Strange (First) Days

These are strange days for everyone. Lots of people operating in unusual circumstances. As I’ve written before I have never been a fan of working from home so that alone has been a steep learning curve for me. I’ve got my little ‘office’ set up in my bedroom bay window and I’m getting used to it – though I’ll never find it totally comfortable.

For me though the really strange thing has been starting a new role during this period. I’m a couple of weeks into being the interim Head of Product Management for Essex County Council. It is unusual for a few reasons.

(1) I’m not a contractor and I don’t really do many interim roles as it isn’t really part of the Notbinary offer. I did it at the BBC but even that was as part of a wider team we supplied. This role at Essex came along at a time where I was looking for something that was more in my comfort zone after a string of consultancies gigs where I was operating at the ragged edge of my knowledge.

(2) I don’t really do local government. This hasn’t been particularly by design and I did have my share of interactions during my time with FixMyStreet but really the story of my career has been public service at a national level. I’ve always maintained an interest in local initiatives and obviously our relationship with Futuregov reinforced that but still…it is unusual.

(3) I only knew two people in the team in advance. One is my boss and one is a peer. I’d had a single telephone conversation with another peer before I joined. In theory the engagement is six months so hopefully at some point I will meet the team in person but at the moment everyone only really exists as boxes in MS Teams. This is STRANGE. It is hard to get to know people, understand team dynamics, get the working rhythm coming in cold like this. Let alone get a feel for the office politics. That is just with the team. Essex County Council is BIG. There are lots of people and lots of teams and lots of politics and without the opportunity to just kind of soak that in by osmosis it is slow going.

(4) Now for some roles and even some people in me shaped roles maybe that wouldn’t matter as much but an awful lot of what I do is about reading the room, judging where to push and where to pause and leading from the middle. These things are hard when people only see you on a schedule. So some of what I am needing to do is find a totally new way of doing what I do. Challenging my own instincts and approaches and finding new levers to pull and buttons to push.

(5) COVID-19 is a constant spectre in every conversation, meeting and activity. This just NOT NORMAL. This isn’t a team choosing to work remotely. This is a worldwide crisis causing everybody anxiety. So in the context of joining (and leading) a new team how can I tell if this is even peoples normal personalities. How can I get a handle on improving ways of working when everyone is scrambling to understanding their new reality.

You might think from all this that I am not enjoying it and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The people are great, the challenges are interesting as well as important and without a doubt having something to get my teeth into is doing wonders for my mental health.

It is just strange.