Eight Ways to Cope When You're a Team of One
Thriving as a Lone Worker
Angharad is a small cog in a big wheel. She goes to work each day and sits in a big office, but she works alone. When the people around her go on team "away days," Angharad stays at her desk. When she attends company updates, her successes don't get a mention. And when her co-workers socialize after work, she stays back late to get on top of things.
It doesn't take long before she begins to feel overlooked, overworked and demoralized.
Angharad is a "team of one," and there are many out there just like her. They are the lone receptionists, the one-off office temps, or the "last men standing" following a program of lay-offs. They might work alone and remotely, like freelancers and telecommuters do; alongside other people in an office – a one-person HR department, for example; or independently, as care workers and estate agents.
People can even belong to both a team of one and a larger team – think, for example, of the individual who works the night shift while the rest of his or her team works during the day.
Although the circumstances of people who work alone might vary, they all face similar challenges. They often shoulder greater responsibility than individuals working in larger teams, can be tasked with critical project-based work, or may become overloaded – all with very little support. These challenges, combined with the likelihood of feeling isolated, means that the risk of them becoming ill or of having their work "go wrong" are very real.
If you are a team of one, some of these challenges might sound familiar. You might be beginning to feel pressurized by the amount of responsibility that you have. This article will look at eight strategies that can help you to cope with this situation.
Eight Strategies for Coping
1. Engage With Others
Teams of one are, by nature, seen as separate, individual entities by the rest of the organization. If you're such a team, you might struggle with having no one to discuss ideas with, be challenged by, or simply to chat with. This can lead to you feeling isolated or not engaging with other people, particularly if you work in a different physical space.
Research shows that interpersonal relationships are crucial in maintaining a happy working environment, so don't be tempted to go into "lockdown." Instead, try to stay connected with colleagues by planning meetings, staying in touch virtually, and attending social events. Not only will you feel part of something bigger, but you'll also get to hear feedback, opinions and company news. You'll also find people who will celebrate your successes with you, and who will help you to stay motivated.
2. Make Your Voice Heard
Other people might not understand your priorities, your workload, or the limits of your responsibilities as a team of one. They might bombard you with work requests when you're least able to help out, and it can be hard to reply with a flat "no." But remember that you're on your own and sometimes it's simply impossible to do everything that people ask of you. There's no shame in this, so go easy on yourself and don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
Equally, it's easy to get overlooked when you're a team of one. Your work could easily slip under the radar if you don't hold a prominent position within your organization.
So, it's crucial to get noticed. It's important that people know what you're working on, so be sure to keep them informed. Set aside some time to make sure that you're represented on the company intranet, in the monthly newsletter, and at the quarterly company meetings, and be prepared to show how your work contributes to the greater good.
If speaking up doesn't come naturally, have a look at our article on assertiveness to help you to build your self-confidence and improve your relationships at work.
3. Seek Help
No matter how good you are at your job, you can't be good at everything. Furthermore, as a team of one, you are unlikely to have much time available to master new skills, and when you're ill or suffer a setback, the needs of the business continue regardless.
It's important that you know your limitations and are able to seek help when there's a gap in your knowledge, you don't have enough time to complete your tasks, or you need help at short notice. You might find someone in another department, freelancers or external business partners who will help you.
Remember to offer your own help to others in quieter times. This will help you to "bank" some goodwill ready for when you need a favor. You may be a team of one, but that doesn't mean that you can't be a good team player within your business.
Don't overlook the help that technology can provide, either. If you're a one-person HR department, for example, software can help you to tackle recurring tasks, such as onboarding, payroll and benefits.
4. Own Your Professional Development
Working alone can reduce your ability to develop yourself professionally. You could be invited to attend fewer courses than colleagues in bigger teams, or miss hearing "on the grapevine" about learning opportunities that arise. You might simply be too busy dealing with your workload to even think about taking some time out for professional development.
To overcome these difficulties, try to take ownership of your own learning and development needs. Start by carrying out a Personal SWOT Analysis to help you to pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses. You could also try keeping a journal to review your learning and training needs. Once you've done this, find time to develop your own personal development plan and put it into action.
5. Hone Your Creative Thinking
As a team of one, you may not have access to many resources. You'll likely get by without any backup, and you can't just turn to the person sitting next to you to ask for help.
Be prepared to get creative. You might need to tackle problems single-handedly, and devise new products and processes by yourself. You may even have to sidestep usual workflows just to get the job done. But, take comfort in the fact that you are probably more resourceful and multi-faceted than bigger teams in your organization because of this.
Just in case you don't get the support that you need and things do go wrong, be sure to record and store a paper trail that shows what efforts you have made to put things right, and any conversations that you have had with your manager about your situation. There may come a time when your reputation depends on it!
Our article on Understanding Creativity is a gateway to finding useful tools such as the Reframing Matrix, and processes like the Disney Creative Strategy, that are ideal for teams of one who need to think creatively.
6. Be Organized
Teams of one often need to be hyper-organized. If you're a team of one, it's best to get organized quickly. Keep on top of your schedule, your workflows and your deadlines, and prioritize them accordingly. You, and you alone, stand accountable for getting your work done on time and to a high standard.
There are countless tools available to help you to get organized. Two great places to start with are our articles on How to Be Organized and How to Be Conscientious, where you can learn about everything from To-Do Lists and project dashboards to time management and backing up data.
7. Stay Focused
It's easy to get distracted, procrastinate and become less productive when you work by yourself – especially when you're faced with a full in-tray and no one to help you to get through it. In their 1987 book, Peopleware, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister say that it can take 15 minutes to regain lost focus, and this is time that you can ill afford to lose when you're a team of one.
To stay on track, it's important to set realistic goals for yourself and to stay focused on them. Align your goals and priorities with those of your organization, and draw up action plans for achieving them.
8. Remember Your Health and Safety
As a team of one, you might be required to work physically alone. This can increase the risks to your health and safety, so it's wise to discuss any concerns that you have about your working space with your manager before you start. Together, consider the steps that you could take to make your job safer – from ergonomic furniture to buddy systems and safety monitoring devices.
In some countries, such as the U.K. and parts of Canada, there is legislation to protect lone workers, and many organizations have devised lone worker policies. It's a good idea to read up on your company's health and safety policies before you start working alone.
Many of us, at some point, will work on our own, without any immediate colleagues. If you find yourself working as a team of one, it's important to have a plan in place to prevent you from becoming overworked, overlooked, demoralized, or unsafe.
Try to stay engaged with work colleagues by arranging meetings, attending social events, or staying in touch online.
Keep yourself organized and focused, so that you can keep on top of your schedule, workflows and deadlines. And be creative about how you approach your tasks.
Finally, ask for help if you need it. If there's a gap in your knowledge, or you don't have enough time to complete a task, seek out a colleague, a freelancer or an associate who could help you.
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