Special podcast edition: Reflecting on the first year leading a virtual team

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 and this time recorded a podcast for you, too.

What a year…

With the transition to becoming a distributed organisation and one year of leading our virtual team under our belt, we reflect on the highs and lows, the good and the bad and most importantly on what’s ahead as we continue to develop this project in open practice.

Maren: There’s so much I’d like to talk about that it’s hard to know where to start. First, I’m excited about how a transition plan on a spreadsheet has turned into reality, how the organisation we lead has changed over the past 18 months. Second, there’re 101 things I’ve learnt along the way, from how to set up a PO Box when you are a distributed organisation (harder than you think) to how to manage a virtual team and all that that entails. And then there are all the things I’ve discovered about being a home worker… during summer holidays, family emergencies and when things go wrong. It’s never been boring, that’s for sure!

How about how? What’s been most surprising and rewarding this past year? What are you most keen to develop next? This time next year… will we be millionaires?

Martin: Time has really flown by, it only seemed like yesterday that we started putting in place some of the operational changes for moving to a distributed organisation. It’s only the fact that I’ve started to receive renewal notifications for annual licences for things we didn’t require before in a host institution that I’m reminded of the realities of the changes we had to put in place. In some ways I have to say that the most rewarding thing in the past year has been the shared monthly posts we are doing. When we started I thought it would be useful to share with others the journey we as an organisation were on. I’ll let others decided whether it has been useful or not, but regardless I’ve personally greatly benefited from the opportunity to reflect on progress and consider where we go next. Reflecting on December something that stood out for me was in September’s post on the ‘serious upsides of working in pyjamas’, we discussed remote worker wellbeing. In December as the cold has set in it’s been noticeable how we’ve swapped pyjamas for thick jumpers and blankets. As a remote worker you’ve the benefit of having more control over your working environment. The downside I find, particularly if you are a skinflint like me, is you are reluctant to put the heating on if you are the only one in the property. As an employer our organisation is limited in what we can do. We all get a home working allowance but that is limited and it is up to us individually to decide how it is used. Seasonal variations in remote teams wasn’t something I had anticipated. Do you have any standout unanticipated moments?    

Maren: It often feels to me like this whole year has been one long unanticipated moment. There’s definitely a lot we could talk about in that whole area of remote working and wellbeing. Writing these posts has helped us both become more aware of the complex issues involved and it’s interesting just how much there is to unpack here, both from the perspective of a small employer and ourselves as individuals.

Another question you touch upon is whom this kind of open leadership practice is for. Our readers include our own team, the Board of Trustees whom we report to, Members of ALT and our professional networks. On Twitter, LinkedIn and our own blogs as well as at events we’ve been getting comments, questions & feedback – and many of them are about open practice rather than the virtual org transition. Senior staff don’t often adopt the approach we are taking, to discuss the inner workings of their organisation as they happen. Bringing our Learning Technology open practice into how we lead the team and managed the transition feels like an important step forward. It’s prompted me to think differently about innovating, about improving things even if they are new/in progress. No one gets to start new things on a blank slate or with everything in steady state very often. There’s usually legacy issues, deadlines, risks etc from the outset. By making time to focus on how we run the organisation we’ve been able to innovate much more in that area and that’s been exciting.

Martin: You touched upon space in terms of time and locations such as various social networks. Something I’ve been thinking about more is mental space. This is an area we’ve talked about a couple of times, but a recent experience reminded me how important I find it to compartmentalize my workspace and personal space as part of being a remote worker and also how difficult it can be sometimes for others to understand this. Recently my parents were staying with us for the holidays. At home my ‘office’ is also the spare bedroom. Having a dedicated space for me to work is very important, not least it means I can just go to work each morning and not have to set up anything, I just switch on and go. This year my parents wanted to stay a little longer which meant they’d still need the spare room while I went back to work. As part of this they said they would make sure they would be out of the spare room/my office by 9am each day. Initially I didn’t say anything but in the end had to say to them it wasn’t going to work for me. The issue I had in my own mind is going to the office as a remote worker is more than just being at your desk at 9am. With suitcases and clothes lying around I was worried it was going to feel less like an office. Knowing my parents were in the house I was worried it was going to feel less like being at work. I appreciate for many these things sound trivial, but for me they are very important. If I worked in a traditional office in my own mind I knew it was going to feel like having my parents sitting in reception all day. I think this aspect of remote working can be hard for others to appreciate. Have you had any similar experiences?

