Virtual Teams: Remote crisis

This post continues the series on openly sharing our approach to leading a virtual team – a joint project with Martin Hawksey (cross-posted here) for which we write a monthly blog post.

October

This month we discuss ways in which we could develop our approach to virtual team leadership including dealing with critical incidents when you have a distributed workforce. Rather than sharing what we found works, we open up some of the questions we have and consider how we might find solutions that support sustainable development for a small virtual team.

Maren: We received some really thoughtful comments in response to our last post which touched both on the discipline it takes to work from home (your own and everyone who lives with you) and also the challenges of leading a virtual team. I’ve been thinking about how we might develop our approach to that kind of leadership and there are a couple of ideas I’d like to explore: first, I’m wondering if we should open up leading team meetings. As I meet with everyone one to one my way of leading online meetings dominates in our team and more diversity might be a good thing. Also, I’m curious about tools like Jamboard we recently looked at, a virtual notice board, to mix up how we work synchronously. Different tools may also open up new ways of interacting with each other as a group.

Last, inspired in part by this tweet I’m curious about how our team would respond to trying out new things, now that we have nearly a year of virtual working under our belt.

Martin: Having had the experience of leading team meetings in the past the proposition of having to do this on a regular basis isn’t one that personally appeals to me. In part I think it is because there are some subtle differences with leading virtual team meetings compared to when you are face-to-face. For example, as often everyone is staring at a monitor the temptation to check on the various popup notifications increases, plus with virtual meetings I think there is a tendency, because you are not physically co-present, to feel that when you are not speaking no one is watching you. I find I often have to remind myself to pay attention and not get distracted, something I don’t think happens as much when meeting the team face-to-face. Consequently, I feel you need a strong individual to lead virtual meetings, someone who is skillful in keeping everyone’s focus and energy high, something you have in abundance. This is something perhaps Paul Hollins was alluding to in his comment on our last post when he mentioned that team directorship is a challenging area.  Would you agree different qualities are required to lead virtual team meetings compared to face-to-face?

Maren: There are definitely differences between face to face, blended and fully online meetings or webinars, and additional skills that need to be developed incl. technical capabilities. I, for example, learnt a lot from seeing many different people lead meetings and facilitate webinars – but I also gained experience in different contexts that helped me build skills and confidence. It’s important to see different people’s approaches in order to find one that works, but there are some commonalities: listening, giving everyone the chance to participate/speak, keeping to time, preparing an agenda, being clear about the purpose of the meeting and its outcome. You describe traps that we can all fall into, a temptation to be passive or distracted, to rely on others’ momentum. Having seen plenty of people doodle, eat, doze or lurk their way through meetings whilst sitting around a table I think that particular aspect of communicating or working together is always challenging. But coming back to Paul’s comment, I’ve reflected on the challenge of managing crisis recently, something that came up in a series of posts I’ve written with my mentor, Margaret. Margaret commented on how using different ways of working together affected the quality of our interaction. For example, we would plan strategy face to face, work on procedures in shared docs or speak on the phone in an emergency. One of the biggest challenges in managing a distributed team lies in building confidence in managing a crisis and to continue to communicate in an emergency whether that’s staff illness, systems failures or external issues. It takes time and, unfortunately, experience to build trust in ways of managing a crisis when meeting in person isn’t an option. Initially, I found it really difficult that my Line Manager or mentor were a remote presence only. Sometimes I still do. On the other hand, that perspective helped me identify and develop the skills I need to provide support or manage an emergency. You and I have a lot of experience in managing different types of emergencies, but scaling that up to a bigger scale, to work for everyone in the organisation is a continuous learning process.

Martin: It’s interesting to reflect on critical incidents and whether being a virtual team hindered our response. An incident that immediately comes to mind was last year’s ALT Online Winter Conference when the European servers for the webinar platform we use went down. My experience was the combination of chat and video Hangouts worked well and don’t think hindered our response in any way. Fortunately we also had a great support from our webinar provider which resulted in minimal impact. In some ways I think where it gets harder are moments where you are tackling a slow burn rather than an immediate crisis, like a server failure.  In these situations the danger is they are not perceived by everyone as critical but can quickly escalate to be critical if not addressed. This is where continued communication becomes essential and like you I think it can be easily forgotten particularly in a distributed environment. This is perhaps where online tools can help. At the beginning of this post you mentioned we’d been looking at Google’s collaborative meeting tool Jamboard. This basically gives you a virtual whiteboard you can collaboratively contribute to. As someone who likes using post-it notes a virtual place for sticking these is immediately attractive. I can see Jamboard and tools that have similar functionality as a way to avoid slow burn incidents, providing a way for everyone in the team to get an overview of useful information. Creating workflows or using tools everyone is happy with is always a challenge, not just for distributed teams, and creating a culture of continuous learning is very important.

Maren: I agree with that. On the one hand it’s important to manage change by providing some continuity, like some of the strategic and operational planning tools we use and in a year full of change keeping some things the same has been a necessity. On the other hand, we’ve learnt a huge amount in the transition to operating as a virtual organisation and it makes sense that we learn from that and try out new ways of doing things. We’re already learning a lot from an interim virtual audit, and improving our new financial and payroll procedures and checklists. You point to some advantages collaboration tools could give us when it comes to managing a crisis, and there could be other upsides such as simplifying communication, creating an easy to access overview of progress and giving greater support for our team outside of meetings. I feel the additional support structure a new tool or maybe a new way of using an existing tool could provide would help give us confidence in the long run and support more learning and agile working. I’d really like to find a way to incorporate a stronger sense of progression into our weekly team meeting notes and I’d like to see whether our operations plan could become more practical day to day. I’d like a better overview of areas I don’t have active involvement in. What’s on your wish list of things to try?

Martin: I came across an interesting series of posts by Zapier in which they’ve documented the tools they recommend for remote teams as they have grown from 6 to 20 to over 110 employees. The first two posts aren’t date stamped but I’m guessing they hit 6 employees in 2013 and 20 in 2015, and the over 110 was posted in 2017. Some tools that were mentioned in 2013 that caught my eye were iDoneThis and Sqwiggle. With iDoneThis “everybody on the team checks in daily; either in their browser or via email”, which is turned into a daily digest or analysed in a report. I can see the benefit of such a system but fear, depending on how it was implemented, it might be perceived as too draconian. Another service that was mentioned that got my attention for different reasons was Sqwiggle: “Sqwiggle is a persistent video chat room, but instead of having a live video feed on all the time like you might do with Skype or Google Hangouts, Sqwiggle takes a picture of you every 8 seconds”. We’ve previously talked about the importance of trust within remote teams and whilst I can see why people might like Sqwiggle to me it appears like surveillance technology and a shortcut to eroding trust. Sqwiggle was closed in 2016 but both Sqwiggle and iDoneThis didn’t appear in Zapier’s posts in 2015 and 2017. One tool that appears in all of Zapier’s posts is the project management service Trello. Trello is a tool I often hear about in the developer community and there are lots of posts and resources that promote it as a tool to support remote teams, including Trello’s own Trello for Remote Teams. Having had a quick look a Trello an immediate thought is can we replicate it with any of the existing tools we use like Google Keep. Ultimately I think it comes back to one of our core principles, the appropriate use of technology. Unpacking what it is we want to achieve will go a long way in helping us decide how we continue to develop remote teamwork at ALT.     

Other things we’ve been reading:

 

Missed a month? Here’re previous posts:

  • September – The serious upsides of working in pyjamas
  • August – Pizza and virtual team dynamics
  • July – Special podcast edition: Reflecting on the first six months leading a virtual team
  • June – Virtual team, face to face team day: putting our blended approach to the test
  • May – Opportunity knocks: Using GDPR to strengthen virtual teams
  • April – 3 months in… hitting our first milestones as a virtual team
  • March – Developing collaboration as a virtual team
  • February – An open perspective on organisational transformation?

