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Virtual Teams Book: Setting out as a Virtual Team… extract from Chapter 1

Progress since the last post

Since my last post, I have been working on Chapter 1 which is all about setting out as a Virtual Team. It’s been very rewarding to work on this chapter as it include a first hand account of the key milestones I experienced leading a team from the office to working remotely and I enjoyed re-reading some of the posts one month, six months and a year into the process. It was useful to reflect on how much the reality a few years later meets with the expectations I had at the beginning and what has changed.

Next, I will be working on Chapter 5, which will explore equity and equality for virtual teams. I have left writing this chapter till last, particular because it requires the most research and also because I wanted to be able to reflect on issues that arise in the other chapters. Now that Chapters 1-4 are complete, I have my key issues to address in this chapter ready.

I have completed drafts for four of the six chapters now, and I am on track to complete my draft of the whole book before the end of the year.

As planned, I will be sharing extracts from work in progress (read this month’s extract below) and invite you to read along, reflect and share your thoughts.

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Chapter overview: Setting out as a Virtual Team

This chapter is divided into two parts. The first part covers practical considerations for setting up virtual teams, including how to involve staff in the process, recruitment and selection for virtual teams and practical considerations such as choosing the right tools and platforms for the job, GDPR compliance and up-skilling staff.  

The second part of the chapter contains a first hand account of an organisational transformation process I led to give practical examples of what can happen during a journey from office-based to blended or fully virtual team. 

Draft Chapter extract

Below is an extract from the first part of the chapter, focused on recruitment and selection.

Distributed organisations offer a different value proposition to staff. Whilst there are downsides, too, the advantages of working from home and the flexibility that brings with it are significant: 

Not everyone’s commute is that brutal, but companies and organizations can enable a more diverse and healthier workforce if they allow people to work remotely, at least some of the time.

For instance, consider how difficult it is for a blind person, or someone who is confined to a wheelchair, to commute into an office every day by taking a bus for an hour each way. The commute itself is stressful and exhausting. Will that individual also be able to give their best to the work if they are already tired from just the commute?

Or consider parents of young children who need to remain within a 10-minute drive to their children’s schools in case of emergency. If remote work is allowed, you gain access to a whole other talent pool of potentially highly-skilled employees.

Once you have made the jump and offer flexible or fully home-working, recruitment needs to reflect that and enable you to find the best candidates in the larger number of applicants. Here are some practical examples of how to adjust the selection process for remote working: 

Set out expectations clearly

Ensure that role descriptions and adverts set out clearly that you offer in terms of flexible/home-working. Be as specific as you can about what you provide (e.g. equipment, financial support etc) and what prospective staff will need to have in place (such as a dedicated work space). If you have policies that are specific to home-working, refer to these and spell out precisely what your expectations are. Particularly in the post-pandemic workplace many people’s experiences of home-working may have been during a time of crisis, and won’t necessarily reflect what a ‘normal’ approach looks like long term. Include details such as ‘we expect all staff to be in the office on Wednesdays for a team meeting’ or ‘our normal working hours are between 9.00am and 5.00pm’ to help prospective candidates get a sense of how flexible your approach is. 

Review your internal processes

It can be difficult to find comprehensive guidance for recruitment processes that happen online and in most contexts your existing policies and training should continue to apply. That said, it is important to review what everyone participating in the recruitment process needs to be able to do in order to fully participate: if panel members struggle with the meeting software or reviewers don’t understand how your online score sheet works, then the recruitment process is going to suffer. It may seem like an obvious point to make, but even experienced managers need time to gain confidence undertaking fully online recruitment. Ideally, test your process by role playing / user testing all elements beforehand, so that you can put yourself into the shoes of a candidate and gain a sense of what their experience will be. 

If your organisation uses a particular tool or platform for all meetings try to use the same platform during the recruitment process. Similarly, try to use as many of your familiar workflows when designing the practical elements of the interview. It the absence of a physical environment the candidates will get a much better sense of the organisation if the interviews happen on the same platform that they will be using day to day. In a sense, it’s the virtual equivalent of seeing your office or visiting campus. 

Include remote-working questions

It can be very helpful to include questions specifically about home working in the interview. It can help you learn more about each candidate and establish a rapport about some of the challenges you can encounter. For example you could ask something like: ‘Have you had any experience working from home previously?’ and ‘Can you expand on the main challenges you’ve encountered and/or perceive?’. 

You might be surprised how considered responses to such questions can be, highlighting issues like isolation and maintaining boundaries between work and personal life. 

It can also help establish whether candidates have experience working remotely in a solo capacity, e.g. running their own business or working as a consultant, and working remotely as part of a distributed team. Whilst there are many transferable experiences there are some important differences, such as the volume of communication required, having to be available for team members and meetings more frequently and having a shared sense of starting/ending a day. Often individuals who have worked remotely only in a solo capacity underestimate the extent to which this makes a difference and the interview can help establish a common understanding of what the organisational working culture is day to day. 

