The ALT Virtual Teams Stack

Photo by Farzad Nazifi on Unsplash
Photo by Farzad Nazifi on Unsplash

ALT has worked as a fully distributed organization for almost two years now and I thought it would be useful to share the technology and services we use to support our distributed team, aka ‘The ALT Stack’. In case you are reading this without context the Association for Learning Technology has been going for almost 30 years. As a membership organisation it has over 3,500 members supported by our staff team of 6, most of whom work part-time, typically 0.8FTE. As Maren and I shared in our last Virtual Teams post our staff team is distributed throughout the UK, working homebased. We have a number of policies and procedures in place to support remote working not covered in this post, but the headlines are: you work from home (occasional coffee shops when traveling are permitted) and a basic monthly homeworking allowance of £18 is provided.

In terms of ‘stack’ a lot of the decisions have been taken based on already being a G Suite customer combined with the fact that almost all the other applications we use are in the cloud. This simplifies things in terms of IT provision, from both a hardware and software point of view as it means half our team are on Chromebooks (Asus C302). When specing Chromebooks for our distributed team I wanted to go mid/high level for the performance of better processors and higher ram. Higher spec at the time also meant USB-C ports which means adding peripherals and monitors easier via USB-C hubs.

In terms of our other staff our Finance Officer is on a Windows desktop PC (Lenovo V520S) primarily to use SAGE for payroll and accounts. I’m on a Windows laptop (Lenovo x250) mainly for the occasional time I need to do any sort of media production or data analysis. Maren has both a Windows (Lenovo x230) laptop and Chromebook (Lenovo 550e). Maren could probably manage just on a Chromebook, but we had the laptop spare.

Our staff handbook stipulates provision of a Windows or Chromebook, monitor and peripherals (I usually order iiyama Prolite B2283HS-B1 monitors as they have HDMI input and are height/tilt adjustable). Mobile phones aren’t provided as standard, the exception being our events manager. This exception is increasingly based on a historic decision to have a mobile number available during events. As we run a virtual phone system I think we need to decide how we go forward with this.

Technical/Service solutions

In terms of annual licences we have for example:

  • RingCentral (6 licences) – This gives us all virtual landline numbers, voicemail etc. as well as a virtual phone operator. We chose RingCentral because it can be used on Chromebooks and integrates with G Suite.
  • Docusign (1 licence) – DocuSign is mainly used as part of our payment approval processes for annotating and signing .PDFs. The free tier is suitable for most of our employees enabling the commenting and signing we require. If we need a second and/or external signature we do this via the one licenced account
  • Avast Anti Virus (3 licences) – for the Windows machines
  • NordVPN with dedicated IP (1 licence) – whilst we have various web hosting contracts to maintain our server and online systems I occasionally need server access and for security we control access with an IP whitelist.

Service Contracts

Examples of contracts we have include the following (in line with our procurement policy these are reviewed annually):

  • Sereniti – human resources specialists for charities
  • Positive Internet Ltd – web hosting and server support
  • Circle Interactive – CiviCRM and Drupal support/maintenance
  • PKP Services – OJS3 maintenance
  • Open Academia – OJS3 management
  • Iron Mountain – document storage/retrieval
  • Royal Mail PO box – as our correspondence address.

The interplay of people and technology

Having shared a draft of this post with my CEO, Maren Deepwell, she offered the following note:

Making things work as a distributed team is largely dependent on technology, but ALT also invested time, effort and resources into getting the policies right that support our work. That includes contracts of employment for staff, specific home-working policies and review processes as part of annual appraisals as well as induction processes for new staff and review for existing staff to ensure equipment and environment are working well.

We found that it took a lot of effort to find expert advice on many of these matters, in particular in HR and accounting matters, for ongoing support and important processes like the annual audit of our accounts. There is little formal guidance from industry bodies or the charity commission as very few organisations like us work in a fully virtual way.

Our policies and working practices not only reflect being a distributed organisation but a very small charity, which means that we have higher risks to manage when it comes to ensuring business continuity. Some of the tools we have adapted help us do that.