 

The serious upsides of working in pyjamas

Title image saying: The serious upsides of working in pyjamas

This post continues our series on openly sharing our approach to leading a virtual team – a joint project with Martin Hawksey (cross-posted here) for which we write a monthly blog post, some of which are special podcast/conference editions.

September

This month we discuss some of the more serious upsides to home working.

Maren: We’ve previously talked a lot about all the strategies we’ve adopted to support home working and the challenges it brings with it. But at the end of a few weeks of working as long and hard as we can the upside of working remotely, of not having to commute or be in an office is at the forefront of my mind. It’s the first time in ten years that I’m not heading out to work at this time of year (just after the largest event we run) and I’m finding it much easier to get on with things from home. As we are a small team, even one or two staff being absent has a big impact and that easily happens in cold & flu season. Being able to take short breaks, eat, walk around and even have a nap has enabled me to work better than I was able to in our office in previous years. In addition it’s easier to catch up on life after a week away from home. Laundry is easier to hang up when your desk is only a few steps away. Whilst I always prefer staff to take time off when sick, working from home seems often much more possible and productive when working in an office wouldn’t be. For instance, being able to wear warm, comfortable clothes, have tea, look out of the window… every small advantage of home working helps with being exhausted and I am finding that an unexpected bonus. My cat is a great home working companion and he helps get me through the day. How about you? What home working upsides are you finding helpful just now?

Martin: Being already at home for deliveries or tradespeople is a big win. It also saves money on childcare as I’m at home to see my daughter in from school. Usually I’ll get her setup with her homework and she is fine for the last couple of hours I need to work. Where it gets tricky is school holidays and when I need to travel. This has recently got harder as up until last year my wife was either doing her PhD, which gave her a lot of flexibility. Whilst her current full-time job has some work flexibility it’s not to the same degree. One of the nice things about working for ALT, even before moving to a distributed team, is its responsiveness to changes in personal circumstances and commitment to being a flexible employer. Something I was aware of when I started working from home, mainly thanks to my interest in wearables and fitness trackers, was the lack of activity I was getting each day. Whilst my office is in the attic and I get many trips to the kitchen for cups of tea it still falls short of the recommended daily activity. My solution for topping this up is to replace what would have been my morning commute with 50 minutes of exercise. As this is a mixture of a aerobic and weights it turns out it is actually better than my old commute which was a 30 minute walk to and from the station so you could argue working in a distributed team has helped me have a better lifestyle and overall wellbeing. Have you found you’ve replaced your own commute with anything?

Maren: In the past few years my personal circumstances have become a lot more complicated as I’ve become the carer for my parents. Working from home full time means I am now more easily able to juggle work and other commitments although travelling etc can also be a logistical challenge. Everyone has stuff they are trying to balance and being a distributed team makes that more possible in the long term. Regular exercise meanwhile is more of a recent addition to my lifestyle as I never found an activity I really enjoyed until I started running to raise funds for cancer research a few summers ago. What began as an attempt to give back to those who saved my mother’s life turned into an unexpected love for running. The balance and headspace I get from heading outside and clocking up miles has become very important to me, but when I was still office based the only time I could fit it in was very early in the morning and that became harder in the winter and less safe. Now, thanks to being home based, I can fit in a run more flexibly and keep active more regularly. To keep moving during the day, I also have a smart watch and one of the features it has is to remind me to get up every hour if I have sat still for too long. Other upsides for me are saving money not having to commute, eating better food and more cheaply, and being able to nap! I’ve become very good at napping and a half hour nap at lunchtime can make my afternoon more productive. There’s something here around not abusing the trust and freedom that comes with being a distributed team, about how personal and professional sides of life mix. We hear a lot about how work is starting to become more and more pervasive, but over the past 10 years I have also developed a healthy respect for how much the personal impacts on professional practice and performance. Working in a distributed team gives me a greater sense of empowerment to manage my time, but also responsibility to look out for my own wellbeing and work/life balance.

Martin: Trust is an interesting topic. When people find out I work remotely often the first question is how do I get up each morning. Some of this is actually enforced on me as I would need to get up anyway to get my daughter to school, enjoying my work is also a great motivator. My usual response to the question is it’s often not an issue to start work, the problem is to actually finish at the end of my working day. So as well as not abusing the trust in being in a distributed team, there is a degree of trust that you as an individual will look after your own wellbeing. The next question I often get asked is whether it is hard to work when the weather is sunny outside. Living in Scotland I immediately benefit from it being nice outside less often removing that temptation. When it is nice I will try and take advantage of this when I can. Our Wi-Fi extends to parts of the garden and we have various garden tables and chairs I can work from. The time I spend working outside is however restricted by tasks I can achieve on a single screen, at my desk I’ve got a 4 screen setup:

Even if I can’t work outside nicer weather is often the cue for me to have lunch outside or at least in our conservatory. Spending so much time at home I do occasionally find myself experiencing cabin fever. I only recently discovered that apparently even brief interactions with nature can go a long to ease isolation-induced depression. Unknowingly perhaps my body already knew this because as well as being a long time runner last year I bought my first road bike and often go on evening bike rides. As winter draws in these are curtailed and I find myself already trying to mentally prepare myself for the long grey winter days. What are the questions people ask you when they find out your work in a distributed team? Have you experience cabin fever yet?

Maren: The first question about working remotely I get asked is how I manage staff without supervising their work in person. How can I trust things are being done without seeing it, without being there etc. I rarely get asked how I myself cope with working culture, motivation or work life balance partly because I am a CEO and partly because of the assumption that I have it sorted (‘you are SO organised…’). My answer to the remote working question is that being part of a distributed team is a two way street. Staff need to want to do it, adjust or learn how to do things in a way that works for them AND the organisation. Everyone needs to be willing to make the most of the opportunities that being part of a virtual organisation offers, we can’t do that for them.

I struggle with loneliness and cabin fever and my mental well-being just as everyone else does, but ultimately I find working remotely liberating. I like the freedom and responsibility that comes with it and that is the biggest upside for me. The mentoring I’ve done over the past six years has shown me how important it is to me to be able to make things happen, to change a bit of the world (as cheesy as that sounds) and I feel more empowered to do that as part of a virtual team than I did when I was tied to a desk, managing an office space. Running virtual operations may take just as much effort, but there’s far more scope to improve and innovate than our previous working environment ever offered. That in turn really motivates me on dark, grey mornings or when I feel isolated. It also helps to have a bit of inspiration – which hangs above my desk:

That brings me to one last question for you: any tips for making the most of your physical work space at home?

Martin: In terms of physical space I’d certainly recommend trying to have a permanent corner in your house that you call your office. My office at home is also the spare room so I occasionally get turfed out when we have guests and whilst I can work on other parts of the house I find it hard to beat the comfort of my desk and office chair, plus everything is setup for me so on the morning I can just turn on my computer and I’m ready to go. Creating your own space is also an opportunity to think about the space/setup that’s going to work best for you. Given the rise of flexible and home based working there is a growing list of options for desk and clever storage systems that aren’t beige or grey. I know some remote and office based workers who are big fans of standing desks and treadmill desks. These aren’t options I’ve ever considered and would recommend talking to someone who uses these setups first. One of the big advantages I think of working from home is it’s an opportunity to create an environment that’s going to work for you. When I’ve been office based I’ve often encountered restrictions on how much personalisation you can do and being a home worker is an opportunity to perhaps say goodbye to that clean desk policy, restrictions on what food you can eat, or the noise you make – an opportunity to crack open the garlicky pasta, switch on the radio and keep comfortable in your PJs.  

