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One year without an office…

A photo of the office with furniture but otherwise empty
The office…

A year ago this week I locked the door to this office for the last time, handed back the keys to the estate manager (never seen such a tidy move, he said) and left the building – leading my team, my organisation into the brave new world of being a distributed organisation, a virtual team.

You can read all about what happened next… the official updates for Members written by Trustees and myself, in formal reports and audited accounts and the less formal account published in a joint series of posts with Martin Hawksey, which includes even podcasts. All together these will give you insight into how resources were saved and reinvested more effectively, strategic aims achieved with more impact, lessons learnt, home working cultures established and so forth. I am proud of that record one year after closing the office and whilst this is of course an ongoing progress of transition, there is clear evidence that all the aims we set out for the transition when we originally started planning 2 years ago have been achieved and even exceeded. It’s been a team effort.

So what’s it like to be a CEO without an office?
What’s it like to represent a long established professional body without a physical base?
How does it feel to be a Line Manager, everyone’s boss, remotely?

Well, let’s start with the last one: currently I manage 6 people and 4 of the 6 were recruited as virtual team home workers, to be part of a distributed organisation. I spend the same amount of time on all the things you do to manage, support, motivate and be there for others – just the way in which we connect and the locations where we see each other are now more varied. In turn, everyone, including myself, spends just as much time and effort being part of a team – again, just in different colourways and with different challenges. Instead of dirty cups that no one has washed up or bins that overflow, we focus on the logistics of office supplies or connectivity. Instead of having light bulb moments sitting around a meeting table, we have inspiring ideas meeting around a document. It works, we deliver and perform.

As the leading professional body for Learning Technologists the Members we serve as an organisation are probably more likely to appreciate the potential of technology when it comes to running an organisation. Many people involved in ALT have experience of being part of a virtual team, collaborating with others who are not based where they are and they appreciate the power of a distributed network. So when we moved from having most staff based in one location to having staff based all around the UK, there was nothing but welcome for the opportunities that opened up. Members have hosted us for the day when we all come together or have a visit, kindly providing us with a base for the day. More support for volunteer-led activities all around the country makes us a stronger community and provides greater contact with Trustees as well. If for those already involved in the organisation it hasn’t been an issue, there have been plenty of partners and other organisations who have taken some convincing. I often meet with the question of where am I based, and when I explain that we don’t have a physical HQ anymore, they aren’t really clear how that can work?! Or indeed how professional or serious we can be if the address on our business cards is now to the website. We do of course have a registered address, and a postal one for correspondence, too – but the small amount of physical post that arrives at either (and indeed our old address one year on) is rarely more thank junk mail. Although we really do appreciate the holiday greetings 🙂 That said, as we continue to work together even for those who were initially sceptical the issue of where we are based fades into the background. We deliver what we promise, we are responsive, we work hard to help where we can and all of that builds trust better than bricks and mortar.

But the question most personal to me is probably what’s it like to be a CEO without an office. To some people, it’s a akin to what it would have been like to be upper class without an estate. The office, the estate, the shiny things within bright white rooms or dark grey rooms or brightly coloured rooms with free food and pool tables… the assistants, the clothes, the coffee, the meeting rooms, the tech, the desk, the chair – the drama of welcoming guests to your office! What kind of CEO can I be without all of that? Most of the CEOs I meet are seriously wondering (and in many cases they already have to contend with my gender, age, nationality to overcome their preconceptions). Of course, there are plenty of other CEOs and leaders who are working, and have been working for decades, without an office, based remotely or travelling a lot. That’s not a new thing in itself. But sadly in many cases those in power fit the traditional template here in the UK and so their casual insistence to visit our offices, meet over coffee etc often turns to puzzlement when there is no physical space for them to pinpoint that represents the organisation I lead. For me, it’s helpful. It can be very insightful to see how people react to the “no office… virtual organisation” answer to their question about where I am based. It helps me chose how I approach them better. For some, it endows me with tech credentials (she needs to know something about tech if she runs the organisation from home…), for others, it conveys a sense that I have a flexibility approach to work, maybe understand more about work/life/family balancing acts. It can also signal that I care about putting resources where they make the most impact for the charity, rather than having a plush office. A year in, what I know for certain is that without an office I can very much be the CEO I want to be, maybe more so than before. I love the freedom not having to manage physical space has opened up and the bigger perspective it has given me.

So this Wednesday, when the first anniversary comes around, I shall be raising a glass to mark the occasion. Not to celebrate exactly, but to remind myself of something a colleague said to me the day we handed the keys back. It’s quite remarkable what you can achieve when you put your mind to it. Cheers.