This is a joint post with Maren Deepwell (cross-posted here)
We work for ALT, the UK’s leading professional body in Learning Technology. We serve a community of over 3,000 Members who use technology for learning, teaching and assessment and by extension we use it to support, engage with and represent ALT’s Members. Last year, the Trustees of ALT took the decision to move ALT’s operations away from a long-standing hosting agreement with a university to a more independent model, to ensure that ALT’s strategic aims and values are underpinned by an effective, agile base of operations providing more direct support for Members across the UK.
Thus we set out on a journey to transform our largely office-based team into a distributed, home-based workforce and to set up virtual operations fit to meet our changing requirements.
In this series of posts (which we are publishing on each of our blogs, see Maren’s and Martin’s, to begin with) we aim to share our experience as senior staff leading the transition and our team through the changes, sharing insights and lessons learnt as well as what we hope will be transferable know-how that others can apply in their context. We’ve framed this as a conversation in order to share our contrasting perspectives, and we may add more practical/technical sections as we go along.
We take an open approach to leadership, so it seems appropriate to take a similarly open approach to documenting this journey. Some aspects of this kind of transition however are necessarily personal to the individuals concerned and where we’d like to share something about the work of a particular individual we will seek their consent.
In this post we look back at February, the first month of virtual operations, sharing our perspectives on making a start as a distributed team.
Maren: Let’s start by looking back at the first month. For me the biggest thing that happened was seeing the project plan come to life, to hit all the milestones of making the physical transition, packing up boxes and making sure everyone got their stuff delivered to their new work spaces. We had been planning for this for such a long that it felt like a real achievement to actually see the boxes being packed, the room empty and to wave goodbye. It felt a bit like moving house, as lots of last minute things needed sorting out and decisions needed to be taken as they arose. We couldn’t plan for everything, but I felt the actual move itself helped bring out many small, niggly questions and needs that we could only then consider and deal with. What was your highlight?
Martin: For me the main focus was how do we ‘virtualise’ our operations. As some of our team already worked remotely there was already a lot in place. ALT has been a G Suite Education user for a number of years so we already had a culture of collaboration and communication using Google Drive, Hangouts and chat. In other areas we were starting fresh, for example, phone systems and physical file storage. Phones are interesting as most institutions have already moved to VOIP systems which use ethernet connections and a lot of the existing network infrastructure, plugged into a physical phone. There are a number of providers who provide services for phone systems that are entirely internet based and even Skype now has web based tools. We opted for a cloud service which still gave us Oxford based numbers and integrated into G Suite. We could have paid extra for a physical phone but as most of our daily operations are web based it didn’t seem like any point, plus the service comes with an app we can install on our mobiles if we wish. So now we have a virtual switch board and direct numbers for all of us. It has required some changes in the way we operate like how do you look across the room to see if another person can take a call, but overall I think it’s so far worked very well. It’s made me think if I should use the same service for my home phone. The process of moving to a virtual phone system seemed straightforward. Were there any challenges with phone systems or other technology you encountered?
Maren: The technology worked well overall and in some ways made it easier to begin to change the way we work. The two challenges I encountered myself and with colleagues was being overwhelmed by everything having to be done differently and secondly what to do when things went wrong. For example, day to day processes like filing expense claims or signing documents suddenly turned from something I never think about to requiring a new procedure. The new services we adopted, for digital signing of documents for example, are easy to use, but still take time to embed into workflows. Particularly at the beginning it felt like productivity was nose-diving because it takes a lot more time to figure out how to do something for the first time or to follow a new process. It’s tempting to take shortcuts instead of establishing robust processes and documenting the individual steps. The other challenge for me was that it was a new experience to have to support the team as a whole with new workflows virtually. Particularly when it comes to the finance systems, this was quite difficult for me to begin with. It was reassuring and useful to have options to provide support remotely and I think tools like screen-sharing and working synchronously online are becoming more and more useful as we get the hang of them as a team. What are your thoughts on providing support remotely for a whole team?
Martin: On the IT side there was the added burden that moving away from a host institution also meant moving away from centralised IT support they provided. As a result there is an increased degree of self-help particularly when it comes to hardware. The move away for institutional desktop provision is a double edge sword. On one hand members of our team on Windows devices are admins so can install software and hardware, on the other hand we need to mitigate that equipment and networks used are secure. Already we’ve encountered a situation where I needed to physically get my hands on a Chromebook to fix a problem. Fortunately we had already scheduled a face-to-face meeting so this wasn’t too much of an issue, but it’s a reminder that despite more reliable computing and ways of collaborating remotely you still need that personal touch. Overall however I think we are in a better place as we have ownership of everything we do. This also gives us freedom to look at other services we can use for support. Already aspects of our web services are maintained by third parties that we have chosen and as part of the transition we have and retained the services of a HR consultant. This seems like a very cost effective model for an organisation our size. Would you agree or are there hidden costs to consider?
Maren: In terms of the essential services our organisations needs, I agree that virtual operations are very cost efficient. Even taking into account set up costs like purchasing new equipment there will be savings and it certainly helps that we planned ahead and budgeted accordingly. In the case of infrastructure and tech, we already have a lot of expertise in house (which I think is unusual for an organisation our size) and we have turned that into an operational advantage. We also identified areas such as legal, HR or pensions in which we needed and procured additional expertise. The key factor in the decision making process has actually been putting our organisation’s values into practice. That’s given the transition a more strategic, people-focused outlook, and ensured we invest in areas that make a difference to staff or Members. Looking back, I feel that our values played a bigger part in the decision making process than I had anticipated. In the face of all this change and upheaval, having shared values that remain consistent has been a powerful force for creating stability. But, the transition has really only just begun.