Things we’ve been reading:

Missed a month? Here’re previous posts:

  • August – Pizza and virtual team dynamics
  • July – Special podcast edition: Reflecting on the first six months leading a virtual team
  • June – Virtual team, face to face team day: putting our blended approach to the test
  • May – Opportunity knocks: Using GDPR to strengthen virtual teams
  • April – 3 months in… hitting our first milestones as a virtual team
  • March – Developing collaboration as a virtual team
  • February – An open perspective on organisational transformation?

Pizza and virtual team dynamics

Conversation-joint-post-feature

This post continues our series on ‘openly sharing our approach to leading a virtual team’ – a joint project with Martin Hawksey (cross-posted here) for which we write a monthly blog post, some of which are special podcast/conference editions.

August

We are at the end of the busiest month of our organisation’s year in the run up to our Annual Conference. Getting here is a big milestone for our organisation and a real test for our approach to leading a virtual team.

Maren: We have been busy with preparations for the conference and our team of six has been working with over a hundred volunteers who contribute to organising the event. It’s usual for us to work with Members all across the U.K., but during the past month we’ve had to communicate and collaborate significantly more than usual. We’ve put our still quite new processes and working culture under real pressure, and we’ve made it through the toughest weeks in good shape. We’ve learnt a lot along the way, but I’m proud how well we’ve worked together. Now, as we get ready to take the whole team to the event, my thoughts are on the face to face side of our predominantly online working lives. We put a lot of thought into delivering the best possible experience for participants of the event and we talked about this recently on Edutalk radio with the Chair and President of ALT. We all agreed that there is special value in being able to take part in person. So our job for our team is to make sure that we have a plan for supporting each other over 4 long and busy days, so that we can all do our best. I’ve been thinking about a couple of things we started to discuss in June, when we had our first team day. For example, getting together to run this event also means seeing each other and working together in person for the first time in a while or ever. That’s not insignificant. Also, each year we have colleagues for whom this is their first experience of this event and although I’ve got previous years to draw on, each year is different and we have only half a day to get ready. Talking through each day in advance, planning meals and breaks together, and being clear about expectations about when we work and when we have down time helps get us all on the same page before we arrive. It also makes it easier to adjust from working at your desk at home to being with colleagues hosting 400 participants. What are your thoughts?

Martin: Looking back over August it’s interesting to reflect on the number of conversations we’ve had on supporting our team during the conference. Confidence and expectations were areas that came up a couple of times. With many of us never fully experiencing all 4 days of our Annual Conference before I think it’s a difficult line to walk in terms of planning for some of the potential pressure points whilst not unduly impacting on our confidence. Something that I thought was very useful as part of one of our online team meetings was a round robin to see how everyone was doing in terms of conference workload. The continual challenge I see in distributed teams is maintaining group awareness. This includes knowing what others are working on, where they are up to in specific tasks and what they are planning on working on next. In the last six months the team has grown by 20% from 5 to 6. It’s nice to have an extra pair of hands or a new colleague who is able to contribute to our delivery and we are already seeing the benefits of this, but at the same time we now have a bigger team to try and maintain an awareness of what we are each are working on, more people who have a voice at our weekly team meetings. I’ve not calculated how much extra time this takes each time we have new staff join. In software development you could point to Brooks Law which states “the complexity and communication costs of a project rise with the square of the number of developers”. I think in our case this would be a gross overestimate, and even in software development a number of people have questioned Brooks Law, but it’s interesting to consider the implications of growing a distributed team. I do believe investing time in gaining better awareness is still very useful. All the planning and preparation will hopefully result in a positive experience for all. Do you feel your spending more time managing a larger team?

Maren: definitely. Half of my focus is on observing, listening, supporting, advising… it’s the busiest time of the year, it’s a crunch point, it’s naturally a big part of my work just now. But half of my focus is far in the future, 2,3 or even 10 years from now, and our conference provides essential input to navigating what’s ahead, to be ambitious, to nurture the vision in my head, in my heart. Even one year from now things will be quite different and looking back over the past five years reminds me how much things have already changed. How far we’ve come. Any highly performing team feels growing pains when moving from the success of achieving at one level to moving up to the next. Things stop working in the way they have done before new dynamics are established. Getting through a conference together is a good bonding experience to build on and I feel that this is easier to accomplish in person rather than online when everyone is distributed. It seems very achievable to build individual working relationships virtually and over the past year or two I have gained experience in that, but group dynamics are harder to establish and our blended approach, seeing each other at events and team days, is important here. Five years ago when our team grew to include your role as a second senior member of staff, I had to learn all the things I now rely on. It took time for us to figure out how we would lead things together, assess each other’s strengths and where support would be most needed. Whilst we can’t put an exact figure on it, it’s fair to say that it took a lot of time establishing a senior staff team and that we continue to invest time and effort into that as things evolve. But, it has more than doubled our achievements as a result, increased capacity and resilience in many ways. And, at this time of year, it also provides us with a safe space to assess how we are coping with pressure and I know someone has my back if the answer is not very well. It’s opened my eyes to how valuable it is to invest in communication and team work whereas before I would have probably argued to be more effective doing things myself.

Martin: The difference between building individual and team dynamics in a distributed organisation is very interesting. I was recently reading a paper on ‘Group Awareness in Distributed Software Development’ which included the conclusion that ‘occasional face-to-face gatherings assist group awareness’, something you’ve also highlighted earlier. I was wondering if the intensity of a 3 day, 400+ delegate conference was the best occasion for what will be for some their first face-to-face meeting. Thinking back to my first time being part of the ALT conference, which also happened to be when I was also a distributed member of staff, my first face-to-face meeting with a number of the team was a group lunch the day before the conference started. As a more socially focused activity it allowed there to be more spontaneous communication also I believe creating an opportunity to strengthen a shared team identity. Time is also a factor identified by Hinds and Mortensen: “relationships between distant team members become more harmonious over time as teams develop familiarity and shared processes”. The quality of the time and mix of informal and formal all hopefully support a stronger team and is also a great excuse to continue what has become the traditional team visit to a pizzeria the night before our big events.

Maren: hmmmmm… pizza. Definitely a tradition I approve of. I hadn’t come across either of the references you mention, and they make for interesting reading. It’s thought provoking to see a more analytical approach. I always see relationships and team dynamics as messy, shifting, unpredictable with many known and unknown unknowns. Every year and every conference turns out to have surprises in store and that is why the months of preparations are so important. We develop trust in our processes and plans, we form the habit to rely on our lists, we solve problems together. By the time I arrive at an event we’ve organised, I’ve got a list that keeps me on track and am ready to enjoy the experience. Whatever unexpected twists and turns the days hold in store, this is the moment when I feel really privileged to have the job I have, when I see how our values are put into practice.

Martin: With all research there is likely to be a personal call as to whether it is applicable to the context you are interested in. I haven’t delved deep into this area yet but there are a number aspects I recognise or can relate to in our own distributed team. I think it’s also interesting to consider the quotes I pulled out in the context of the conference. For a number of our delegates the conference is that ‘occasional face-to-face gathering’ that helps them gain awareness of who and what is happening across sectors. One of the real strengths of our conference is it’s an opportunity for new and existing members of our community to make an initial connection that can be continued via various means. Thinking about this I ended up with a very long list that spread across various mediums including face-to-face local meetings of ALT Members Groups and SIGs, social aspects that feature in our conference platform, various mailing lists and dedicated online social spaces, the #altc tag and more. I hope through all of this our community is able to develop familiarity and shared knowledge in learning technology. Their participation and engagement in turn will inspire our next steps in leading our virtual team.

