When do you get into the groove with a job?
We all find the rhythm of our work eventually, but is there a way to make the first few weeks in a job a little bit easier? As someone who has started a few jobs in the last few years, I happen to know that finding that rhythm sometimes feels seamless but more often it feels clunky, awkward, and painful.
And it probably always will, to a certain extent. Not knowing the rules and culture of a team is kind of the definition of being “new” and so there will always be a period of learning and problem-causing, while you get to know how exactly this group operates day-to-day.
But today I hope to make the learning curve a little less steep, by outlining some of the things you can do to making conquering culture just a little bit smoother when you’re new to a team or company.
Everybody’s culture is different
It doesn’t matter how many engineering teams you’ve worked on or how famous the last company you worked for was — when you’re on a new team, you’ve got to learn new rules. Do people on this team fight, or do they resolve conflict in quiet meetings? Are you expected to be in the office until 8pm every night, or do most people head out the door at 5 on the dot?
Perhaps the most important thing about learning the culture of a new team is first understanding that you are learning their culture. Even if you are joining the team in a leadership role, you are still joining their team and as such, their rules and the way they have done things before matters. The faster you understand that this team is different (not that you have to do everything their different way, but accepting that they have different preferences and precedents than you do) the better off you will be.
It is about being intentional and deliberate with how you interact with people and make decisions about your work. It’s not just how you’d prefer to do it, it’s about how things are done here.
And once you’ve got that mindset, you can start to tackle the intricacies of a team or company culture.
Capturing culture piece by piece
There are lots of cultural factors to consider when you are joining a team, so we’ve compiled a list of some of the biggest key culture markers that will help you fit in on your new team as quickly as possible. When you are next in a new role, keep your eyes open for these elements in order to find your groove as quickly as possible.
Nobody wants to be the first one to leave the office, especially when you’re the new guy. In most offices today, there aren’t set working hours; instead, there’s usually a kind of unspoken expectation of when and how long people will be at work.
Asking about this kind of thing usually yields really unhelpful answers, simply because it tends to be “just understood” by the group and there aren’t any rules per se that they can share with you. Plus, people may be reluctant to scare the new person or give them the wrong idea about what their boss might expect from them.
On your first few days, then, you should just be prepared to stay late. Even if you don’t end up needing to be there, you’ll want to not have plans or appointments that will make you nervous or unfocused (since people will pick up on that). Make a note of when most people leave and use that to get a feeling for what you can expect most days.
But don’t leave just because one person left; you don’t yet know if that person is known as a slacker or if they are leaving for a special reason that day. It is better to see how the majority of the team acts for a few days, so you can have a general understanding of team expectations. Once you have the rhythm down, then you can start tweaking the understood schedule to work for you.
In some offices, you are expected to be there every single day unless you are knocking at death’s door. Other companies encourage team members to work from home whenever they need to, as long as things still get done. This can be one of the trickiest things to find out about because, like office hours, it can be a delicate and poorly defined topic in most workplaces.
After all, you don’t want to seem like someone who doesn’t want to be in the office, or who wants to use work-at-home time as an opportunity to slack off. However, if it’s an option at your company, knowing how to use the system well will enable you to be more productive and better balanced at work — while staying in harmony with your team.
It’s a good idea, again, to see how other people handle this and try not to take advantage of it until you know. Do people give notice in advance if they’re going to be out of the office? Or does an email to the team on the day-of suffice? Are people fully available (answering emails, on IM, in project management tools during normal office hours) or are they more unplugged on work-at-home days?
If you happen to get sick or have to work from home for some other reason early on in your tenure, this is a good one to simply ask your manager about. It’s better to have an awkward conversation with one person than to potentially let your team down or hamper their productivity by not behaving in an expected way.
One of the hardest parts about being new is knowing how to handle new office relationships. Of course, you want to be friendly to everyone — but how do you handle relationships that escalate in the first few days?
Sometimes the person you spend the most time with in your first few weeks becomes someone you’d really rather not work with later on. Be careful about aligning yourself with any person or team too early on; you don’t yet know how they are perceived by the rest of the team, and doing so can hurt your first impressions.
Occasionally people will try to get the new person on their side early, especially if they are pushing an idea or are otherwise not being heard by the rest of the team. It’s in your best interest to stay neutral in these situations because you simply don’t have all the background and information needed to make a good decision, and being on the wrong side of something like that can cause negative ripples throughout your team and even across departments.
Email is something that seems small, but that always feels like a big deal when someone messes it up. Pay close attention in your early days to how people use email. Big factors to pay attention to:
- How frequently do people email throughout the day? Is it typically person-to-person, or to a whole team?
- What are the distribution lists and groups you need to know?
- How quickly are you expected to respond to messages?
- In group emails, how is reply-all handled?
- What’s the typical email format?
- What is the tone of most emails? All-business? Chatty? Freeform?
- What are people communicating by email? (Status updates, questions, etc.)
That last point — what are people communicating by email — is a big one. You’ll want to determine if email is the primary means for communication in your office or if people handle communication another way, so you’re fitting into the flow other people are expecting from you.
It’s important that you get the email rules down early, so as not to overload people’s inboxes if that’s not how your team operates. It can set you apart as someone who “doesn’t get it” or as pushy or annoying if you aren’t communicating on the same level and via the same channels as everyone else.
Where to get answers
This one links up to the email question above, because knowing where to go for answers is a key way you communicate to your team that you know what’s going on.
When I worked at Starbucks HQ for a summer, I was shocked to learn that on my team, people tended to pop over to each other’s desks for help rather than communicating by IM or email. I had always assumed interrupting someone face-to-face was a last resort option for when you *really* needed help, but on this team, when I sent emails asking for advice on something, I often wouldn’t get replies until hours later.
People just didn’t do things that way. And so I had to get comfortable with the idea that help came from asking someone face-to-face at their desk. That’s how senior team members expected to be asked, and that’s how they gave help most effectively.
It doesn’t matter if the team’s preferred answer-retrieval system feels weird to you; if you need help from someone, the best way to get the help you need is to ask them for it in the way they expect and prefer.
What’s going on in the team and company
This is the big one! The way you communicate about what you’re working on, how it’s going, and how it impacts the rest of the team is crucial for setting yourself up successfully on a new team. And equally important: how do you find out what other people are working on and what is happening with the company?
This is what getting into the groove is all about — it’s about learning how your team communicates the most important information about their work. After all, that’s what you’re all there for!
You should be tackling the following questions in your first few weeks of work, both by observing the people around you and talking to your manager explicitly about how to do the best work possible:
- Meetings, status emails, 1:1s. These are all ways that teams communicate status and progress. Which does your team prefer?
- How often is status and progress shared?
- How is performance evaluated?
- What does *great work* on your team look like?
- How is great work shared with the team, and what about it is praised as so great?
- How transparent is your company? What are you expected to know and share?
Communication is the fabric that holds teams together, and so learning how you new team communicates is really essential for finding your rhythm in their culture.
Understanding culture is the key to finding your new role rhythm
Of course, we all learn the culture of our new teams through time and experience, but hopefully this list can help you be a bit more deliberate, intentional, and focused about finding the groove in your new team faster.
When you learn to play by the rules of your new team, you learn the best way to be successful on that team — which is a win for everyone.