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Leading a virtual team: life work balance

Last month, we, that is my whole team, blogged about celebrating three years as a virtual team! It was really, really enjoyable and rewarding for me as CEO to read the words and hear the voices of all of my colleagues. I am so grateful that some took the plunge to blog for the first time and others made time to contribute in the face of a big workload. It was a big deal for us as a team to mark the start of year four as a virtual team – a digitally and geographically distributed organisation. Where many other teams started in 2020, we were a few years ago – intentionally and with both strategy and time on our side.

That said, like every other small, agile team, we have been having to reinvent what we do, how we do it and, importantly, how we support each other in these challenging times of crisis and heartbreak.

You can find out more about how we are weathering the crisis and revisit all of our virtual teams posts here.

February 2021

This month, the focus is on achieving the right life work balance at a time of change – not ‘just’ with established colleagues within the organisation, but also with new teams and on new tasks. 

I have had a lot of opportunities to explore this in recent weeks, as part of a new collaboration with the team at Reclaim Hosting, to organise the forthcoming OERxDomains conference (exciting!), as part of an external quality review panel for a university and through activities organised by a professional body for UK Association executives. 

Collaboration with new folks is always inspiring, and also brings with it getting to know someone else’s working rhythm and practices. For example, when working across different time zones, it’s hard to avoid scheduling work outside of everyone’s normal working hours. I don’t normally work, at least visibly, outside my normal working hours, unless it’s for something like delivering a conference. 

Many people rate CEOs who work all hours and show ‘commitment’ by working at weekends and through holidays, but I am not one of them. This post ‘Working on weekends‘ exemplifies some of what’s at stake, particularly when you are a manager or in a leadership role, really well.

“… there’s often a cultural belief that if you’re not burning the candle at both ends – if you’re not pulling 18 hour days and working on the weekends – you’re not trying hard enough. … Most knowledge workers can muster up to 4 to 6 hours of really productive work a day. After that, you get into make-work; the going through the motions, non-reflective phoning-it-in work that isn’t going to rock anybody’s world. Likewise, constant interruptions, eg on Slack, through random calls, or half hour meetings sprinkled throughout the day, interrupt flow state and dramatically drop productivity and well-being.”

Alongside the blog post, I came across this tweet:

I took real inspiration from Ben and the next day we implemented these new signatures across our team. Internally, the feedback was really positive as many of our staff have different working patterns including caring for family, home-schooling and so forth. Externally also, I received some spontaneous positive feedback from contacts I wrote to.

As a CEO, it’s part of my responsibility to model the kind of behaviours Ben blogged about and make that part of our culture as a virtual team: respecting different working patterns, not to work all hours, but only productive hours – particularly in these times of pandemic.

From Ben’s post, I moved to reading Mary’s post on life work balance (my coach recently mentioned how she puts ‘life’ ahead of the word work in this term – life comes BEFORE work)

Mary is an excellent writer and thinker and her post really struck a chord with me:

“…What isn’t such a good thing though, is not being able to turn off that running strategy session in my mind. It also runs when I’m reading in bed before going to sleep, when I’m meditating and when I’m playing video games with my teen. … I have become compassionately ruthless with myself when I have intentionally created a space for something like reading or meditation and my thoughts start running away. I don’t get mad at myself (this is also something I’ve had to learn how to do). I calmly guide myself back to the activity and resume focus. Sometimes I do that over and over and over.”

I found a lot of support in having a good therapist for much of 2019/20 and what Mary reflects on, the techniques used such as meditation, resonates with my own experience. You don’t have to suffer from Anxiety with a capital ‘A’ for these kinds of patterns of behaviour to become an issue – and lack of the right life-work balance really contributed to poor mental wellbeing in my case.

I am fortunate that I had the support to change things and it’s been a lot of hard work that continues each and every day, particularly during these times when there is always something urgent that demands my work attention or my personal attention. Care is work.

Which led me to this episode of the InVinoFab Book Club, which was all about burnout – a condition that we are reading more and more about at the moment. ‘Pandemic burnout’ rears its ugly head all too often and working in Learning Technology over the past year has rarely felt like anything other than fighting burnout.

I have blogged a bit about the strategies I use to combat burnout, from organising strategy days for one and making drawings to adopting more office plants and blogging to recapture the joy of EdTech… .

But sometimes small practical steps have the most powerful impact, such as changing your email signature to send a clear signal that you DON’T expect anyone to respond to you immediately or outside their normal working hours.

Or finishing work on time or even early.

For me, there is a soon to be adopted puppy about to cause some (welcome) chaos in my working life as a CEO. No power cable will be safe… 😉