 

Missed a month? Here’re previous posts:

  • July – Special podcast edition: Reflecting on the first six months leading a virtual team
  • June – Virtual team, face to face team day: putting our blended approach to the test
  • May – Opportunity knocks: Using GDPR to strengthen virtual teams
  • April – 3 months in… hitting our first milestones as a virtual team
  • March – Developing collaboration as a virtual team
  • February – An open perspective on organisational transformation?

Special podcast edition: Reflecting on the first six months leading a virtual team

This is a joint post with Martin Hawksey (cross-posted here) about how we, as senior staff, lead our organisation to adopt virtual operations. You can read previous posts in this series here.

We’re six months into our journey and in this special edition we look back at the highs and lows, share practical things we’ve learnt along the way and take our conversation from post to podcast to help us reflect and look ahead.

Maren: when you suggested that we share our experiences openly I wasn’t really sure what to expect. After six months, I find it’s become a valuable part of my practice. It acts as a regular prompt to reflect not only on my own work, but the team and the organisation’s progress; it’s made us set aside time to have a regular dialogue about important, but not urgent things; and it’s helped me find a voice to share more openly in a way I hadn’t done before. Also, on a practical level, a written conversation helps alleviate my tendency to interrupt someone before they are finished. Looking back at our first post one of the key things I’ve learnt is that this process itself, as well as the output, is important. I’d encourage anyone to build sufficient rapport and trust to try out a similar approach to collaborating. That said, I’ve also found aspects of it challenging! For example, trying to strike the right balance between sharing and respecting the boundaries of what can’t be shared has been difficult at times. Or deciding what to focus on, what might be useful to others. It’s quite a big risk to take to share leading a transition whilst it’s happening and I’m grateful that both the Board and the team have been supportive from the beginning.

Martin: The process of writing these posts has been very useful. The asynchronous nature of writing and opportunity to discuss our thoughts has created a space to reflect on where we are at and think about the future. Finding the right balance can be tricky. As part of ALT’s remit we are keen that as well as sharing the positive impact that technology has on learning and teaching that there is also an opportunity to share when things went wrong or didn’t work out. As you highlight as part of our transition it’s been important that we retain the trust and moral of the rest of the team. I should say that looking back over the last 6 months there have been no issues that haven’t been relatively easy to resolve. A challenge that came up in our February update was providing remote IT support. Overall we’ve had very few issues to deal with. Something at the back of my mind is our reliance on personal home broadband connections. Recently I changed by broadband provider. As I had overlapping contracts in terms of connectivity the change was seamless (the new WiFi router did however kill my home print server). Having checked the new providers broadband speed before signing up I was confident there wasn’t going to be any issues with speed. But what if there was an issue, or the connection can’t cope with the extra load from my daughter being at home during the school holidays? There is also the challenge of providing remote support when there is zero connectivity. We have some contingency plans in place for these situations but I think this is an area we can work more on over the next 6 months.

Maren: You are right, in the first few months we thought a lot about infrastructure, because that was the most practical aspect of making this transition. On an ongoing basis, too, with staffing changes, moving house etc, the infrastructure is always a priority. I can now travel with our phone system in my pocket, and we can take our “office” with us when we run large events so that the whole team can be on site rather than someone having to cover the physical office space. It’s a powerful transformation. In our post about March we started discussing more about supporting staff, collaborating and also how this way of working influences our work as Learning Technologists. Here are three examples of how virtual working has changed my professional practice as a Learning Technologist: first, technology fails at team meetings. We’ve talked about our weekly team meetings a lot and how they form a cornerstone of us working together effectively as a team. We have had all kinds of technology fails, individually and as a team, over the past year and I think it feels very similar to getting things wrong in front of a room full of students or colleagues and the experience has made me have much greater empathy with someone nervous to try something new. Secondly, I have a much greater appetite for finding technological solutions to problems we identify. Bringing all of our operations into the virtual domain and working together with our Trustees, Members and colleagues in the same blended way has created a real sense of opportunity to improve what we do and that in itself has been really exciting (although maybe my enthusiasm for doing things better did not need additional motivation). Last, and this relates directly to my role as a Line Manager, I think the quality of communication is more important than anything else I do and that shapes all aspects of my practice. Regardless of whether it’s a chat message, video call, email, phone call or indeed meeting up face to face, I work hard to communicate equally well in every mode. As a virtual team we have to cope with difficult conversations, bad days and unexpected crisis online. Communication has always been really important to me and to how I succeed, but I am developing new skills and strategies through our virtual way of working. It feels like we are creating an effective blend of processes, technology & culture to build resilience for the highs and lows that we face and communication is at the heart of that. It may seem obvious, but our work over the past six months has really expanded my horizons on what that means in practice.

Martin: Communication was something that came up in the May blog post. Whilst this was a busy time dealing with implementing GDPR we reflected on knowing how the team were coping and visibility when when working remotely. This month I attended Google Cloud Next ‘18, Google’s main conference for sharing what it’s doing in it’s cloud platforms including G Suite. G Suite is one of the core tools we use at ALT and has been invaluable in making it possible to work as a distributed team. Google use this event to launch new tools and enhancements to its products and from the sessions I attended improving communication was a strong theme, as one of the presenters put it “the ability to communicate effectively defines success”. In terms of what we discussed in May a new product that caught my eye was Hangouts Chat. This is a new version of Google’s chat tool similar to tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams. One of the features of Hangouts Chat is quick actions and reactions to messages. As part of this Google highlight emoji reactions “to build stronger, quicker and more expressive communications”:

I’ve mixed emotions about emoji’s, particularly in a work context. I don’t mind using some emoticons like 🙂 in messages but as I don’t like the emoji palette Google uses I’ve turned off the feature that automatically turning text emoticons to emojis (e.g. 🙂 -> ). Also given my own feelings about the Google emojis at times I feel reluctant to impose these on others, using as an emoticon I feel there is a degree of subtlety. Emoji’s or ?

Maren: I should probably start by saying that I don’t really use emoji much at all – neither at work nor in my personal communication. The person I text with most is my mother and she uses one emoji: little pink hearts at the end of a message. In her case that can mean anything from “thanks for taking me to the hospital today” to “sending you lots of love” to “take care and have a nice weekend”. I’m one of those people who mostly texts in full sentences with punctuation. That said, I have started using emoticons more in a work context since I started working as part of a distributed team. In chat, like Google chat such as we use for informal or immediate communications, I do find it useful to be able to convey my meaning in more than words. There are many instances when informal, but important conversations can be more nuanced – although that also depends on the person who i am chatting with and how well we know each other. Whilst in theory icon based communication should be more easily understood than words, I find that in practice most people I communicate with have very specific patterns in their use of icons and over time I learn what they mean. When I use tools like Slack for projects, I mainly use emoji such as to signal that I have seen a message, to show that I am participating or supporting something and for me that kind of interaction quickly becomes less meaningful. It’s like ‘likes’ or ‘hearts’ on social media. It’s useful, but limited. And I also dislike the Google chat and the iOS emoji palette even if they have become more diverse in recent years. Now, to answer your question: in a broader context, with a bigger user base and in contexts where being able to interact more, I’d probably say “Emoji? – ” – but in our immediate context of leading a distributed team, I think it’s .

That wraps up our written conversation for this month, but we are also experimenting with the format by recording a special podcast this time, reflecting a bit more on the six months since we started this project and talking about what’s ahead and where we hope to be by the end of the first year.

 

Missed a month? Here’re previous posts:

  • June – Virtual team, face to face team day: putting our blended approach to the test
  • May – Opportunity knocks: Using GDPR to strengthen virtual teams
  • April – 3 months in… hitting our first milestones as a virtual team
  • March – Developing collaboration as a virtual team
  • February – An open perspective on organisational transformation?

