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Virtual Teams Book – First Chapter Done

Just over a month ago, this project to write a book about leading virtual teams got underway. If you missed the first post that explains what the book is about and the open approach I am taking, then head here to catch up.

Progress since the last post

Since my last post, I have outlined what the book is going to be about and each chapter within it. I have set out word limits for the book overall and each individual chapter and I have gone through the material I already have and I have assigned it to each chapter.

Then, the task of writing the first chapter began. I picked Chapter 4: Pitfalls and problems of virtual teams to start with as this includes a section on the pandemic and crisis working, which is something I am thinking about a lot at the moment.

I have dedicated one afternoon a week to focus on writing and doing bits and pieces for the book around that. I started writing over 5 weeks and took some time off to have a holiday, and the chapter changed a lot from zero to 12,000 words and is now 9,475 words long.

It was really useful to start writing and I learnt a lot from drafting this first chapter. It still needs more references and the tone isn’t quite right, but having the first draft of the first chapter is a nice milestone.

For the next four weeks, I will be working on Chapter 3, on leading a virtual team.

As planned, I will be sharing extracts from work in progress (read the first extract below) and invite you to read along, reflect and share your thoughts. As part of the book writing process, I will also organise virtual drop in sessions which are open to all and free to attend and there is a regular newsletter with updates about the book and upcoming events or get in touch with me directly.

Chapter overview: Pitfalls and problems of virtual teams

Many unforeseen problems arise in a virtual team over the years. In contrast with managing a traditional, office-based workforce, there are a lot of factors at play that you have little or no control over when you manage people remotely, from moving house to problems with technical infrastructure. This chapter explores some of the difficult and dark times I experienced leading a virtual team and ways to cope with them. I also discuss ideas for establishing a positive life/work balance for remote workers and hopefully avoid many common problems from the outset. 

One of the lessons I learnt about leading a virtual team is that many problems only arise over time. Something that isn’t an issue early on can become problematic a year down the line when you no longer benefit from things you have done when you were working together in person in the office. One example of this is the renewal of a contract last renewed when there was still a physical filing cabinet with the relevant papers in it next to your desk. In my case, it took literally a calendar year to sort out a complex mail forwarding arrangement that still gives me nightmares. Even in a relatively small organisation like the one I lead, certain processes only occur every 2-3 years or less frequently. I found that in particular governance, audit and quality assurance processes can become harder over time as the organisational memory of how things were done fades and you need to establish new ways of doing things remotely.

Your portfolio of problems will change over time, and there are several other factors, such as staffing changes or establishing a new service for example, that can cause new issues to arise in the dynamics of a virtual team. Each onboarding process brings with it an unknown quantity of home-working related variables that over time impact on your team. Everyday challenges can seem easy to overcome at first, but the lived experience of spending every day at home and working can be difficult to anticipate. 

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how many things shape life at home and by extension working from home and how much things can change abruptly and without warning. It may be a new pet, a sudden illness or redundancy that causes home life to change overnight. Or it may be external factors such as a building site or noisy neighbours. Managing a virtual team involves to some degree connecting with the reality of home life of your workforce and all that brings with it. 

Whilst a lot of what I focus on in this chapter is about creating balance between life and work, about maintaining a degree of professional detachment and separation between home and work, there are limits to what can realistically be achieved. There will always be situations when not going out to work means that there is no escape from a difficult situation at home and this is one of the most challenging aspects of managing a remote workforce. 

I have divided this chapter into three sections: first, I want to focus on everyday challenges that virtual teams experience. That includes negotiating the tension between working from home and doing housework, working from home in different time zones and seasons as well as wellbeing for home-workers. 

The second part of the chapter is about managing crisis and change as a virtual team, such as moving house (which can be more impactful than anticipated) and how to communicate and build trust when things really go wrong. 

The final part of the chapter is dedicated to reflecting on working in times of pandemic. Before 2020 none of us had experienced this scale of global health crisis as a virtual team and we learnt a lot from the experience which we tried to meet with grace and compassion. 

Draft Chapter extract

Below is an extract of the draft chapter. This is the third and last section of the chapter.

Working as a virtual team in times of global crisis

“Hello from month two of lockdown here in the UK. I initially started writing this post on 23 March 2020, but since then so much has happened that I stopped and now, a month later, I’ve started again. 

