Virtual Teams: Remote crisis

This post continues the 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.


This month we discuss ways in which we could develop our approach to virtual team leadership including dealing with critical incidents when you have a distributed workforce. Rather than sharing what we found works, we open up some of the questions we have and consider how we might find solutions that support sustainable development for a small virtual team.

Maren: We received some really thoughtful comments in response to our last post which touched both on the discipline it takes to work from home (your own and everyone who lives with you) and also the challenges of leading a virtual team. I’ve been thinking about how we might develop our approach to that kind of leadership and there are a couple of ideas I’d like to explore: first, I’m wondering if we should open up leading team meetings. As I meet with everyone one to one my way of leading online meetings dominates in our team and more diversity might be a good thing. Also, I’m curious about tools like Jamboard we recently looked at, a virtual notice board, to mix up how we work synchronously. Different tools may also open up new ways of interacting with each other as a group.

Last, inspired in part by this tweet I’m curious about how our team would respond to trying out new things, now that we have nearly a year of virtual working under our belt.

Martin: Having had the experience of leading team meetings in the past the proposition of having to do this on a regular basis isn’t one that personally appeals to me. In part I think it is because there are some subtle differences with leading virtual team meetings compared to when you are face-to-face. For example, as often everyone is staring at a monitor the temptation to check on the various popup notifications increases, plus with virtual meetings I think there is a tendency, because you are not physically co-present, to feel that when you are not speaking no one is watching you. I find I often have to remind myself to pay attention and not get distracted, something I don’t think happens as much when meeting the team face-to-face. Consequently, I feel you need a strong individual to lead virtual meetings, someone who is skillful in keeping everyone’s focus and energy high, something you have in abundance. This is something perhaps Paul Hollins was alluding to in his comment on our last post when he mentioned that team directorship is a challenging area.  Would you agree different qualities are required to lead virtual team meetings compared to face-to-face?

Maren: There are definitely differences between face to face, blended and fully online meetings or webinars, and additional skills that need to be developed incl. technical capabilities. I, for example, learnt a lot from seeing many different people lead meetings and facilitate webinars – but I also gained experience in different contexts that helped me build skills and confidence. It’s important to see different people’s approaches in order to find one that works, but there are some commonalities: listening, giving everyone the chance to participate/speak, keeping to time, preparing an agenda, being clear about the purpose of the meeting and its outcome. You describe traps that we can all fall into, a temptation to be passive or distracted, to rely on others’ momentum. Having seen plenty of people doodle, eat, doze or lurk their way through meetings whilst sitting around a table I think that particular aspect of communicating or working together is always challenging.

But coming back to Paul’s comment, I’ve reflected on the challenge of managing crisis recently, something that came up in a series of posts I’ve written with my mentor, Margaret. Margaret commented on how using different ways of working together affected the quality of our interaction. For example, we would plan strategy face to face, work on procedures in shared docs or speak on the phone in an emergency. One of the biggest challenges in managing a distributed team lies in building confidence in managing a crisis and to continue to communicate in an emergency whether that’s staff illness, systems failures or external issues. It takes time and, unfortunately, experience to build trust in ways of managing a crisis when meeting in person isn’t an option. Initially, I found it really difficult that my Line Manager or mentor were a remote presence only. Sometimes I still do. On the other hand, that perspective helped me identify and develop the skills I need to provide support or manage an emergency. You and I have a lot of experience in managing different types of emergencies, but scaling that up to a bigger scale, to work for everyone in the organisation is a continuous learning process.

Martin: It’s interesting to reflect on critical incidents and whether being a virtual team hindered our response. An incident that immediately comes to mind was last year’s ALT Online Winter Conference when the European servers for the webinar platform we use went down. My experience was the combination of chat and video Hangouts worked well and don’t think hindered our response in any way. Fortunately we also had a great support from our webinar provider which resulted in minimal impact. In some ways I think where it gets harder are moments where you are tackling a slow burn rather than an immediate crisis, like a server failure.  In these situations the danger is they are not perceived by everyone as critical but can quickly escalate to be critical if not addressed. This is where continued communication becomes essential and like you I think it can be easily forgotten particularly in a distributed environment. This is perhaps where online tools can help. At the beginning of this post you mentioned we’d been looking at Google’s collaborative meeting tool Jamboard. This basically gives you a virtual whiteboard you can collaboratively contribute to. As someone who likes using post-it notes a virtual place for sticking these is immediately attractive. I can see Jamboard and tools that have similar functionality as a way to avoid slow burn incidents, providing a way for everyone in the team to get an overview of useful information. Creating workflows or using tools everyone is happy with is always a challenge, not just for distributed teams, and creating a culture of continuous learning is very important.

Maren: I agree with that. On the one hand it’s important to manage change by providing some continuity, like some of the strategic and operational planning tools we use and in a year full of change keeping some things the same has been a necessity. On the other hand, we’ve learnt a huge amount in the transition to operating as a virtual organisation and it makes sense that we learn from that and try out new ways of doing things. We’re already learning a lot from an interim virtual audit, and improving our new financial and payroll procedures and checklists. You point to some advantages collaboration tools could give us when it comes to managing a crisis, and there could be other upsides such as simplifying communication, creating an easy to access overview of progress and giving greater support for our team outside of meetings. I feel the additional support structure a new tool or maybe a new way of using an existing tool could provide would help give us confidence in the long run and support more learning and agile working. I’d really like to find a way to incorporate a stronger sense of progression into our weekly team meeting notes and I’d like to see whether our operations plan could become more practical day to day. I’d like a better overview of areas I don’t have active involvement in. What’s on your wish list of things to try?

Martin: I came across an interesting series of posts by Zapier in which they’ve documented the tools they recommend for remote teams as they have grown from 6 to 20 to over 110 employees. The first two posts aren’t date stamped but I’m guessing they hit 6 employees in 2013 and 20 in 2015, and the over 110 was posted in 2017. Some tools that were mentioned in 2013 that caught my eye were iDoneThis and Sqwiggle. With iDoneThis “everybody on the team checks in daily; either in their browser or via email”, which is turned into a daily digest or analysed in a report. I can see the benefit of such a system but fear, depending on how it was implemented, it might be perceived as too draconian. Another service that was mentioned that got my attention for different reasons was Sqwiggle: “Sqwiggle is a persistent video chat room, but instead of having a live video feed on all the time like you might do with Skype or Google Hangouts, Sqwiggle takes a picture of you every 8 seconds”. We’ve previously talked about the importance of trust within remote teams and whilst I can see why people might like Sqwiggle to me it appears like surveillance technology and a shortcut to eroding trust. Sqwiggle was closed in 2016 but both Sqwiggle and iDoneThis didn’t appear in Zapier’s posts in 2015 and 2017. One tool that appears in all of Zapier’s posts is the project management service Trello. Trello is a tool I often hear about in the developer community and there are lots of posts and resources that promote it as a tool to support remote teams, including Trello’s own Trello for Remote Teams. Having had a quick look a Trello an immediate thought is can we replicate it with any of the existing tools we use like Google Keep. Ultimately I think it comes back to one of our core principles, the appropriate use of technology. Unpacking what it is we want to achieve will go a long way in helping us decide how we continue to develop remote teamwork at ALT.     

Other things we’ve been reading: