This post continues our series on ‘openly sharing our approach to leading a virtual team’ – a joint project with Maren Deepwell (cross-posted here) for which we write a monthly blog post, some of which are special podcast/conference editions.
We are at the end of the busiest month of our organisation’s year in the run up to our Annual Conference. Getting here is a big milestone for our organisation and a real test for our approach to leading a virtual team.
Maren: We have been busy with preparations for the conference and our team of six has been working with over a hundred volunteers who contribute to organising the event. It’s usual for us to work with Members all across the U.K., but during the past month we’ve had to communicate and collaborate significantly more than usual. We’ve put our still quite new processes and working culture under real pressure, and we’ve made it through the toughest weeks in good shape. We’ve learnt a lot along the way, but I’m proud how well we’ve worked together. Now, as we get ready to take the whole team to the event, my thoughts are on the face to face side of our predominantly online working lives. We put a lot of thought into delivering the best possible experience for participants of the event and we talked about this recently on Edutalk radio with the Chair and President of ALT. We all agreed that there is special value in being able to take part in person. So our job for our team is to make sure that we have a plan for supporting each other over 4 long and busy days, so that we can all do our best. I’ve been thinking about a couple of things we started to discuss in June, when we had our first team day. For example, getting together to run this event also means seeing each other and working together in person for the first time in a while or ever. That’s not insignificant. Also, each year we have colleagues for whom this is their first experience of this event and although I’ve got previous years to draw on, each year is different and we have only half a day to get ready. Talking through each day in advance, planning meals and breaks together, and being clear about expectations about when we work and when we have down time helps get us all on the same page before we arrive. It also makes it easier to adjust from working at your desk at home to being with colleagues hosting 400 participants. What are your thoughts?
Martin: Looking back over August it’s interesting to reflect on the number of conversations we’ve had on supporting our team during the conference. Confidence and expectations were areas that came up a couple of times. With many of us never fully experiencing all 4 days of our Annual Conference before I think it’s a difficult line to walk in terms of planning for some of the potential pressure points whilst not unduly impacting on our confidence. Something that I thought was very useful as part of one of our online team meetings was a round robin to see how everyone was doing in terms of conference workload. The continual challenge I see in distributed teams is maintaining group awareness. This includes knowing what others are working on, where they are up to in specific tasks and what they are planning on working on next. In the last six months the team has grown by 20% from 5 to 6. It’s nice to have an extra pair of hands or a new colleague who is able to contribute to our delivery and we are already seeing the benefits of this, but at the same time we now have a bigger team to try and maintain an awareness of what we are each are working on, more people who have a voice at our weekly team meetings. I’ve not calculated how much extra time this takes each time we have new staff join. In software development you could point to Brooks Law which states “the complexity and communication costs of a project rise with the square of the number of developers”. I think in our case this would be a gross overestimate, and even in software development a number of people have questioned Brooks Law, but it’s interesting to consider the implications of growing a distributed team. I do believe investing time in gaining better awareness is still very useful. All the planning and preparation will hopefully result in a positive experience for all. Do you feel your spending more time managing a larger team?
Maren: definitely. Half of my focus is on observing, listening, supporting, advising… it’s the busiest time of the year, it’s a crunch point, it’s naturally a big part of my work just now. But half of my focus is far in the future, 2,3 or even 10 years from now, and our conference provides essential input to navigating what’s ahead, to be ambitious, to nurture the vision in my head, in my heart. Even one year from now things will be quite different and looking back over the past five years reminds me how much things have already changed. How far we’ve come. Any highly performing team feels growing pains when moving from the success of achieving at one level to moving up to the next. Things stop working in the way they have done before new dynamics are established. Getting through a conference together is a good bonding experience to build on and I feel that this is easier to accomplish in person rather than online when everyone is distributed. It seems very achievable to build individual working relationships virtually and over the past year or two I have gained experience in that, but group dynamics are harder to establish and our blended approach, seeing each other at events and team days, is important here. Five years ago when our team grew to include your role as a second senior member of staff, I had to learn all the things I now rely on. It took time for us to figure out how we would lead things together, assess each other’s strengths and where support would be most needed. Whilst we can’t put an exact figure on it, it’s fair to say that it took a lot of time establishing a senior staff team and that we continue to invest time and effort into that as things evolve. But, it has more than doubled our achievements as a result, increased capacity and resilience in many ways. And, at this time of year, it also provides us with a safe space to assess how we are coping with pressure and I know someone has my back if the answer is not very well. It’s opened my eyes to how valuable it is to invest in communication and team work whereas before I would have probably argued to be more effective doing things myself.
Martin: The difference between building individual and team dynamics in a distributed organisation is very interesting. I was recently reading a paper on ‘Group Awareness in Distributed Software Development’ which included the conclusion that ‘occasional face-to-face gatherings assist group awareness’, something you’ve also highlighted earlier. I was wondering if the intensity of a 3 day, 400+ delegate conference was the best occasion for what will be for some their first face-to-face meeting. Thinking back to my first time being part of the ALT conference, which also happened to be when I was also a distributed member of staff, my first face-to-face meeting with a number of the team was a group lunch the day before the conference started. As a more socially focused activity it allowed there to be more spontaneous communication also I believe creating an opportunity to strengthen a shared team identity. Time is also a factor identified by Hinds and Mortensen: “relationships between distant team members become more harmonious over time as teams develop familiarity and shared processes”. The quality of the time and mix of informal and formal all hopefully support a stronger team and is also a great excuse to continue what has become the traditional team visit to a pizzeria the night before our big events.
Maren: hmmmmm… pizza. Definitely a tradition I approve of. I hadn’t come across either of the references you mention, and they make for interesting reading. It’s thought provoking to see a more analytical approach. I always see relationships and team dynamics as messy, shifting, unpredictable with many known and unknown unknowns. Every year and every conference turns out to have surprises in store and that is why the months of preparations are so important. We develop trust in our processes and plans, we form the habit to rely on our lists, we solve problems together. By the time I arrive at an event we’ve organised, I’ve got a list that keeps me on track and am ready to enjoy the experience. Whatever unexpected twists and turns the days hold in store, this is the moment when I feel really privileged to have the job I have, when I see how our values are put into practice.
Martin: With all research there is likely to be a personal call as to whether it is applicable to the context you are interested in. I haven’t delved deep into this area yet but there are a number aspects I recognise or can relate to in our own distributed team. I think it’s also interesting to consider the quotes I pulled out in the context of the conference. For a number of our delegates the conference is that ‘occasional face-to-face gathering’ that helps them gain awareness of who and what is happening across sectors. One of the real strengths of our conference is it’s an opportunity for new and existing members of our community to make an initial connection that can be continued via various means. Thinking about this I ended up with a very long list that spread across various mediums including face-to-face local meetings of ALT Members Groups and SIGs, social aspects that feature in our conference platform, various mailing lists and dedicated online social spaces, the #altc tag and more. I hope through all of this our community is able to develop familiarity and shared knowledge in learning technology. Their participation and engagement in turn will inspire our next steps in leading our virtual team.