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Virtual Teams Book: Trust & surveillance… extract from Chapter 3

In July, I drafted the first chapter of my book about leading virtual teams. Head over here to learn more about the project.

Progress since the last post

Since my last post, I have been working on Chapter 3. This includes some of the most interesting sections relating to Learning Technology and Open Education, in particular a section on open approaches to leadership.

The chapter was harder to write because I had a lot of things I wanted to refer to which would be covered in other parts of the book, which don’t exist yet. On the plus side, I have managed to get into a good routine with my writing, and I found a regular writing (half) day, which helps a lot.

Posey, the puppy, will soon start to spend more time in my office, and I am looking forward to having her company as my writing buddy. Pictures to follow.

For the next four weeks, I will be working on Chapter 2, on Building a virtual team spirit.

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: Leading a virtual team

In what way is leading a virtual team different from leading a team that is geographically co-located?

This chapter explores what leading a virtual team is like for managers and leaders. We will discuss the challenges of leadership that are specific to a distributed workforce and explore ideas for how to find your own virtual leadership style. 

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on your own journey to leading a virtual team. Consider for example, what your experience has been to date? Have you mostly managed people in co-located contexts, in offices or on campus? Have you previously managed staff who were home-based or had flexible working arrangements? What was a successful experience of working with a virtual team for you? 

Many of us get to a position of having to manage a distributed workforce with little or no prior experience, particularly if your organisation has only recently introduced remote working or you work for a start-up company. 

If you do have experience to draw on, consider how this shapes your expectations of managing your current team. Reflecting on your own experiences, are there things you would do differently in future or approaches you feel worked particularly well? 

I want to take a reflective and open approach to exploring what leading people whom you may never meet in person is really like in the long term. This is important as part of being effective as a virtual team manager is to narrate and communicate what may be self-evident in an office setting. And in turn to inspire your colleagues to make a greater effort to communicate with you and each other. 

Whilst many of the examples discussed in this chapter are drawn from my experiences in the charity and education sectors, they are more broadly applicable.

Draft Chapter extract

Below is an extract of the draft chapter. This is from the middle of the Chapter, ahead of the last section. Unfortunately the footnotes haven’t come across, so I will do my best to fix that for the next time.

Trusting in yourself and others

A common question about working remotely I get asked is how I manage staff without supervising their work in person. How can I trust things are being done without seeing it, without being there to check and so forth. My answer is that being part of a distributed team is a two way street. Staff need to want to work remotely, to adjust or learn how to do things in a way that works for them AND the organisation. Everyone needs to be willing to make the most of the opportunities that being part of a virtual organisation offers, you can’t do that for them.

When you see people in person, you get a lot of clues as a manager about how things are going. You probably have opportunities to see people interact, chat with each other, or bend over a computer screen together to solve a problem. When you lead a distributed team, opportunities to gather such information are more limited, but they are still there. 

Building trust as a virtual team is all about establishing a baseline of communication and behaviours that help everyone work better with each other. You can for example use a Code of Practice to set out our expectations of how things should be done. Many virtual teams have something like that, whether an actual document, ‘house-rules’ or a statement about what they believe in, how they like to work and what their expectations are of each other. 

A Code of Practice could cover practical questions like what to do if you are sick, how to safely use two-factor authentication services for work and support for working remotely. It can also set out how the team works together, explain schedules for regular meetings, suggest ways to resolve conflicts and what you expect staff to do in terms of sharing calendars and regular communication. 

One way of building trust in your staff is to observe their regular patterns of behaviour and to investigate if they deviate from that. For example, if you are used to hearing from someone regularly every Tuesday and they fail to report in, that’s a signal that you might need to investigate. Or if you are used to chatting with someone every morning on Slack, and they don’t turn up when they were meant to, that might be a sign that something is wrong. 

Depending on the type of team you lead, you may not need to supervise people too closely and give them more freedom to do their work in their own time. I find the more freedom you want to give your team, the clearer you need to be about what your expectations are and when deadlines are happening. 

It is interesting to reflect on the duty of care as an employer of home-workers beyond basic health & safety or display screen equipment although this is important. For example, if your workforce includes individuals who live alone, it is important to check that you have procedures in place for solo home-working. Make sure you have ways to monitor that staff are checking in regularly and/or that someone notices if you don’t hear from a colleague for a while.  In a large team especially it can be easy to miss that someone has gone silent. 

