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What’s so important about open practice for hybrid leaders?

At the moment, a lot of my work is focused on the upcoming OER23 Conference. OER23 is the 14th annual conference for Open Education research, practice and policy is organised by ALT, the Association for Learning Technology, in partnership with UHI, the University of the Highlands and Islands. OER23 will bring together the strong Scottish Open Education movement and international participants to leverage our shared expertise for change in policy and practice. The conference will be co-chaired in partnership with the GO-GN Global OER Graduate Network, connecting emerging researchers and a global perspective with local and national knowledge.

Suffice to say, I am super excited about this event which I have been fortunate enough to help organise since 2015 and which is always a great highlight of my year. This year, I am especially looking forward to heading up to the conference, partly because it’s in one of my favourite parts of the world, the Scottish Highlands, and partly because it will give me a chance to catch up with many friends and colleagues I haven’t seen in a while, including long-time collaborator, Lauren Hanks.

Lauren and I have been talking about hybrid working and leading virtual teams for the past few years, and at least year’s OER Conference we even ran a session together: As leaders of virtual teams, we critically examined what lessons we can learn from open approaches to learning and teaching and how we can use that knowledge in an increasingly virtual workplace. Since then, I have been thinking a lot about why open practice is so important for knowledge workers, and particularly managers and leaders who work in hybrid, distributed or fully virtual teams:

Sharing practice openly to improve practice

A few years now I was fortunate to interview a manager from Google together with my then colleague Martin Hawksey. We spent an interesting hour talking about leading a virtual team, and what struck me (and what’s stayed with me since) is how similar some of the challenges were and the solutions we had each come up with. Similar despite the fact that Google and a small, independent charity with less than 10 employees where clearly very different workplaces.

It struck how easily we forget to share how we work alongside what we do outside of formal training and development. Yes, there is a whole industry out there dedicated to workplace learning, but few of us who work in education or the third sector have a lot of scope to engage with that day to day. More often than not, a project deadline or the start of term looms large, and so we focus on the output of what we have achieved, rather than how.

In order to overcome that challenge, I build into my work routine a moment to reflect on WHY something went well or not, alongside what the outcome has been. For example, if I found a way to improve a workflow or manage my time for a project more efficiently, then I will share that with my colleagues as I go along. That is how “show & tell” time was brought into our weekly team meetings.

I am less interested in the amazing outcome of something than I am in how it was achieved and what made it work or fail. Crucially, I am most interested in sharing those insights to help us as a team and an organisation learn from that, and to help others avoid our mistakes and build on our work.

Hybrid and remote teams often focus on reporting outputs, rather than process, and so it is especially relevant for us working in virtual teams to create routine moments for reflecting and learning together casually.

Opening up space for sharing leadership practice

A really common issue for leaders in this space is worrying about “is it just me who is struggling with this?”. When everyone works from home and all you see is a carefully curated or blurred background with a professional, well-groomed headshot framed by a flattering camera angle, it can be hard to get a sense of how others are coping day to day and easy to feel that you are the only one who is struggling.

Complaining about workload or being busy is in my experience a lot more common than the kinds of problems you experience when you are leading a team or a large project. Performance management, HR trouble, lack of productivity, loss of communication… these are just a few of the issues that commonly challenge us and that can be difficult to talk about.

This is often compounded by working with colleagues who have a large online presence. When you see blog posts, podcasts or social media conversations all sharing exciting updates or personal successes, or when you see those group chats full of cheer and inside jokes rolling past you, then how do you join in? Where is the space for questions about things you are not sure of or worry you are doing wrong?

Open practice in a leadership position is different from sharing things like new publications, or blogging about exciting projects. It opens up a space to share the practice of leading, of managing people, not just the end results.

Modelling leadership with intentional communication

One of the most challenging aspects of leading people or projects in hybrid or remote teams is lack of comparison. In a traditional workplace you’d see more examples of how others lead, what their meetings or one-to-one catch ups might look like, how they deal with difficult situations or simply how they act day to day when at their desk or on campus.

Depending on how hierarchical or closed an organisation you worked for, you may see a lot of conversations happening behind closed doors, or at the pub after work, but even a lack of openness would set some kind of example.

Mediated by technology, tools and platforms, leadership can be a lot harder to observe. There is a lot of communication that you may never be aware of at all, happening in individual or group chats you are not part of, and during meetings certain ways of behaving may be the result of technical issues, lack of digital competency or simply a bad hair day. It’s much, much harder to observe how others lead effectively (or not), and to learn from that approach for yourself when everyone works remotely.

It’s also a lot harder for teams to follow the example of those who lead them, as there is so much that is not visible. You can’t really tell if your Line Manager is working hard or watching videos on YouTube when you never see them. What it comes down to is a much greater need to intentionally communicate to fill in the blanks created by hybrid working. Here are some examples from my own experience:

  • Tell colleagues what to expect from a meeting ahead of time, and be specific about what kind of engagement you are looking for from them;
  • Share when you are having a screen break or stepping away from work for a bit, to normalise taking breaks;
  • Set out a clear format for regular activities like 1-to-1 catch ups, and communicate what’s the same for everyone, so that others can learn from that example when organising their own meetings.

Image: Photo by Luke Southern on Unsplash