I’ve been reading so much about the current crisis: at first there were emergency announcements and lockdown measures, then support and help for coping, then about the ‘new normal’ and now we’ve arrived at predictions for the future. 

It is both incredibly busy and extremely boring. 

I am not sure how I feel about the idea of ‘business as usual’. I can understand the desire for a sense of normality and keeping to a routine, but no one can really function normally just now, so I am starting to think about what measures we can take to lead our team through the coming months.. 

My ideas include a 20% reduction in overall productivity (to give us as a team more flexibility around care commitments etc), setting priorities for each week and creating a clearer overview for us as a team (kind of like what you would do for a project, ie treat the crisis as a project) and to try and set aside small pockets of time for thinking about things, rather than just doing…”

Reading the opening paragraphs of a blog post I published on 4 May 2020, and it takes me right back to those dark days. Obviously, the COVID-19 crisis had a much wider impact than I can comment on in the context of this book. The social, economic and political ramifications here in the UK and globally cannot yet be fully understood. The human cost, which continues to rise, is huge. Personally and professional we have all been affected. 

In the context of working as a virtual team, the great pivot online introduced a great number of people to work from home and this is something I have discussed earlier, in the Introduction. 

When the crisis hit, our team was already working from home, and in that respect we were safer than many others. Also, our organization was safer. We already had established processes for working from home and that was a huge plus. 

However, no one had prepared for what was to come next, and I want to reflect on the practical as well as the leadership challenges of leading a team through such a crisis. 

For me personally, the global pandemic coincided with a period of great personal upheaval including divorce and a move to a new city, which made this time one of the most challenging of my career as a CEO. 

Practical measures

To begin with, we took a lot of practical steps to support staff during this time of crisis. This included: 

  • Extra paid time off, extending Bank Holidays for example
  • Regular, individual check-ins with HR and support staff
  • Diverting funds usually spend on development like attending events to offer financial support for coaching, mentoring and counselling
  • Including wellbeing check-ins in weekly team meetings
  • Encouraging staff to share tips for wellbeing, for example links to online meditation sessions, helpful reading, recipes or entertainment

At times of high stress, even two weeks can seem like a long time and a lot can change in how a team is feeling or coping. It’s challenging to share how everyone is when some of the things that are happening to everyone are very personal. 

What I focus on is to find some balance between work being an escape, a bit of “normality” for everyone and work being a source of social interaction and support. These two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they can sit uneasily alongside each other when for example one person wants to try and have a ‘normal day’ and someone else feels like sharing their personal or crisis news. 

One of the most recognisable features of working from home during the pandemic is the video call, which “can be cognitively demanding keeping an eye on the chat as well as listening to what the presenter is saying and looking at their slides. ‘Why is video conferencing so exhausting?’, exploring factors like “non-verbal overload” and “constant gaze” as reasons video calls can be more tiring than meeting face-to-face. 

As someone who does lots of online meetings back-to-back his is something I can relate to.  I am not a fan of back to back video meetings and I find there are alternatives:

  • having a phone call (often more personal), 
  • meeting around a document, 
  • or screen sharing something that everyone can focus on instead of video, 
  • or having an audio call maybe with video briefly at the start to wave hello. 

If… nothing helps and you do have to have back to back meetings, as I often do, then what works for me is 

  • to have them standing up (I currently have a standing desk only), 
  • to keep each one to half an hour or less, 
  • to take regular breaks between meetings, 
  • and to check in with everyone participating at the start. 

Meeting around a document by Visual Thinkery is licenced under CC-BY-ND

Being one of many faces in a grid of video camera pictures is not a helpful way to visualise what having a productive meeting looks like. We don’t all just stare at each other in person. So having a visual focus other than those individual feeds, like an agenda document or a shared screen is key to getting things done for me. 

We also explored using a virtual backdrop in video calls, like in a meeting or at a conference, and I am in two minds about it. Whilst I prefer seeing people in their context, I appreciate that many are not in environments they are comfortable sharing widely or wish to protect their privacy. 

Strategies for crisis working

As time went one and as we passed 100 days since the lockdown in the UK commenced, more strategies for working as a virtual team in times of crisis emerged .

As well as focusing on our own team, I received requests every week from organisations who were considering adopting working as a virtual team as their ‘new normal’. Every few days I had 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 talked through things like PO boxes, GDPR for home-workers, financial support and line management – but we also talked about the reasons for such a shift, how important it is to think through strategy and values underlying those moves to virtual teams. 

