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Virtual Teams: CPD and CO2

Welcome to this month’s post (cross-posted here) in which we, that is Martin Hawksey (@mhawksey) and Maren Deepwell (@marendeepwell), openly share our approach to leading a virtual team. 

If you haven’t come across our work before or like to find out more, you can catch up on earlier posts on our blogs, podcasts or find out more about ALT, the organisation we work for.

This time we talk about staff benefits and CPD opportunities for virtual teams, the environmental impact of work travel and discuss the advantages of connecting both virtually and in person. 

November

Maren: we’ve done two new pieces of work recently: creating a new guide about what benefits our organisation offers to staff and running the first couple of team sprints. Before now, the information about staff benefits was in quite a few different places and drawing it all together into one doc really brought home to me how much there is! What’s particularly interesting is to look at it from the perspective of leading a virtual team. Funding staff to attend training or CPD events for instance doesn’t in essence change – but it does make a difference where an individual lives, and subsequently which activities make for viable choices in terms of logistics and/or offer opportunities for meeting up in person for a catch up and so forth. Another realisation for me was how much more we now offer in contrast to a few years ago, when our organisation was still hosted within a university. As a team of less than 10 people, being hosted within a large building, a big institution, there was a much stronger reliance on whatever was already being offered, and often that did not meet our requirements. Subsequently a lot of the mandatory CPD felt a bit pointless but used up time. Something you added to the guide was how ALT supports staff to undertake mentoring. I was lucky to have an amazing mentor for many years and I really valued the work we did together. Looking back I realise that my mentor’s support was partly so essential because our internal set up didn’t actually offer what I really needed in my role. Much of what my mentor and I worked on was to navigate the structures we were working within and ultimately to move our organisation away from them. Now, I feel, we offer much more relevant benefits and flexible opportunities such as our weekly show & tell sessions at team meetings, CPD at team days, in-house training and recently virtual team sprints. 

Martin: Your comment on staff attending CPD opportunities and where the person lives got me thinking. October/November turned out to be an exceptionally busy month for me in terms of travel. As well as our two day staff and Board meeting in London we were also at OEB in Berlin. In terms of my personal CPD I also had a weekend in Sunnyvale, CA for the Google Developer Experts Summit and various weekend excursions to present as part of DevFest. My Summit attendance was supported by ALT with time off, Google picking up the bill for travel and accommodation. I was embarrassed to tell people I was jumping on the plane for California for the weekend and in my heart felt it was the last time I could make that particular trip given the environmental impact it causes. The thought I have is with the predicted increase in flexible working are virtual or hybrid events becoming more feasible. With a growing proportion of the population confident with a virtual presence what does this look like in terms of conferences? You could perhaps argue it both ways, whilst traditional conferences have greater environmental impact when incorporated into a virtual teams calendar they provide opportunities for social interaction at the levels you can’t currently achieve with technology. ALT has personal experience of a range of delivery modes, both live streaming and supporting remote participation at our face-to-face events as well as fully online events such as the ALT Online Winter Conference, which starts next week and is free to attend. At the end of the day we are incredibly social animals and sometimes you can’t beat just hanging out, in the physical sense, with others. Something to also remember is ALT has a UK wide network of regional members groups and I wonder if there is more we can do to either support these by shifting the balance away from one big annual conference to regional events with an emphasis on allowing those from further afield to fully participate?   

Maren: Reflecting on my personal experience, I’ve been on five long(ish) haul flights in the past ten years if you count flights within Europe, and since I started working for ALT in 2008, I’ve attended fewer than 15 events outside of the UK, on average 1-2 a year since I became CEO. Nearly every journey I take is by train and the majority of our team never travel outside of the UK for work. In contrast to countries like the US or Canada, the distances we generally have to manage are tiny and more often than not the majority of us can avoid air travel all together. So from the perspective of our team, I feel we have the right balance … When it comes to larger events, we only run 2 international face to face events a year and probably 50-75 regional or online ones – both centrally and locally organised. Whilst our biggest event of the year does attract an international audience the majority of participants come from the UK and travel by train. The OER conference is probably the event with most air miles to its name, with maybe 50-100 international travellers. And just like you and many of the participants I value that opportunity to connect in person very much. Some of the people who influence my thinking most I might only see once in a blue moon and whilst I share the environmental concerns you highlight, I think there are other strategies to address that at the scale on which we operate … My thoughts are now turning to planning for 2020 and making the most effective logistical plan for meeting in person as a team is a big challenge. Wherever possible I try to plan in such a way so as to save extra travel and combine trips, eg board meetings and site visits or conferences and team catch ups, appraisals and strategy days and so forth. The blended approach we have means that we can find affordances for both modes of working, rather than having to rigidly stick to one way of doing things. On a personal note, I have lived in a different country or far away from most of my family and friends for all of my adult life. For me, being able to connect in person has always been important and whilst I am now more capable than ever before to do so virtually, it doesn’t mean the same to me, neither in a personal context nor at work. I am not sure I would say one is better than the other and I would regret having to give up either. 

Martin: I thought I’d do some maths – so working from home rather than my nearest city is approximately 1 tonne of CO2 (according to carbonfootprint.com) which is almost the same as 4 return flights from Edinburgh to London. I’m probably a couple of return flights over in terms of zero gain, but if I opt for rail I could reduce my personal carbon footprint substantially. One of the reasons I often end up on a flight is a combination of needing to be somewhere for an early start and unable to travel the day before as it’s an extra day we have to work out childcare cover. Anyway, this is all very much an aside, but discussing this has made me realise that I need to consider how I travel in 2020, but perhaps there is also something we can agree as a team to make rail travel easier like agreeing a later start time for staff days? Sometimes the small things can make big differences. If we agree on this it will be another detail in our staff handbook which after two years still feels like a robust document without getting lost in bureaucracy. Recently following a request that came into our inboxes I published the ‘ALT Virtual Teams Stack’, which summarised some of the main technology and services we use as part of our distributed team. Again it’s nice to start thinking beyond 2019 knowing we have a well established set of technology and services to build on what we do in 2020 and beyond. As part of our discussions for our next strategy for 2020-2025 one of the questions raised was evolution or revolution. With our infrastructure I feel it’s in a good place so I feel it makes more sense to continue to evolve (our decision to predominantly use Chromebooks also make us more energy efficient). Looking to 2020 and beyond I am looking forward to getting us on the Eduroam network and larger monitors, energy efficient ones of course. Next month we also have a podcast special where we had a chance to speak to Olaf Hubel who is a team leader at Google for the G Suite Developer Relations team, which has thrown up lots of useful guidance so stay tuned for the recording and our reflections.

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