Virtual team, face to face team day: putting our blended approach to the test

This is a joint post with Martin Hawksey (cross-posted here) continuing the story of how we, as senior staff, lead our organisation to adopt virtual operations. You can read previous posts here.

June

Last time we discussed how we used GDPR as an opportunity to strengthen how we work as a virtual team. Since then we had our first face to face team day, an important milestone in creating a blended approach to running a virtual organisation.

Maren: The team day was followed the next day with the meeting of the Board of Trustees, in which for the first time all of our colleagues took part. I learnt a lot from both days: for example, I had to adjust my mindset from having a ‘team day out’ (which was previously the only time we would all travel somewhere together once a year to do some team building and have a meal together) to having a day working together. Whilst that may seem an obvious point to make, it’s an important distinction to communicate to everyone involved. The agenda we set out helped us prepare and be ready to focus on the task at hand. In order to make the most of team days we plan them in different locations. This time it included a site visit to the venue for our upcoming conference. Whilst combining activities like a site visit with a day working together face to face as a lot of advantages, having a changing location means that we need to sort out all the practicalities, like somewhere quiet to work or access to WiFi afresh each time. That’s a big change from having an office at which we convene and also means ensuring that we think about how to support the team as a group, taking into account individual needs. Some of the startup leaders I work with talk about how this degree of agility is difficult to make work in an equitable way and I found that the two days took more preparation than I had anticipated. As well as logistics, it is important that these days reflect our aims and values as an organisation. Inviting all staff to take part in the Board meeting is a good example of how we are trying to do this, but as well as time to work together, we also planned in time to eat and catch up informally and I felt those pockets of unstructured time were really important. This time, the Study, Museum of Manchester, became our work space for the day.

Martin: The opportunity to work in new places is a nice feature of our approach, particularly when they are as nice as the Study. Thinking about the practicalities some thoughts that came to mind are with a team of 5, soon growing to 6, we are perhaps at the limits of places where it is easy to just turn up and get a seat. If I’ve got time before/after events or meetings in Edinburgh I’ll often go to the Dome on Potterrow, or when in Glasgow the Saltire Centre. These are great spaces but get very busy at times and you’d struggle to get more than 6 people around the same table. There however seems to be an explosion of affordable hot desking and meeting spaces, in particular, as part of start-up hubs. As a membership organisation there is also perhaps opportunities to combine visiting some of our Organisational Members and have some space for a team meeting. Combining the two could be interesting as it would let other members of the team see what we do. I suppose the danger of such an approach is the site visit becomes a distraction from getting team business done. Something else that came out of our meeting which I hadn’t really considered before is while I was happy and able to get up and leave for Manchester at 4:30am this might not be possible for everyone (plus getting home after 11:30pm because of delayed flights ain’t fun). Raises interesting questions about equitability.

Maren: That’s true. As our team is distributed across the U.K. every location means longer travel times for someone. Achieving a balance between the flexibility of home working day to day and occasional travel whilst meeting our organisations’ needs can be a challenge. Organising the logistics is still a learning curve, but the other aspect I’d like to talk about is the actual work we did together. There were three parts to our day: first, the site visit which we all took part in and which helped us plan for the upcoming event. I think it was very useful to have everyone contribute ideas and ask questions on site and it saved us a lot of reporting back and another visit in the long run. Next, we spent some time together reviewing our project plan. We do review the plan regularly during our virtual team meetings, but it was insightful to do so in person as a team, seeing it projected on a big screen. For example, I noticed that we discussed more, asked more questions of each other. That continued when we spent time together working on different things after lunch. There was an opportunity for building rapport more informally that I hope will translate at least to some degree into our virtual collaboration. Two of our team had not met in person before, so that was an important function of the day, too.

Martin: I agree that it felt like there was more collaboration and communication when we were working together in the same room. I think this underlines that it’s important to recognise there are differences between working as a distributed team rather than in a shared physical space. Until we all have a holodeck in our homes I don’t see this changing but it also is a reminder that we need to think about distributed teams differently and not just faithfully recreate the physical space online. This was captured a post by Noello Daley on ‘What Co-located Teams Can Learn From Remote Teams’. In particular, Noello highlighted “the importance of shifting not only process, but mindset”. Noello goes on to say that you should “shift from a local, spoken culture to a global, written culture”. I think ALT had a strong global written culture before become a distributed organisation so perhaps the difference is less apparent to me. The process and mindset is an interesting area. There is inevitably disruption in becoming a distributed team and in some ways you want to minimise this to allow people to adapt to a new working environment, the tension as a manager you don’t always want to continue old processes either because they are less efficient or don’t work in the new model. One of the challenges is something else Noello highlighted was in distributed teams there needs to be “empathy for each others’ needs”. This is something we have touched upon already. I feel part of the solution is also touched upon by Noello and mirrors our own blended approach: “plan to get together about four times per year. Use that time to re-establish team goals and culture”. Given the Manchester trip was an opportunity to share our individual perspectives of goals achieved to our Trustees and the process for identifying those goals was collaborative I think we should be having more staff days around Board meetings.

Maren: I agree. Clearly our first attempt has highlighted how much potential these days have. But what about the day to day? Following on from the post by Noello you mention, I have been reflecting on how important it is to take some personal responsibility for what this recent article (found via @hopkinsdavid, thank you!) called ‘finding connection points’: the author suggests taking time to schedule regular lunches with co-workers, meet clients (Members, in our case) and getting involved in the community to ensure there is some face to face contact or at least time focused on building relationships. Some of this I would have previously thought about more in the context of CPD. As a small team we have long set up days to visit other organisations or Members to learn from and see how they do things, but in the context of operating as a virtual team, that’s taken on a different significance. Now it’s about making connecting with others an integral part of what we do as individuals, part of our professional practice. We can set an example and enable others, but to some extent it depends on how much an individual is willing to or interested in being part and contributing to that kind of working culture. Tech-focused solutions, like for example shared bookmarks, can help build a sense of shared space online. Yet it still depends on everyone contributing, everyone recognising the importance of working in a certain way and what benefits that has for us as a team and the organisation as a whole. In the last few hours of our team day we each prepared to talk to the Board about some key ways in which we have individually contributed to the success of the organisation in the past year and listening to that was probably the most powerful moment of the two days for me. We may not all be in the same place very often, but we are all part of the same vision and when we presented to each other I really felt that come across.

Opportunity knocks: Using GDPR to strengthen virtual teams

This is a joint post with Martin Hawksey (cross-posted here).  If you have missed our earlier posts we encourage you to revisit the beginning of the story of how we, as senior staff, lead our organisation to adopt virtual operations.

May

This month we discuss our approach to GDPR, evolving virtual working practices and the importance of explaining the reasons for new procedures as part of implementing them.

Maren: We at the end of a super busy month and part of what’s been keeping us busy is GDPR… (thanks for writing handy blog posts for us to reference here). We’ve worked hard on the contractual, technical & legal aspects, but it’s also been an opportunity to review our relatively new virtual working practices. One issue I have been thinking about is finding the right balance between providing guidance and support whilst ensuring individuals also take appropriate responsibility. For example, we have policies about how to secure laptops or delete temporary files and we regularly review these as a team and share updates on how we are implementing them. Yet even though you can monitor and review processes regularly there is a large element of trust in our virtual working culture. To some extent we have to rely on everyone taking responsibility and making it part of their day to day working habits to follow new procedures. Explaining the reasons why we mandate certain things should help ensure that everyone understands their importance. In the GDPR training we did as a team, talking about how the new legislation relates to our values as an organisation (e.g. how that is reflected in ALT’s Privacy Policy) and why it affects us as staff on an individual basis was a really important moment for me. What’s your view on this?