Those silences mean more to experienced leaders of virtual teams, especially in small organisations. Over time, you develop a feel for the level of activity, chatter and interaction that makes up the daily tone of a virtual team and you can usually tell whether that tone is just right or off somehow. It could be something like too many jokes or none at all, or general silence when someone poses a question. It could be that new member of staff who hasn’t yet joined into the watercooler chat or the usual suspects whose voice drowns out all others. 

The aim of getting attuned to your own team’s voice is to be alert for any changes in that tone that might cause you concern or require you to take action. 

Another aspect of building trust is to get a better sense of each other’s home-working context. “One way to achieve this is to give each other tours of your workspaces. This allows colleagues to form mental images of one another when they’re later communicating by email, phone, or text message”.  Another way to achieve this could be to ask everyone to share a picture of their workspace, discussing the biggest upsides or downsides of their setup. Working from home exposes who we are much more to our work colleagues than coming to a shared space like an office. Our homes are not shared, corporate spaces, they are personal.  Each individual may feel comfortable with different levels of sharing that personal space with team mates. 

A lot of the research on virtual teams initially was conducted on IT projects or software company teams as “the earliest virtual teams were formed to facilitate innovation among top experts around the world who didn’t have time to travel”. So it is important to be mindful that those contexts don’t necessarily reflect the diversity of today’s permanently distributed workforces. 

As a manager, particularly if you manage an international workforce, you need to be aware that different cultural and social context might cause quite different behaviours and that can seemingly undermine the trust you are trying to establish. The tool being used can also make a difference here. Your video conferencing tool or choice may default to video on or off and that in itself can shape the expectations of the users. Research into the use of webcams in online learning is a useful touch point here, as it can help us explore why for example some students prefer to switch their camera off and some don’t mind it always being in and how this can be helpful in understanding employee behaviour. 

These considerations from the classroom can provide a helpful starting point when thinking about camera policies in the workplace: 

For instructors, rather than focus energy on how to manipulate students to turn cameras on, we can concentrate on presenting the course content in ways that students can relate to. Some things to consider are:

  • Lean in to the discomfort you may have about teaching online and examine it.
  • Consider critical equity issues regarding race, gender and class when establishing your camera policy.
  • Learn to trust in your students to be in charge of their own bodies, spaces and learning.
  • Find ways to develop your virtual presence to show students that you are invested in their success.
  • Offer alternative ways for students to demonstrate their engagement that don’t require cameras, such as using the chat function, organizing small group discussions and providing an online annotation tool for students to share their views.

The work of teaching requires the development of mutually respectful, trusting and supportive relationships. Respect and trust must extend to understanding students’ needs for privacy and the safety from surveillance of their private lives. At the same time, as professional educators, we must attend to student learning and proficiency. But learning and proficiency do not necessarily go hand in hand with a camera turned on.

There may be very practical reasons for you to require your colleagues to have cameras on for certain meetings or working together on particular projects, but it is unlikely to be necessary at all times, and giving this some thought and setting out strategies and expectations in advance, ideally in consultation with staff, will help set out policies that work in the long term. In my experience, building trust and maintaining this over time, is a balancing act between being flexible in order to accommodate the different contexts of a home-based workforce and a common way of communicating which all commit to. 

What can feel hardest to deal with at a distance is trust breaking down. For example, you might feel someone is not pulling their weight and falling behind with their work. Or a member of staff is not being truthful about what they are doing. There are of course ways in which you can closely monitor your remote workforce. From monitoring keyboard strokes to having a camera always on, there are many ways in which you can track what your staff are doing. In my working context, it has never been desirable nor has it been necessary to supervise staff in such a way and in my view technology can’t be a substitute for building trust and engagement in your virtual team. 

In the Age of Surveillance Capitalism surveillance of homeworkers on the rise. sava saheli singh’s film A Model Employee tells the story: “to keep her day job at a local restaurant, an aspiring DJ has to wear a tracking wristband. As it tracks her life outside of work, she tries to fool the system, but a new device upgrade means trouble”. Discussing surveillance practices in the workplace is a complex topic and beyond the scope of this book. In the context of fostering trust leading a distributed team, an important question to ask is whether as an employer or an employee, we are prepared to sacrifice the privacy of our homes in order to work from home. For me, the answer is no. 

There are other ways to manage performance and keep communicating even in the most difficult situations and in the next part of this chapter, we’ll be looking at finding an approach that works.