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Leading a virtual team: blended is BEST

We’ve previously written about how important a blended approach is to leading a virtual team (in this post from 2019 about delivering in person events as a virtual team and in this podcast) but the past year has changed that conversation on a global scale.

What’s best?

Getting ‘back to the office’?

Staying with working from home?

Who decides and what should we base this decision on?

Having led my team from being office based to working from home with in person elements to working entirely from home for 12+ months with no in person contact, I’ve had a lot of experience with the different options.

This article, which I discovered thanks to Matt Lingard, explores a lot of interesting options that organisations are now thinking through when designing their approach in (what’s hopefully one day to be) a post-pandemic workplace:

After months of working remotely, we have all learned that most tasks are accomplished and most meetings go just fine without the office.

But that, the authors warn, doesn’t mean companies should suddenly abandon their workplaces. Going to the office, they argue, has never been just about work. And technology won’t make socializing less dependent on direct interpersonal contact anytime soon. In this article they describe the important social functions of an office: It’s where people build trust through personal interaction, learn the nuances of their job, and build and maintain organizational culture. And it’s through random in-person encounters between people from different functions and cultures that many of the most innovative business ideas are born. The authors conclude by showing how design, technology, and management practices can be used to make tomorrow’s offices more effective as social, learning, and innovation spaces.

We need a ‘Social anchor’

One function of in person contact that is explored in the article is that of social interaction (outside of formal meetings) to foster relationships, social bonds and cooperation – the ‘office as a social anchor’. In person interaction, it argues, helps built commitment and support for each other and the organisation. One of the examples cited is the ‘The WELL (Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link), which started in 1985, is one of the oldest virtual communities in existence’. 35 years later, we have A LOT MORE technology and connectivity to help us establish and grow our virtual teams and communities – but what many of the teams and organisations who only moved online in 2020 don’t have, are the shared experiences of meeting up, sharing life events, supporting each other longer term.

Even in our team, having worked mostly remotely for 3-4 years now, sharing those events over time, has had a big impact already. It takes times for enough birthdays, weddings, births and so forth to happen in order to share them and for that shared experience to strengthen team and organisational culture and belonging.

Sharing ‘how things are done’

In my experience the onboarding or induction process, is one of the biggest challenges of leading a virtual team and I agree with the authors who write:

Classically, this on-the-job learning takes place through apprenticeship. New employees learn the correct and proper way to behave—“how things are done around here”—from directly observing those around them, especially their mentors.

Technology can certainly be used to facilitate this sort of learning, but without question an office makes the process a lot easier.

We are currently in the midst of one such induction process, and we have developed a number of approaches to help us provide as many opportunities as possible for the kind of learning that’s described in the article. For example:

  • As a team, we each spend time working synchronously with a new member of staff, enabling them to observe how we use tools and systems and explore what we do day to day;
  • We provide a comprehensive induction checklist, with links to processes and procedures, which we work through together;
  • We start the induction process before the first day, to ensure that a new colleague knows what to expect and how to prepare, including undertaking a home-working review and assessment;
  • I provide a lot of the induction focusing on the ‘why’ and bigger picture context of what we do, rather than the ‘how’.

Creating the collaborative spark

Without exception, what I hear the most about working form home as well as virtual conferences, is that everyone missed those watercooler moments and hallway chats above all else. The authors identify these types of interaction potential for ‘unstructured collaboration’. This, without exception, takes THE most time, effort and imagination to make happen, and initially I spent A LOT of my management time experimenting with different approaches to make this happen in my team, including setting up a ‘watercooler chat’, having unstructured ‘show & tell’ elements in weekly team meetings and so forth.

Over the past year, I’ve come to the conclusion that all of these efforts contribute something, but by far the most effective is to lead by example. Even as a senior leader, you have to make the effort to have open conversations, exploring ideas and questions, sharing thinking in progress, so that you create not only space but also time for the kind of unstructured collaboration you want to happen.

It’s a skill that a few of the senior leaders I work with cultivate – and you can see the difference immediately. The result is less presentation, more collaboration – fewer meetings where no one speaks up and everyone has their cameras turned off and more hangouts in which everyone contributes and ideas spark.

You can learn to cultivate that kind of approach to leading virtual teams, and it takes a high level of focus on your own skills in communicating and collaborating online. You need to put yourself intentionally in a position in which you would naturally be in an office – sitting at your desk with work in progress, staring out of the window whilst thinking about a difficult problem.

Blended is best.

I have started planning to see my team in person again. The first of our joint away days may still be 6+ months away, but we are preparing for increasing the in person element of our ‘blend’ again after a long period of not meeting up. Both social and work interaction is planned for 2022 and that thought in itself provides welcome structure and motivation through these months of continued pandemic life. In the interim, we have puppy pics, snack boxes, t-shirts, feedback by post and… online karaoke and radio to keep that blended spirit alive.