Martin: GDPR has been a great opportunity to think about how as a team we store and process data. As a data controller one of the things we have implemented is documenting our data processing activities which includes how and where data is stored. Another critical aspect is how data is transferred. For our team this is greatly simplified by predominately being a Chromebook based organisation with centrally managed devices. This means we can mitigate a number of risks through device security policies and the build-in security features of Chrome OS. Another key aspect is we have a ‘home working’ rather than ‘remote working’ policy. This removes risks associated with regularly using open wifi networks in places like coffee shops, but does however leave open two questions: how do we ensure the security of home networks; and given a number of our team also travel maintaining security on the road. The process of preparing for GDPR has highlighted that there is more we can do to secure data transfer, the solution being investigating VPN options. Besides the technical solutions it’s also been useful to reflect on how the team is responding to personal responsibilities mentioned. In the case of GDPR it’s been great to see our team respond to the training we’ve provided and being proactive in both highlighting areas where our procedures can be improved and also suggesting or making the changes required themselves. Not being co-located removes some of the opportunities to get an idea of how someone is doing, for example, body language is largely filtered out in Google Hangouts. It was only when I reflected on this that I realised I’ve started relying on other indicators.  Has our work around GDPR highlighted anything like this for you?

Maren: You make an interesting point about tangible and less tangible indicators and how they can help inform our approach to supporting and leading the team. As you say, GDPR has created a lot of crossover between policies that apply to our organisation as a whole, publicly, like the privacy policy, as well as the workflows that support membership services, and reaching over to personal working practices at home and whilst travelling. Tangible examples of how all the new procedures and policies are being implemented, like seeing new forms, or workflows or questions being discussed, is important. Together with the reporting and monitoring processes we use, these kinds of indicators enable me to manage the operational side of things. The less tangible things you refer to are harder to pinpoint, but I am also finding them more important since we have become a virtual team. They could be things like a casual comment or an informal conversation or something I spot when screen-sharing or working on a shared document. The more time I spend collaborating, the more I get a sense of how things are going. We have mentioned before how we have a ‘Show & Tell’ element at each of our weekly team meetings and recently we had several weeks of sharing what we use to manage our to do lists and plan our work. For the next month or so we will include a GDPR element in each team meeting, with everyone bringing examples of how they are implementing the new policies. All of these opportunities to collaborate, hearing colleagues think out loud, are valuable for helping me understand how others think or see things, and that enables me to better explain/support new processes.

Martin: Another aspect of our GDPR implementation I’ve been reflecting on is the degree of visibility of our individual activity to each other. In the case of GDPR I put a lot of effort into researching what we were required to do as an organisation and understanding various aspects of the new regulations from a legal and practical perspective. Parts of this process left very few tangible outputs and in some cases some of the outputs were not suitable for circulation in the team. It was a reminder that it’s not always possible to share everything we do and a level of trust is required. It was also a reminder of why our weekly team meetings are so important and arguably more important than if we were working in a face-to-face setting. You mentioned that our ‘Show & Tell’ has recently focused on sharing how we each plan our work. It was interesting to see the diversity of approaches and the varying levels of detail that we each use. As my role is very diverse rather than having a single method I adapt my approach. For example, in the case of GDPR I’m using a mixture of our GDPR action plan in Google Documents and Sheets, Google Keep lists and managing my inbox with labels, stars/flags and snooze. For other projects like the Annual Conference we have a shared project plan we can all report our progress against. In the case of the Annual Conference this has changed little from when most of the team was office based. I think this still works well but wonder if we were creating this from scratch as a virtual team would you do something different, in particular, to increase the visibility of what we are all doing at a particular time?  

Maren: I’d like to do that – spend time thinking about what starting from scratch would look like. I imagine that (1) our values, (2) the importance of working together with volunteers, our Members, and (3) our overall policies for working would remain constant. But… there are other factors: the size of the team means necessarily that many tasks are more independent and only some a consistent team effort. With 5-6 staff you can’t easily create sub-teams for example that would work together ‘more visibly’. I’ve also considered tools like Trello or Slack, but I’m not sure how well they’d work for everyone, and I feel allowing everyone a choice in which methods to use for organising work, e.g. what we shared in our to do list show & tell sessions, can really contribute to productivity. We have our overall operational plan which all other plans/lists are related to and in my mind that provides the consistency required – although maybe we could make use of it more frequently. Overall the high level of our output and achievement is a good indicator that our current practice is effective, and that is reassuring. What I mean to say is that we have an opportunity rather than having to re-imagine what this could look like. Hearing you reflect on your perspective and comparing it to my own has opened up the question what this looks like for each of us. With a team away day coming up in a couple of weeks we could take the opportunity to dedicate some time to reflect on this as a group.

3 months in… hitting our first milestones as a virtual team

This is a joint post with Martin Hawksey (cross-posted here).  If you have missed our earlier posts we encourage you to revisit the beginning of the story of how we, as senior staff, lead our organisation to adopt virtual operations.

April

This month we reflect on the first 3 months operating as a virtual team, delivering our first few big milestones and look back at the OER18 conference.

Maren: It’s been three months now since we transitioned to operating as a virtual team. Looking at the bigger picture, I feel we are on the right track [cue celebratory sounds here]. A lot of what we had planned and prepared for is working and with some of this year’s key deliverables successfully achieved, we have evidence that we are achieving what we need to. As an organisation we changed more than the way we operate over the past three months as we started to employ staff directly at the same time. For me, that part of the transition had to take priority over everything else. Payroll, pensions, tax and HR had to be in steady state, putting staff welfare, support and recruitment first. Those were the things I really worried about. So it’s a relief to have managed some of the biggest risks successfully and for more and more of the way we operate as a new employer to happen in steady state. When I reviewed our progress recently I realised that whilst I was focused on the transition, we have also made a lot of strategic progress – including delivering one of the largest events in our calendar, the OER18 Conference. What’s your perspective now that the event is successfully behind us?

Martin: For me, I was interested in how the runup to OER18 conference would work out. This was our first big event where the entire team were distributed. With multi-day events I think it’s hard to appreciate just how much goes into them if you haven’t organised one yourself. Even in a digital age various things need to go to print, you’ve got material and equipment that needs to be delivered and there are some practical things like getting conference badges prepared. As part of our distributed organisation we now have distributed resources which needs some extra logistical planning to bring together at the venue. Overall this aspect went well but one of our couriers let us down and failed to pickup a next day delivery. As it happens the pickup was for some extra banners which in the end we could get away with not taking. Fortunately the bulk of material was handled by our regular courier who we have a long standing relationship with. The challenge now for us as a distributed organisation is we need to develop relationships with additional service providers, either out of doing things differently or because we are all not in the same place. This takes time and effort which I think should be factored in if you are thinking about moving your organisation to a distributed or virtual structure. Has OER18 highlighted anything for you we should take a new approach on?   

Maren: Yes, I think it has and it feels timely. The work on the conference felt like a useful way for us to pull together as a team and work together virtually. It helped highlight which parts of our new virtual set up are working well and it also made me realise how much has changed in a short space of time. Because the change has been strategic and welcome, it’s felt inspiring and positive overall, but we mustn’t forget that change takes time. Our expectations of what we want to achieve are high and sometimes I have to remind myself that it takes a lot of doing to put in place new ways of doing things. Doing something once isn’t enough. In my mind the kinds of considerations you are talking about, like building new relationships with suppliers, adapting what we do and how we do it, are helpful to me now – and to us as a team, but they wouldn’t have been a few months ago because there was no capacity to handle any more novelty. Now, when we evaluate the OER conference, I feel we have the capacity to put what we’ve learnt to good use in the run up for the next event. Another aspect of running an event as a distributed team I am thinking about is meeting up beforehand. For example, we had an evening to get ready this time, but not many hours at the venue. I feel this is particularly important for members of the team who are new and haven’t been part of delivering an event with us. As we are recruiting at the moment, I am considering that with new members of staff joining soon, ahead of a bigger conference I might value more time. What are your thoughts on this?

