Virtual Teams: Stickers, “I love me” walls, CPD and travel (also, this is really about recruitment)

Hello and welcome to this month’s special podcast edition post on leading a virtual team. In this post (cross-posted here) the two of us, that is Martin Hawksey (@mhawksey) and Maren Deepwell (@marendeepwell), continue our series of openly sharing our approach to leadership.

If you are new here, you can catch up on earlier posts and podcasts or find out more about ALT, the organisation we work for as senior staff. We really appreciate comments and feedback and welcome questions or suggestions for future posts.

This time we’re talking about how we recruit new staff, what it’s like to carry out a virtual selection process and how that led to interesting reflections on what it means to be professional as a home worker in a virtual team and how we approach professional development.

Our podcast is embedded below or you can listen on SoundCloud.


Maren: we’ve been recruiting for two new team members recently and the virtual recruitment process has been a really positive experience. People often ask me how it works to recruit wholly online and in this post I’d like to share some of what we do. From the outset, recruiting for home-based roles gives us a much wider pool of applicants to choose from, and often more experienced candidates, too. We include details of how we work as a virtual, distributed team of home workers in the job description, and this time we included it as part of the practical test in the selection process, too. We conduct the application and initial short-listing process in the same way as you would for traditional roles, we meet online to agree a short-list and then invite candidates to take part in an online test. The practical element is conducted in our G Suite environment to give candidates a practical insight into the role. Likewise, the interview is conducted via Google Hangouts Meet. In one instance all the candidates we interviewed were already home workers and we included questions specifically about home working in the interview. I felt that those questions worked extremely well and led us to learn more about each candidate but also to establish a rapport about some of the challenges you can encounter. Did you find that those questions worked well? Was there anything in the answers that stood out for you?

Martin: I think the process worked well. A surprise to me was how considered the responses were to our question around homeworking. When we asked ‘Have you had any experience working from home previously? Can you expand on the main challenges you’ve encountered and/or perceive?’ a common response was to highlight to issues like isolation and maintaining boundaries between work and personal life. Previously I’ve seen questionable headlines like ‘Half of the UK workforce to work remotely by 2020’ and whilst I don’t expect we’ll even get close to this figure I get the sense there is a higher proportion of the workforce who have worked remotely either full-time or parttime. It’s useful at this point to also make a distinction between working remotely in a solo capacity and working remotely as part of a distributed team. This is where as part of the interview process I feel we got a better insight into whether the candidates would potentially work well in our team as responses revealed the skills they had beyond personal awareness. As part of this we also asked out candidates how they deal with change in the workplace. Given my role in supporting ALT’s infrastructure an aspect that always comes to mind is how our team deal with the continual updates to G Suite and our other web services. Was there anything from the interview processes that has inspired you or identified new opportunities?

Maren: One of the things that has inspired me was gaining insight into how home working is a factor in job selection. It was interesting to hear whether and if so how specifically being home based motivated candidates. The most obvious differentiator is no longer being constrained by location (which in our case was Oxford before we were a virtual org, which really limited our pool of applicants as Oxford is one of the most expensive places to live in the UK). Instead of applying for a job because it’s local, a far greater proportion of applicants selected by what they are passionate about and/or have experience in. Also, many more applicants had considered how the job would fit into their work/life balance and career progression and the questions around home working helped articulate that. As a small independent employer we can offer great opportunities and unique benefits but not the same as a large company could. On a personal level, I learnt a lot from how during the recruitment process we as a team express what we do and why we enjoy it. Questions like ‘what’s a typical day like?’ or ‘what do you find most rewarding?’ prompted us to share a perspective that we don’t often dip in to. I find it shifts my own point of view, allows me to see things in a new way, which after over ten years in the organisation is always a good thing. I am wondering…  if I was applying for my job now, what question would I ask the panel. If you were in that position, what would you want to know?

Martin: There were some great questions and like you I enjoyed talking about what working for ALT is like. I’ve been racking my brain to put myself back in the position of one of our interviewees and what I would ask. After over five years with ALT I’m struggling to remove some of the tacit knowledge of the organisation and how we operate to come up with some questions. One of the themes from our recent selection process was candidates asking about CPD opportunities. As you mentioned we are a small independent charity so there are some constraints on budget. Even with this in mind I’d say there is a strong culture for learning and supporting each other. As a small organisation it feels like we can also engage in CPD activities in a less formulaic fashion. For example, rather than going on an equality and diversity course my own CPD has recently involved looking at and talking about equality in Learning Technology. Given the nature of what we do there are also lots of opportunities to learn from our members. Only last week I was able to attend a workshop hosted by the University of Edinburgh on the emerging use of Jupyter to support learning and teaching. Given the variety of approaches to CPD that we have it can sometimes be hard to articulate. Are there other approaches we have to CPD you think we should highlight?

Maren: … well, as you’ve brought us on to talk about CPD, I’ll add that I’ve been playing with the idea of postal CPD activities for virtual teams recently. The idea came out of an article I read about the value of focusing on positive feedback and I came up with a postal activity called positive feedback by post. I really enjoyed the change of pace doing something by letter brought with it in contrast to the CPD I usually do which is often event based or online. Personally I think we as a team have exceptional CPD opportunities through the resources and support our organisation provides for things like mentoring and training, through working with Trustees and Members, time to travel and also support for internal schemes like CMALT. But for now, I’m busily dreaming up things delivered in the mail. It’s nice to get something tangible delivered to you by letter rather than email or instant chat when you’re part of a virtual team.