Over time, my concern grew that there is a lot that was being left behind, particularly messy HR problems, access issues and long term implications of not meeting in person. For a lot of people I spoke to, endless Zoom meetings or Microsoft Teams was 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.

Even with an established distributed working culture the impact the crisis could be seen on our virtual team. Many went from having their own dedicated workspace in a calm home to suddenly discovering this had become a shared workspace with other members of the household. Sharing a workspace, an increase in video calls, homeschooling and childcare meant even established remote workers are also having to rediscover ways to make things work. 

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 meant we as an organisation missed our regular face-to-face team days. I found I really miss face-to-face away days and the opportunities to meet individuals in person. The longer the period that we do not meet up as a team the more I feel the impact of not having more informal catch ups. 

Many of us were not able to easily find a quiet spot for a conversation in lock-down homes, and even when 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 talked 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. 

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. 

Dealing with precarity outside beyond our control

As life, in the UK at least, entered a new phase and restrictions were being eased, workers started to return to offices in greater numbers. Holidays at the end of a difficult year were on the horizon and in many ways things were starting to improve. We moved from crisis mode to post-pandemic living. And yet there was no let up in sight at work. For my team, work continued at full pace, and the strain of the last 18 months was showing. Everyone had their own particular challenges, their own struggles and personal circumstances that shaped their experience of this time. What we did have in common is less capacity to cope with stress, with things going wrong. 

The continued impact of the pandemic, of self-isolation cases at school and at work, the lack of childcare, transitions and changes at work, as well as crowded family homes and all that we didn’t do the previous year catching up with us created a sense of continued precarity beyond our control. Many of us had been fully vaccinated by this time and grateful to be safer from a deadly virus, but we continued to have a lot to contend with in our own ways.

Acknowledging things not being normal

Through the loss of being able to run face to face events and also due to other factors, our organisation lost nearly half of its turnover in 2020. Like many charities, we struggled with that scale of loss and although our strategic response had a positive impact very quickly and helped us weather the most difficult period, we had to make savings and cuts wherever we could. A year on, I was pleased to see that month by month things were improving and new income generation strategies were starting to pay off. Yet we were still having to be extremely fastidious when it came to managing our resources. Some staff costs had to be cut in order to safeguard the future of the organisation and we were not yet in a position to relax those measures. 

This was a singular context but it does translate into many situations when a team or an organisation is coping with a difficult period and it got me thinking about ways in which to provide support and acknowledge challenges. 

Usually, I would have looked to structural changes first, to aim to provide more staffing resources, more support for existing staff or financial rewards and benefits. 

In the context of post-pandemic recovery, my scope for those sorts of measures was extremely limited however and I had to think about other approaches.  Something that would go beyond the formal support already in place and which had been positively received.  One of the ideas we put into practice was a wellbeing day. A duvet day if you like.

A day when you don’t have to come to work, you don’t have to use a day of holiday. You can take it whenever you need to and you can focus on rest, relaxation, whatever you feel might improve your wellbeing.

I was glad when our Board approved this proposal and granted the extra day to all staff. The aim of this was partly to give everyone an extra day to breathe and also about acknowledging that things weren’t normal. That we still have a lot to cope with, a lot to contend with. Here are some of the ideas we came up with for how to use the day: 

  • Mentoring & cake: Sometimes an extra day off is just what you need to do some thinking. Get in touch with your mentor, coach or a friend and arrange a chat over a long walk. Take a step back from your daily grind and get some head space. Aim to end your chat somewhere with excellent cake.
  • Early run and pub lunch: Maybe a wellbeing day for you starts with a nice run (jog, walk) along the river or around the park, enjoying the feeling that everyone else has to go to work, but you don’t. Follow your feet, and breathe in the morning. Job done for today. At lunch, head to the pub for an early lunch (int optional) and revel in the luxury of not having an improvised sandwich for lunch.
  • Bed: This needs no explanation. Stay in bed. Enjoy.
  • Tidy and new pictures: Maybe you want to use your day to make your working space the best it can be. Have a tidy and clean and then get creative by putting up some new pictures. Extra points for making something yourself. Also extra points for dog/cat photos. The nice thing about this kind of day is that you get both unlimited tea AND a nicer desk when you do have to go back to work.