Martin: Interesting point about time considerations. Knowing our Annual Conference is our next big event where we have at least 4 times more delegates it’s going to be important to factor in some of the practicality of badge stuffing and conference material gathering. Something that I only considered after OER18 was that we could do more to distribute our printing, both in terms of when and where it is done. For example, as part of our move to a distributed organisation we limited the purchase of printers to just getting one for our Finance Officer. I already use Google Cloud Print at home, which essentially lets you turn any printer into a network printer. Adding our printer to Google Cloud Print would allow us to share the printer with our team. There is still a logistic issue of getting materials we print to events but at least they would be in one location where we also have access to a reliable courier. The occasional printing we do is however only a small part of event delivery and in the bigger picture it would be useful to revisit our conference plan to see what we can prepare earlier to remove some of the end loading, like batching badge production. Whilst the Cloud Printing is a small example I think it reflects what you were saying about a wider change in the organisation. It feels like we have more agility in how we approach and solve problems.  

Maren: I agree with that. The first few months we had our preparations to build on and then the event to focus on, now we are moving on to the next phase: doing things differently, expanding (admin) support for virtual operations and updating our plans. The conference was a good catalyst to highlight the kind of questions you raise and also our skills and competencies and the gaps in them. One of the problems in Learning Technology I come across again and again is how to build a successful organisational culture when tech, expectations, milestones etc keep shifting. I relate to that in a different way now, because as you point out, we have a lot more scope now to be flexible, to solve problems creatively rather than having to work around them. We’ve committed to being more agile and I’m discovering what that means in practice for me as an individual, for us as a team and as an organisation all over again.

Martin: Noted computer pioneer Alan Kay uses a quote from ice-hockey player Wayne Gretzky “[a] good hockey player goes to where the puck is, [a] great hockey player goes to where the puck is going to be”. If a system is in steady state everything is predictable, removing this means as an organisation we have more control about deciding where we want to be. By creating an organisational culture where there is scope for not following the puck we become more comfortable in not being in steady state, as a result more confident in finding solutions to problems as they emerge. Something I think required to make this successful is an existing confidence within the team … success breeds success.  

Developing collaboration as a virtual team

Education is Changing by @bryanMMathers is licenced under CC-BY-ND

Cover image: Education is Changing by @bryanMMathers is licenced under CC-BY-ND

This is a joint post with Martin Hawksey (cross-posted here)

This is the second in a monthly series of blog posts in which we take an open approach to organisational transformation. In this series we share our experiences as senior staff leading our organisation to adopt virtual operations.

If you have missed the first post about how we began our journey you can revisit the story thus far here or here.

March

This month we talk about how we develop virtual and blended collaboration. Collaboration is one of our organisation’s core values and we encounter many challenges as we get to grips with our new virtual way of working and as the demands of a busy workload exert pressure. We also reflect on how the way we work informs our professional practice as Learning Technologists.

Maren: One of the things we thought about most ahead of the transition is to provide consistent support for collaboration. I mean support in terms of the tools we use, the way we work and for each member of staff. For example, we put in place both virtual and face to face catch ups for us as a team and one to one, a blended approach so to speak. Interacting synchronously combined with regular contact via email and shared updates using e.g. Google docs form another part of that approach. Particularly during the first few months we want to make sure that there isn’t a cliff edge, that we gradually translate our working relationships into a virtual way of working. We started virtual team meetings a long time ago to help build the skills and confidence we need to be able to rely on the meetings even when things are busy and I think that has been a real win for us. For me, team meetings always provide a sense of stability and connectedness. Would you agree?

Martin: Having been employed by ALT for over 4 years working remotely I agree team meetings have been very important. Thinking back to my own transition from office based to remote the biggest difference I felt was due to not physically being with my colleagues. At one point in my career I was only going to the office once a week but that was enough in terms of a sense of connection and the affordances of seeing and speaking to someone in the same room. I think it’s important not to ignore the social aspects of working in a team and something I find very useful is the opportunity to just hang out with others with a non-work agenda and team meetings are a great opportunity to top and tail business with what’s going on in life in general. This was something that was recently highlighted in an interview with John O’Duinn for InformationWeek who is a seasoned remote worker and who is currently compiling his experience in a new ebook – Distributed. The blend in all of this is also very important and a feature which I think provides a strong foundation for our future is also a commitment to meet in person. Sometimes this is maximising opportunities such as using time together when attending the same event, but also by design and we’ve committed to trying to meet face-to-face once a month. As a line manager do you find managing a virtual team harder?    

Maren: In terms of line management, I find it easier to manage a team that is fully distributed, rather than having some staff work remotely and others office based as we had before. I have always had line managers who I have worked with remotely, so it’s something I have experienced from both sides. Still, building relationships, providing support and creating a shared vision takes time and effort regardless of how you do it. In my experience, consistency is key. Setting an example through how we work does help, but it takes time to embed all the new processes we have established.  So regardless of how busy things get, sticking to our weekly team meetings and making time for individual catch ups is essential to keep us communicating and collaborating.

Especially when a busy workload is putting pressure on us as a team, I try to focus not only on practical outputs but also try to pick up non-verbal communication or informal chat. That part can be harder when you don’t meet in person. For example making a joke or sharing frustration can be much more difficult to interpret correctly when you don’t see someone’s facial expression, body language or gestures. There are virtual equivalents (for instance I have certainly become more expert at knowing what different emoticons mean) but things can get lost in translation. In terms of the technology we use, chat tools can provide a good informal space for informal interaction and as we are a relatively small team we can all join in if we want to. I find I value that more now and I make more use of chat or calls to check in or say hi to someone outside of meetings. I’m trying to find balance between working together effectively as a team, providing personal support when needed and keeping space to think. From a line manager’s perspective that’s especially important, but I think it’s something we all experiment with. What’s your take on this?

Martin: I find it interesting to consider the balance of different communication methods. For team members who were office based we’ve removed an awareness mechanism of being in the same place. We have various tools to replace some of this but, for example, how do you replace glancing over your shoulder to see if someone is busy? In some instances there are very simple measures. For instance, some of the team will either have their lunch break in their calendar, or like me, add a calendar event when you go for lunch. This overall appears to work well but does require everyone to check calendars before they decide to launch into a chat conversation with you. The same is true if you are in a hangout meeting, it’s in your calendar but someone doesn’t know you are busy until the look over the calendar. It perhaps no surprise that in our new staff member induction making sure they are subscribed to other team member’s calendars is one of the key tasks, but people, including myself, sometimes forget to check. I think it’s impossible to replace ‘glancing over the shoulder’, but using calendars can help. The challenge I think is how do you normalise something instinctive with something that is artificial and mechanical, we are all human after all. Do you have any thoughts on how we move from putting in place a new way of working to figuring out what works and how to normalise it?

