and encouragement were core concepts. This vocabulary was regularly communicated to our IT team through a weekly series of 1:1, face-to-face meetings with our department directors and leads.

Finally, I worked toward normalizing our infrastructure support to match the personnel required to run and support the campus post-pandemic.

This resulted in moving residential and administrative campus network support to a managed services model under Apogee. Doing so allowed campus systems and network support teams to focus more intently on the University’s ERP system, identity management and security systems, and enterprise application support. This also enabled us to hire a dedicated Chief Information Security Officer to bring structure and focus to our internal security efforts on campus.

The intent was to craft an environment where our new team members could plug in, belong, and have real skin in the game – focusing on the proactive and strategic, rather than the endless reactive cycle of break-fix operation.

All this was accomplished within a six-month engagement. So successful were we in this transformation that we were asked to extend our time another six months. With the added time, we were able to successfully place a successor CIO at the school before completing our work on campus.

I’d like to say all these team building efforts were unqualified successes. It would certainly make for a much better story. But it wouldn’t be a faithful telling.

Moving from a largely unstructured, unmanaged state – transitioning what was three divisions into a single department – to a managed, structured model is never achieved without some resistance to change. Forward movement always causes friction. I am happy to say, however, that most staff members found their footing, prospered, and grew in this transformed environment.

This experience only reinforced my belief that leadership is a contact sport, where trust is established solely through experience. It cannot be demanded unearned. The coins of the realm for establishing this kind of trust are interpersonal relationships. Of course, maintaining high value relationships in a hybrid work environment can be challenging at best.

In a traditional office setting, casual interactions and face-to-face communication play a significant role in building rapport among team members. When spread across time zones and locales, the challenge becomes inherently that much more difficult.

But it can be achieved through intentional and regular contact, effective and frequent communications of goals, objectives, and achievements, and through sharing lessons learned transparently and thoughtfully, even when doing so yeets leaders and their teams well beyond the bounds of their comfort zones.

Leading authentically is key to our success. Absent face-to-face interactions, it can be challenging, if not impossible, for team members to gauge one another’s intentions and emotions accurately. We must provide the tools necessary to supply missing context, and demonstrate our own mastery of them. And we must prioritize developing the emotional intelligence required to read any room, interpolating meaning with only a scant handful of cues.

Such authenticity and emotional acuity are nurtured when we act with integrity, with vulnerability, and with intrinsic respect for each team member.

For in the New Now, our ability to punch above our weight is achieved by enculturating new team members aggressively. We do this by actively embracing and respecting the unique gifts they bring to the whole through strong, interpersonal relationships, and leading genuinely, thoughtfully, and intentionally.

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David Hinson

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