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How we survived a pandemic: Part 3 – Ups and Downs (and sideways) of life as a virtual team

This is a conversational blog post (cross-posted here) between Martin Hawksey (@mhawksey) and Maren Deepwell (@marendeepwell). We are using this approach to create some space to think together in ‘unprecedented times’. 

For regular readers this is a slight departure from our regular ‘Virtual Teams’ posts (you can read those on our Virtual Teams summary page) taking a broader view of work whilst midst global pandemic. 

In this month’s post we share some thoughts prompted by our joint talk at a virtual team day held by the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of Oxford. You can access the slides from our talk here (CC-BY-SA). As we pass 100 days since the lockdown in the UK commenced we discuss the impact and look to the future as the measures start to be eased.

June and July… 

Maren: It has certainly been an interesting 100 days and counting, since our virtual team started working in lockdown conditions. Now that these conditions are gradually easing and parts of life are returning to normal, we are receiving requests every week from organisations who are considering adopting working as a virtual team as their ‘new normal’. Every few days I have calls with senior managers who are trying to decide whether they still need a physical office, managers whose employees want to have more flexibility, less commuting and more virtual collaboration. We talk through things like PO boxes, GDPR for home-workers, financial support and line management – but we also talk about the reasons for such a shift, how important it is to think through strategy and values underlying those moves to virtual teams. More and more I worry that there is a lot that is being left behind, particularly messy HR problems, access issues and long term implications of not meeting in person. For a lot of people I speak to, endless Zoom meetings or Microsoft Teams is all they have to go on when they start to think about what their virtual work world will look like. When I started thinking about what our team would look like online, I must say that tools for video conferencing were not even on my list! I was thinking about consulting employees, drafting what I wanted to be the most equitable changes to employment contracts and setting out a blended model of working together that saved some costs, but also budgeted for others such as team days in person, equipment, travel costs, home-working allowances and so forth. The current situation is a great prompt to reflect. 

Martin: In the case of ALT we have an established distributed working culture and when we do have vacancies in our organisation often people want to work for us because we operate remotely. This contrasts sharply to institutions suddenly finding themselves having to organise themselves remotely where existing staff miss the benefits of being co-located. In my own journey as a remote worker and as part of ALT’s move to a distributed organization having a transition period where you could still spend time in the office I would say was essential. It’s also interesting to reflect on the impact the current situation has on established remote workers. Many, including myself, have gone from having your own dedicated workspace to suddenly discovering this has become a shared workspace with other members of your household. It’s 7+ years since I’ve had to share an office and back then video conferencing was certainly less predominant. Throw into the mix childcare and home schooling and suddenly even established remote workers are also having to rediscover ways to make things work. In preparing for our talk for the University of Oxford it was a useful reminder that whilst ALT is a distributed organisation there has always been a recognition of the importance of face-to-face time both one-to-one and through team away days. 100+ days of social distancing also means ALT as an organisation has now missed two of our regular face-to-face team days. In some ways I’ve not missed our away days, perhaps given the current situation travel is the last thing on my mind, but also the benefit of time together is more nuanced. As chief executive have you seen a bigger impact? 

Maren: I do really miss our face-to-face away days and the opportunities to meet individuals in person, even though like you I am not missing the travel just now. Indeed, I am not sure I would feel comfortable to travel for work yet and I am glad that we have already decided as an organisation not to travel until at least October, at which time we will review the situation again. I find however that the longer the period is that we do not meet up as a team the more I feel the impact of not having more informal catch ups. As you have mentioned, many of us are not able to easily find a quiet spot for a conversation in our lock-down homes, and even when you are not surrounded by family, there is a lot going on within the home environment that can be distracting. All of which makes it more difficult to really focus on conversations, particularly in a Line Management context. Fellow CEOs I talk to are finding they are similarly experiencing some deterioration in those important relationships. Some people find it easier to establish an equivalent level of trust and exchange than others. Ideas we have tried to create different kinds of spaces to interact in are:

  • Meeting around documents
  • Walk and talk conversations on the phone, whilst we go for a walk individually
  • Good old-fashioned phone calls
  • Virtual get togethers for social occasions such as birthdays

In year one of us being a virtual team, we had a lot of change to cope with but enthusiasm was high. Year two was mostly about settling into being a virtual team and ironing out less straightforward issues. We strengthened policies for home working and collaboration that made our way of working more robust and sustainable. Year three started off with a new strategic vision to take us further, to build on what we had established and six months in we have a completely different business model and context to contend with. What I am thinking about really is what year four should look like… . I read a lot about a desire not to return to the old ways, but I don’t really empathise because the way in which we work as an organisation had already departed from the traditional model well before the pandemic forced many into the great online pivot. Personally, I wouldn’t relish a professional life without face-to-face interaction with colleagues or Members. I miss it. 

Martin: It’s interesting to think back to the start of this year pre-pandemic as one of my personal resolutions was to reduce the amount of air travel I did for work. I was doing well, booking trains 90 days in advance to get the best tickets, getting to see summer lovely sun rises on the East coast line …

Traveling by train also was proving more effective in opportunities to work while traveling, being mindful of my working hours. There were some downsides, for example, a 3 hour delay on a train from Kings Cross which ended up getting home after 2am, was a long and painful journey. Looking forward using a 90 day booking window still feels problematic given the virality of COVID-19 and the risk of localised outbreaks and any restrictions that might be imposed. The thought of sitting on a train, or any other public transport, with a face mask on also doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm, so do I drive, borrow my parents motorhome? Without an effective vaccine in place I find it hard to see when our next face-to-face will be. I’m not sure what the impact of this will be, or even if there has already been an impact but hidden in a general need to adjust our operational plans? Another factor I think needs to be taken into account is any social anxiety that may have developed whilst we have all been in isolation. 

Maren: That is a really interesting point. When I recently started to receive invitations to face-to-face events which require travel I thought it would be useful to ask everyone in the team to provide input to our approach from October onwards. I have put in place a feedback form that I hope we can complete every few weeks or months to ask individuals about their personal preferences regarding travel, having meetings or catch ups face-to-face and also going to events – taking into account their personal circumstances and wellbeing. The differences between colleagues who live in different parts of the UK even in our small team have really become clear to me in recent weeks, particularly as the lock-down in Wales, where I live, was last to lift. Meanwhile, talking to colleagues further afield, and hearing their experiences of resuming travel, haircuts and meals out has been heartening as it gives me a sense that in many parts of the world days and weeks are slowly becoming a bit more normal. My first ventures out for an emergency dentist visit, MOT and bakery were quickly followed by making an appointment for a haircut (yay!) and a socially distanced BBQ with friends. It’s nice to hear positive experiences starting to surface after a long period of bleakness. 

Martin: After a long period of lock down it’s nice to see easing of some of the social distancing measures. For me it feels like after what felt like an age of restricted activity things are speeding up in terms of getting back to some sort of ‘normality’. It will be interesting to revisit this conversation in 4 weeks time to see if we are on a continued positive trajectory. Until next time dear readers stay safe.

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