Maren: That’s a question I have been thinking about and I am sure it’s a common problem for teams in general and virtual teams in particular. For me, there are three key things we do that help: first, instead of focusing on the physical behaviour or action, we ask why it’s important. For example, glancing over to see if someone is available can be important because you have a question or need help. We recognise the need to be available for each other, to answer quick questions for instance, and our use of chat tools to make sure an answer or attention can be available at a distance provides an effective solution most of the time. Second, we actually reflect on how we work together, as a group. The drop-in sessions we have organised for example help us share our different perspectives, getting a better sense of how we as individuals feel and think about how we work. The ‘not knowing who has gone for lunch problem’ is a good example of how we solved a problem as a team. We discussed it, suggested options and decided as a group to try the current approach. We took joint ownership of both the problem and finding a solution. Another example is the “show and tell” part of our team meetings, dedicated time for showing each other ways in which we have solved something or found a new tool. These sessions are part of us normalising new things and feeling more empowered in the process. I find that even if something new feels artificial or cumbersome to begin with, as long as I can see how can be useful, it starts to feel more normal quite quickly. Transferring my to do lists to a digital format is a good example of this in my personal practice. Despite the fact that I wanted to make the jump, it took me months of trial and error (and, frustratingly, less productivity) to figure out what works for me and to some degree it’s still work in progress. Whatever tool I use, there are times when pen and paper are best. We started out talking about how we work together, how we collaborate and support collaboration. But we seem to have come to discussing some of the most fundamental issues that Learning Technologists grapple with every day when they try to do their best to support learning and teaching with technology. So, picking up on your years of experience of being home-based, my last question is how you think working remotely has influenced your work as a Learning Technologist?

Martin: Great question. As an advocate of open education its interesting to watch the development of approaches that build on the affordances of a distributed education such as connectivism. Whilst working remotely it’s interesting to consider how as a team we can learn and also share knowledge. This also goes beyond our team and the bigger question is as a membership organisation how can we help our members develop in the field of learning technology in the creation and dissemination of new knowledge and understanding. Part of this is creating opportunities which exposes points for connections to be made either within a safe space like the ALT-MEMBERS mailing list or in the open so that they can be of benefit to the general public. It’s interesting to consider how things like “show and tell” create points for us as a team to share what we do and create opportunities for learning and as a learning technologist I’m interested in how these patterns can be applied in education.

An open perspective on organisational transformation?

This is a joint post with Martin Hawksey (cross-posted here).

We work for ALT, the UK’s leading professional body in Learning Technology. We serve a community of over 3,000 Members who use technology for learning, teaching and assessment and by extension we use it to support, engage with and represent ALT’s Members. Last year, the Trustees of ALT took the decision to move ALT’s operations away from a long-standing hosting agreement with a university to a more independent model, to ensure that ALT’s strategic aims and values are underpinned by an effective, agile base of operations providing more direct support for Members across the UK.

Thus we set out on a journey to transform our largely office-based team into a distributed, home-based workforce and to set up virtual operations fit to meet our changing requirements.

In this series of posts (which we are publishing on each of our blogs, see Maren’s and Martin’s, to begin with) we aim to share our experience as senior staff leading the transition and our team through the changes, sharing insights and lessons learnt as well as what we hope will be transferable know-how that others can apply in their context. We’ve framed this as a conversation in order to share our contrasting perspectives, and we may add more practical/technical sections as we go along.

We take an open approach to leadership, so it seems appropriate to take a similarly open approach to documenting this journey. Some aspects of this kind of transition however are necessarily personal to the individuals concerned and where we’d like to share something about the work of a particular individual we will seek their consent.

February

In this post we look back at February, the first month of virtual operations, sharing our perspectives on making a start as a distributed team.

Maren: Let’s start by looking back at the first month. For me the biggest thing that happened was seeing the project plan come to life, to hit all the milestones of making the physical transition, packing up boxes and making sure everyone got their stuff delivered to their new work spaces. We had been planning for this for such a long that it felt like a real achievement to actually see the boxes being packed, the room empty and to wave goodbye. It felt a bit like moving house, as lots of last minute things needed sorting out and decisions needed to be taken as they arose. We couldn’t plan for everything, but I felt the actual move itself helped bring out many small, niggly questions and needs that we could only then consider and deal with. What was your highlight?

Martin: For me the main focus was how do we ‘virtualise’ our operations. As some of our team already worked remotely there was already a lot in place. ALT has been a G Suite Education user for a number of years so we already had a culture of collaboration and communication using Google Drive, Hangouts and chat. In other areas we were starting fresh, for example, phone systems and physical file storage. Phones are interesting as most institutions have already moved to VOIP systems which use ethernet connections and a lot of the existing network infrastructure, plugged into a physical phone. There are a number of providers who provide services for phone systems that are entirely internet based and even Skype now has web based tools. We opted for a cloud service which still gave us Oxford based numbers and integrated into G Suite. We could have paid extra for a physical phone but as most of our daily operations are web based it didn’t seem like any point, plus the service comes with an app we can install on our mobiles if we wish. So now we have a virtual switch board and direct numbers for all of us. It has required some changes in the way we operate like how do you look across the room to see if another person can take a call, but overall I think it’s so far worked very well. It’s made me think if I should use the same service for my home phone. The process of moving to a virtual phone system seemed straightforward. Were there any challenges with phone systems or other technology you encountered?    

Maren: The technology worked well overall and in some ways made it easier to begin to change the way we work. The two challenges I encountered myself and with colleagues was being overwhelmed by everything having to be done differently and secondly what to do when things went wrong. For example, day to day processes like filing expense claims or signing documents suddenly turned from something I never think about to requiring a new procedure. The new services we adopted, for digital signing of documents for example, are easy to use, but still take time to embed into workflows. Particularly at the beginning it felt like productivity was nose-diving because it takes a lot more time to figure out how to do something for the first time or to follow a new process. It’s tempting to take shortcuts instead of establishing robust processes and documenting the individual steps. The other challenge for me was that it was a new experience to have to support the team as a whole with new workflows virtually. Particularly when it comes to the finance systems, this was quite difficult for me to begin with. It was reassuring and useful to have options to provide support remotely and I think tools like screen-sharing and working synchronously online are becoming more and more useful as we get the hang of them as a team. What are your thoughts on providing support remotely for a whole team?

Martin: On the IT side there was the added burden that moving away from a host institution also meant moving away from centralised IT support they provided. As a result there is an increased degree of self-help particularly when it comes to hardware. The move away for institutional desktop provision is a double edge sword. On one hand members of our team on Windows devices are admins so can install software and hardware, on the other hand we need to mitigate that equipment and networks used are secure. Already we’ve encountered a situation where I needed to physically get my hands on a Chromebook to fix a problem. Fortunately we had already scheduled a face-to-face meeting so this wasn’t too much of an issue, but it’s a reminder that despite more reliable computing and ways of collaborating remotely you still need that personal touch. Overall however I think we are in a better place as we have ownership of everything we do. This also gives us freedom to look at other services we can use for support. Already aspects of our web services are maintained by third parties that we have chosen and as part of the transition we have and retained the services of a HR consultant. This seems like a very cost effective model for an organisation our size. Would you agree or are there hidden costs to consider?

Maren: In terms of the essential services our organisations needs, I agree that virtual operations are very cost efficient. Even taking into account set up costs like purchasing new equipment there will be savings and it certainly helps that we planned ahead and budgeted accordingly. In the case of infrastructure and tech, we already have a lot of expertise in house (which I think is unusual for an organisation our size) and we have turned that into an operational advantage. We also identified areas such as legal, HR or pensions in which we needed and procured additional expertise. The key factor in the decision making process has actually been putting our organisation’s values into practice. That’s given the transition a more strategic, people-focused outlook, and ensured we invest in areas that make a difference to staff or Members. Looking back, I feel that our values played a bigger part in the decision making process than I had anticipated. In the face of all this change and upheaval, having shared values that remain consistent has been a powerful force for creating stability. But, the transition has really only just begun.