Virtual Teams: It’s good to keep in touch …. most of the time ;)

Hello and welcome to this month’s 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 touch base after both being on international duty for ALT and discuss how our use of social networks often gets blurred between personal and professional. We also think about the role of social media in virtual teams and how social media can be useful for  bridging work and social lives, including the challenges this brings to striking the right balance.  


Maren: I feel like I need to wave hello to start off this post, as the last month has involved a lot of travel for each of us and working together in different time zones and across continents has made our virtual team feel even more distributed. It’s rare for us to travel internationally as most of our work is in the UK, so this past month has been unusual in that we have both given keynotes in other communities, you spoke at Domains19 and I at the ETUG conference. One of the things my visit to a different conference and a new community made me reflect on is how much of my professional practice is about keeping connected. We have often talked about what we do to combat cabin fever or the loneliness of home working, but we haven’t talked much about all that we do to keep in touch and the networks we connect with or how important that is especially for remote workers like us. 

Martin: As you mentioned we don’t get much opportunity for international travel and at Domains19 it was a great opportunity to meet a number of people I’ve been connected with for a long time but never met in person. Domains was quite a unique event for me in the fact that it’s probably the first event I’ve been to which overlapped two of my communities, EdTech and Google Apps Script. Events like Domains continue to be a very important way for me to make personal and professional connections, both old and new. There are a lot of benefits of being physically located in the same space but it’s also worth remembering that events like Domains end up being blurred temporally and spatially. In terms of time our communities will no doubt be familiar with how blogging provides opportunities before and after events to make connections and we’ve both blogged about Domains and ETUG. Spatially social media, live streaming and initiatives like VConnecting mean you can get part of a conference experience without physically being there. In the case of Domains there was also some telepresence with Bryan Mathers virtually attending as a Double:

Maren: I met a number of #femedtech activists in Canada whom I have been in contact with only via Twitter before now. I find that particular network is a useful way to expand my horizons and helps me make connections at events, too. Twitter is still my primary social network for work, and I had some interesting conversations with colleagues such as Clint Lalonde about how they manage the overlap between personal and professional lives. I don’t maintain separate profiles for work/non work stuff, but recently I have been more tempted to do so. I try to use different platforms for different aspects of my life but that isn’t really working. Whenever I meet someone new at a conference and they are on first name basis with my cat it’s clear that my work/private divide on social media is blurry at best. Also, being in a different time zone had a big impact on the social media feeds I follow. It gave me a new sense of momentum in a number of conversations I hadn’t followed closely before. I subscribe to some mailing lists and newsletters and there is a certain fellowship in discussing what’s been picked up in a recent edition of OLDaily for example. Blogs are my preferred way of keeping connected, both with what others are thinking about and sharing my own ideas. My blog, my domain, is a constant wherever I am, however distributed the work I do or the people I work with may be. 

Martin: Similarly Twitter is my main social network but I’ve got a slightly different approach in that I limit personal posts. You’ll see the occasional tweet with a picture of my latest DIY project, runs I’ve completed but unless you know me as a friend or colleague I choose to never do things like mention my 11yo by name, say where I live or wish myself or other people happy birthday. My approach is in part informed by knowing how much data is shared in a tweet and the subsequent profiling that can be done by Twitter but also knowing anyone else with access to the data, aka everyone, can do something similar. Within our team we are the only two who tweet from a personal account about ALT. Something I hadn’t really considered before is in a virtual team setting following your personal account on Twitter is incredibly useful in terms of getting a sense of what is currently interesting you both personally and professionally as well as eavesdropping in on some of the conversations you are having with our community and beyond. There is a fine balance however and I often find I’m censoring myself and I’m always mindful that anything I share in the public domain could be used by someone else. I was recently reminded of this reading the BBC article on The firm with 900 staff and no office which highlights how the company Automatic has an international workforce and no permanent offices. As part of the news item the story features what looks like to me is a personal image taken by one of their staff of a team meet in Thailand. Whilst this is quite a  benign example I’ve had friends who have had Twitter conversations become the basis of tabloid journalism.  

Maren: I know what you mean. It is tricky to find a balance. I, too, try to stick with that rule never to post anything public that I would not want to see in the press. But the people I care about are so distributed, so many of my relationships, including with family, are mediated by social media in one way or another, that I would miss out on many important moments if I stopped posting anything personal anywhere. When it comes to immediate work colleagues, I ask permission: ‘do you want me to follow you’, ‘do you feel comfortable for me to ‘@‘ you’, ‘are you happy for our official account to mention you by name…’ those kind of questions I ask new colleagues. If I am not completely sure, I won’t post it and sometimes that makes my feeds a bit boring. Where it gets more tricky are social networks I use more for personal things like Instagram. So my Instagram bio for my private account  reads: ‘Pictures of my cat, running, things I like. This is just my personal account – no work here :)’. Overall, and particularly on Twitter, I try to strike a balance to contribute as much as I gain by being part of the network and to share what I can that may be useful to others.. like this post! It’s a curated, carefully considered collaboration, sure, but it is also open leadership in practice and that in itself should speak volumes about what we value and how we work.