Virtual Teams (Special podcast edition): Reflecting on the first six months leading a virtual team

This is a joint post with Maren Deepwell (cross-posted here) about how we, as senior staff, lead our organisation to adopt virtual operations. You can read previous posts in this series.

We’re six months into our journey and in this special edition we look back at the highs and lows, share practical things we’ve learnt along the way and take our conversation from post to podcast to help us reflect and look ahead.

Maren: when you suggested that we share our experiences openly I wasn’t really sure what to expect. After six months, I find it’s become a valuable part of my practice. It acts as a regular prompt to reflect not only on my own work, but the team and the organisation’s progress; it’s made us set aside time to have a regular dialogue about important, but not urgent things; and it’s helped me find a voice to share more openly in a way I hadn’t done before. Also, on a practical level, a written conversation helps alleviate my tendency to interrupt someone before they are finished. Looking back at our first post one of the key things I’ve learnt is that this process itself, as well as the output, is important. I’d encourage anyone to build sufficient rapport and trust to try out a similar approach to collaborating. That said, I’ve also found aspects of it challenging! For example, trying to strike the right balance between sharing and respecting the boundaries of what can’t be shared has been difficult at times. Or deciding what to focus on, what might be useful to others. It’s quite a big risk to take to share leading a transition whilst it’s happening and I’m grateful that both the Board and the team have been supportive from the beginning.

Martin: The process of writing these posts has been very useful. The asynchronous nature of writing and opportunity to discuss our thoughts has created a space to reflect on where we are at and think about the future. Finding the right balance can be tricky. As part of ALT’s remit we are keen that as well as sharing the positive impact that technology has on learning and teaching that there is also an opportunity to share when things went wrong or didn’t work out. As you highlight as part of our transition it’s been important that we retain the trust and moral of the rest of the team. I should say that looking back over the last 6 months there have been no issues that haven’t been relatively easy to resolve. A challenge that came up in our February update was providing remote IT support. Overall we’ve had very few issues to deal with. Something at the back of my mind is our reliance on personal home broadband connections. Recently I changed by broadband provider. As I had overlapping contracts in terms of connectivity the change was seamless (the new WiFi router did however kill my home print server). Having checked the new providers broadband speed before signing up I was confident there wasn’t going to be any issues with speed. But what if there was an issue, or the connection can’t cope with the extra load from my daughter being at home during the school holidays? There is also the challenge of providing remote support when there is zero connectivity. We have some contingency plans in place for these situations but I think this is an area we can work more on over the next 6 months.

Maren: You are right, in the first few months we thought a lot about infrastructure, because that was the most practical aspect of making this transition. On an ongoing basis, too, with staffing changes, moving house etc, the infrastructure is always a priority. I can now travel with our phone system in my pocket, and we can take our “office” with us when we run large events so that the whole team can be on site rather than someone having to cover the physical office space. It’s a powerful transformation. In our post about March we started discussing more about supporting staff, collaborating and also how this way of working influences our work as Learning Technologists. Here are three examples of how virtual working has changed my professional practice as a Learning Technologist: first, technology fails at team meetings. We’ve talked about our weekly team meetings a lot and how they form a cornerstone of us working together effectively as a team. We have had all kinds of technology fails, individually and as a team, over the past year and I think it feels very similar to getting things wrong in front of a room full of students or colleagues and the experience has made me have much greater empathy with someone nervous to try something new. Secondly, I have a much greater appetite for finding technological solutions to problems we identify. Bringing all of our operations into the virtual domain and working together with our Trustees, Members and colleagues in the same blended way has created a real sense of opportunity to improve what we do and that in itself has been really exciting (although maybe my enthusiasm for doing things better did not need additional motivation). Last, and this relates directly to my role as a Line Manager, I think the quality of communication is more important than anything else I do and that shapes all aspects of my practice. Regardless of whether it’s a chat message, video call, email, phone call or indeed meeting up face to face, I work hard to communicate equally well in every mode. As a virtual team we have to cope with difficult conversations, bad days and unexpected crisis online. Communication has always been really important to me and to how I succeed, but I am developing new skills and strategies through our virtual way of working. It feels like we are creating an effective blend of processes, technology & culture to build resilience for the highs and lows that we face and communication is at the heart of that. It may seem obvious, but our work over the past six months has really expanded my horizons on what that means in practice.

Martin: Communication was something that came up in the May blog post. Whilst this was a busy time dealing with implementing GDPR we reflected on knowing how the team were coping and visibility when when working remotely. This month I attended Google Cloud Next ‘18, Google’s main conference for sharing what it’s doing in it’s cloud platforms including G Suite. G Suite is one of the core tools we use at ALT and has been invaluable in making it possible to work as a distributed team. Google use this event to launch new tools and enhancements to its products and from the sessions I attended improving communication was a strong theme, as one of the presenters put it “the ability to communicate effectively defines success”. In terms of what we discussed in May a new product that caught my eye was Hangouts Chat. This is a new version of Google’s chat tool similar to tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams. One of the features of Hangouts Chat is quick actions and reactions to messages. As part of this Google highlight emoji reactions “to build stronger, quicker and more expressive communications”:

I’ve mixed emotions about emoji’s, particularly in a work context. I don’t mind using some emoticons like :) in messages but as I don’t like the emoji palette Google uses I’ve turned off the feature that automatically turning text emoticons to emojis (e.g. :) -> ). Also given my own feelings about the Google emojis at times I feel reluctant to impose these on others, using as an emoticon I feel there is a degree of subtlety. Emoji’s or ?

Maren: I should probably start by saying that I don’t really use emoji much at all – neither at work nor in my personal communication. The person I text with most is my mother and she uses one emoji: little pink hearts at the end of a message. In her case that can mean anything from “thanks for taking me to the hospital today” to “sending you lots of love” to “take care and have a nice weekend”. I’m one of those people who mostly texts in full sentences with punctuation. That said, I have started using emoticons more in a work context since I started working as part of a distributed team. In chat, like Google chat such as we use for informal or immediate communications, I do find it useful to be able to convey my meaning in more than words. There are many instances when informal, but important conversations can be more nuanced – although that also depends on the person who i am chatting with and how well we know each other. Whilst in theory icon based communication should be more easily understood than words, I find that in practice most people I communicate with have very specific patterns in their use of icons and over time I learn what they mean. When I use tools like Slack for projects, I mainly use emoji such as to signal that I have seen a message, to show that I am participating or supporting something and for me that kind of interaction quickly becomes less meaningful. It’s like ‘likes’ or ‘hearts’ on social media. It’s useful, but limited. And I also dislike the Google chat and the iOS emoji palette even if they have become more diverse in recent years. Now, to answer your question: in a broader context, with a bigger user base and in contexts where being able to interact more, I’d probably say “Emoji? – ” – but in our immediate context of leading a distributed team, I think it’s .

That wraps up our written conversation for this month, but we are also experimenting with the format by recording a special podcast this time, reflecting a bit more on the six months since we started this project and talking about what’s ahead and where we hope to be by the end of the first year.

Summary of previous posts