Homeworking long term

If you are offering home working full-time or some days of the week on a permanent basis, it is worth reflecting how this can impact on staff as things change either in the workplace or at home. For example, the tools you use as an organisation may change significantly over a period of five years and require constant upskilling. Virtual working often relies on tools that are frequently updated, impacting on workflows and requiring changes to procedures. Whilst this is true of everyone in the workplace to different degrees, the impact of such changes can be felt more keenly as a home-worker, for example if you start you week by logging in and suddenly your usual Monday morning catch up meeting won’t let you join or if you can’t reach work in domestic emergency because of software updates. Being reliant on tools and platforms that are updated according to Silicon Valley release schedules can cause havoc for even the most techy of staff and requires everyone to be adaptable to a larger degree than a traditional office setting where support can be provided at your desk or in your building. 

Committing to working from home long-term can seem an easy decision initially, but can become challenging during periods of change at home, such as a house move, changes in family life or relationships as well as physical and mental health. What seemed a good fit initially may turn out to be a nightmare a year on. Any and all information that you can provide for candidates to help them reflect on the realities of working remotely in the long term is valuable and increases the chances of finding the best candidate. 

Virtual Interviews

In many cases the interview is the deciding factor in the recruitment process and if you are recruiting for a virtual team you will hopefully have experience in organising meetings online. For virtual interviews, preparing ahead of time is key. Common pitfalls include using a platform that is only available to individuals within your organisation, failing to ensure your interview is fully accessible and lack of appropriate support for panel members. Plan in time for the candidate to set up and test things before the formal interview starts and allow time for things to go wrong. First impressions in virtual interviews happen both ways and candidates have likely prepared very carefully so it is worth being very explicit with everyone taking part in the recruitment process how to represent themselves and the organisation. 

As with the other elements of the recruitment process, established HR guidance will apply, but in addition, ask yourself what went wrong in bad meetings and interviews you have attended. Everyone has experiences of chairs not seeing their hand up, technical difficulties not being resolved, cameras being switched off when they should have been on and so forth. Even for experienced staff, checklists can be really helpful for virtual interviews and ensure that candidates have a better and fairer experience. 

If you find yourself interviewing someone in a suit, sitting in front of a perfect office backdrop and never breaking eye contact whilst giving you textbook answers and at the other end you are hoping to have an informal conversation from your kitchen table with your cat walking across the screen then you are experiencing a class virtual interview fail. Interviewing online robs you and the candidate of many common assumptions about what’s expected and how to behave, so be as explicit as you can both in the way you communicate and what information you provide ahead of time. For example, if formal workwear is commonly worn in your organisation, make candidates aware of that. Similarly, if it is not usual for staff to use digital backgrounds and if it is acceptable to see each other’s (family) life in the background, you can make that clear as well. Consider carefully how you can eliminate as many factors that could distract you from the purpose of the interview as possible. You don’t want to focus on someone’s unusual virtual backdrop or their unexpectedly formal attire instead of the key questions around the job. 

Experienced managers pick up a lot of clues when meeting candidates in person and that can help you take action to calm nerves and make candidates feel welcome. Online, the clues are still there, but it can be a lot harder to get beyond someone feeling nervous once you have had a technology fail or sound drops. Chairs should be prepared to start the interview in a manner that helps settle everyone and also pause proceedings if unexpected difficulties occur. In a later chapter we will specifically explore equality and equity in the context of working remotely and these considerations are particularly important in the context of recruitment starting with the connectivity and equipment required to apply to the tools and software required to take part in the interview process. A tool or platform that the organisation has a licence for and which is thus easily available to all staff may not be accessible to prospective candidates for example. 

The tension between technology and human beings becomes apparent in other chapters of this book and in this section I have intentionally focused on recruitment processes that are conducted largely by human beings using technology as tools for recruitment instead of recruitment undertaken by machines. I have chosen to do so as this book is focused on knowledge workers and professionals who work in education contexts and automated selection processes are not predominant as yet, at least in my experience. 

No doubt certain types of recruitment are becoming ever more determined by automated processes and artificial intelligence, and scenario based virtual interviews and skills texts can provide a useful addition to recruitment processes. Someone who comes across brilliantly in a prepared written application, virtual test or on email may not be able to communicate well in real time or on screen. So if the role you are recruiting for relies on communication and collaboration in a virtual team, it’s important to put human interaction at the centre of the selection process and ensure that the candidate you are appointing has the required skills for the role. 

The set up for home-working is a huge factor in the long term physical and mental health of your workforce and it can feel much more outside of your control than an office would. 

If appropriate you can include this kind of guidance in the information for prospective staff as well as in annual/regular processes for all staff. Ensure that it is a compulsory part of everyone’s practice to review and document their workstation and that you have a way to monitor this and address any issues that arise. 

Many new or temporary home-workers start out working with their laptop on the sofa or at the kitchen table and then report back and neck pain or wrist problems. 

The set up of the workspace should be an important part of the induction process and not left to chance as it’s your opportunity to get things right from the outset and avoid problems and illness further down the line.