Maren: I’ve not worked from home for as long as you have and regular travel is a big part of my role, so I come to this from a different angle: I have created a mental work space that I can function in properly on a train, hotel room or at an event. I feel comfortable in that space. And it’s probably why I have a strong attachment to my chromebook, stickers and all. That said, creating that space in my head at my home has been tricky! Trickier than I had anticipated especially given how rarely I was desk based before working from home. And like you I prefer having physical space that’s ‘mine’ for that – but limited space, my cat, family etc really challenge that at times. I hated strongly disliked working in an office and I feel working from home is a hard won privilege. I love working from home and it suits me really well. Still, I have had to rearrange my set up at least 5 times in the first year, moving furniture, changing equipment, adjusting to how the sun comes in through the window and so forth. I have ended up with a yoga bolster as a footrest and using the windowsill as a temporary standing desk. I’m also a carer for my parents so my work/family lines are already blurry, but working from home has made that more… prominent in my mind. I may have also come to the conclusion that I would ideally need a bigger house! My work space is adjacent to the family bathroom and the main space to dry laundry as well as the notional spare room. Like you, I have to try and articulate my workspace not only in my own mind but to family, friends, guests & my cat. It reminds me of a Seinfeld episode in which George is talking to Jerry about his new girlfriend making friends with his other friends, how those two parts of his life are starting to mesh and he feels panic because he fears losing space to be ‘Independent George’ and end up being ‘Relationship George’ all of the time he shouts: ‘worlds are colliding, Jerry!’ I feel similarly about working from home – sometimes it seems like worlds are colliding.


Join the conversation

comment 2 comments
  • Alan Levine

    Hi Martin and Maren,
    I enjoy and appreciate much these conversations and the open sharing of the changes your organization has made.
    My foray into this way of work started in 2006 when I shifted from an office job at the Maricopa Community Colleges to working for the New Media Consortium (R.I.P.); one of the allures of that job offer was that beyond the central office staff, the leadership, including me, worked virtually, based from our homes.
    I initially underestimated the transition; my logic was at Maricopa I spent the vast bulk of my time alone in my office with the computer. After the first few weeks at home I did hit a low funk that may have bordered on some mild depression. After talking to some other colleagues who worked from home, a few adjustments made a difference.
    One of my friends reminded me that even if I had small amounts of social interaction at the office, just knowing there were people around made a difference. So their suggestion was, something I do to this day, keep a talk or news radio on in the background, even if I was not listening, the background of voices talking made it more like an office.
    The other suggestion was to be intentful about trying once a week (or every other week) trying to meet friends for lunch, breakfast, or coffee (as well as getting out of the house and working a library/coffee shop). These are obvious things you’ve both discovered.
    It did help me. I’ve not worked in an office since, and am not 100% sure I could again.
    As was mentioned in your show, daily walks absolutely help. Since getting a dog 2 years ago, it’s maybe 1-2 hours away from the screen, but I have found it’s some of my best problem solving time, as things can slowly bubble in my head or make connections.
    I’ve had a dedicated office space since maybe 2008, the room where a desk and file cabinets are, but pretty much since then I have preferred setting up for work at a kitchen table, with an outside view (I visited Martin once, and also displaced him from his office a few days).
    It’s not the work environment for everyone, but for many of us it’s so much better. Keep in the remote working magic!

    • Martin Hawksey

      Hi Alan – your more than welcome to sleep in my office anytime! I can completely relate to your comments about switching from a traditional office to being home based. I do occasionally listen to the radio while working but after your comments I’m thinking perhaps I need to do it more.
      Mental health and wellbeing isn’t something I see much written about for remote workers but I might just be looking the wrong way. It’s interesting to consider if this is something that affects remote workers more than office based. I feel the topic is generally taboo regardless of where you work. I think one of the keys is educating staff to help them know when they are suffering, the support available to them and ways to cope.
      My wife is office based and it’s actually a relief not to have to deal with open plan spaces anymore … if I’m cold it’s because I choose to be cold, if the lighting is bad it’s because I haven’t changed that bulb/put up the blind, if the bin hasn’t been emptied it’s because I haven’t emptied it … … jeez this remote working lark is a lot of work when I think about it 😉

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