Virtual Teams: The perfect blend? Bringing the skills of distributed teams to face-to-face events (special podcast edition)

Welcome to this month’s post (cross-posted here) in which we, that is Martin Hawksey (@mhawksey) and Maren Deepwell (@marendeepwell), openly share our approach to leading a virtual team. 

This time we talk about how we as a digitally and geographically distributed team connect face to face and why we think a blended approach is important.  As well as our usual conversation we’ve also recorded a conversation you can play below or listen to on Soundcloud.

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Maren: from the outset our approach to running a virtual team has been blended. In these posts we’ve talked about face to face team days, conference meet ups and even cpd by post – all examples of how we blend virtual working with ‘real world’ elements. What I’d like to talk about is why it’s so valuable to share some coffee & cake in person from time to time – to build relationships, communication & collaboration. I don’t think meeting up in person in itself is enough though. Over the last ten years I’ve come to realise that the more I prepare for a meeting and share my thoughts and expectations with whomever I am meeting, the more I get out of the time spent together. In my case, my former line manager, my mentor and every Chair I’ve reported to as CEO have been distributed remotely and rare face to face meetings have been precious. In order to make the most of them, I reflect on how things are going, how I feel, beforehand, so that I am better able to convey what I want to say when I am meeting someone in person. I’m curious about how that can also apply to conferences or other events. This year I was fortunate to meet many Canadian colleagues I’d never met before in person and I spent a lot of time chatting with them online in advance. I received travel tips & help preparing for the trip and it really made a big difference to how well the trip went and our ability to work together easily once I arrived. I think what I am getting at is that often people assume it’s the physical proximity that makes the difference in communication or collaboration and I’m keen to explore why it’s more nuanced than that. Some of the most important communication in my experience has been entirely online and depended more on the effort and engagement of those involved than their location. And yet… you can’t beat working alongside someone for learning new keyboard shortcuts. I realise that is a small thing, but it always reminds me that there are some things you miss out on in virtual working. So that’s my opening for this month’s podcast. What do you want to talk about? 

Martin: Having just delivered our biggest annual face-to-face event with over 450 attendees joining us for our Annual Conference the benefits of physically coming together is at the forefront of my mind. This is one of the few times of the year when we come together as a team. The conference itself is usually over a year’s worth of planning and there are as you can imagine a lot of moving parts. The majority of the conference preparation is done as a distributed team and we’ve previously talked about how this works as a virtual team. Something that I thought really clicked together this year was our team communication during the event. As part of the conference we had to manage the attendee experience across multiple venues. To do this effectively, our team is spread across the conference site. We have a very detailed run plan so you generally know where each team member is going to be at a particular time, but to coordinate things we have a group Google Hangout chat channel. With this we can share how the conference is going, note any issues, answer quick questions or highlight the need for refreshment/breaks:

We’ve previously tried to use Google Hangouts chat as part of our events administration, but this year was the first time I felt it really worked. There were a couple of reasons I felt this worked better this year, in particular, given we use Google Hangouts chat in our day-to-day activity we were all very familiar with this tool and how to use it. Another important factor was that this was the first year we also took the time to make sure we could access the chat regardless of whether we were on a Chromebook/laptop or using our mobile devices. Often when Virtual Teams are discussed it feels like you are always arguing against how it compromises operations. In the case of our Annual Conference our experience of working in a distributed team I feel actually greatly benefits us.

Maren: that’s an interesting point. Initially I suppose it was mostly the other way round, ie existing relationships or knowledge made it easier to establish an effective virtual working environment. As this is our second year as a distributed team I think you are right about our virtual working practices becoming a benefit to working together face to face. I’ve really noticed the difference in my own mindset, I no longer feel like I haven’t seen a colleague for a long time when I see them in person. Instead our last virtual interaction ‘counts’ in my mind. That makes building relationships a lot easier, because you are not starting from scratch every few months. Another factor that has changed is mandating what’s required and what is optional. When we set up virtual operations we offered a lot of choice in terms of which platforms, tools or devices to use and the first two years have helped us, as a team, determine what is essential for effective operations such as the instant chat on different devices and what’s up to the individual, such as personal to do list formats. Delivering events has been a big part of helping us figure that out. The other big factor in such a small team is having a sufficient number of people present to check whether your idea of how things should run actually works. When there is only two or three people engaging it doesn’t work as well. In a small team one individual may represent 20% of the overall team and so everyone’s actions have a big impact. For example, for me personally that makes a big difference when it comes to sharing priorities for upcoming catch up meetings. Initially I was happy for everyone to choose a format but over time I realised that it takes too much time to switch between all the different tools for lists that are shared and having a common format also means that we all learn from each other’s practice, like the keyboard shortcuts I mentioned earlier. 

Martin: As our team has grown I can see the benefits of having standardisation. As part of my role I support the implementation of our infrastructure. This includes the physical purchase of equipment as well as supporting staff with how to use it. Broadly the technology we use is fairly standard with a mix of Windows laptops/desktop and Chromebooks. Generally where practical we repurchase the same product or a similar product from the manufacture. This makes things easier so for example in the case of Windows laptops we have variants on the Lenovo X200 series so I know how the software Lenovo provides to manage device hardware generally works. The same is true for Chromebooks and we currently predominantly ASUS Chromebook Flip C302s. It means I generally know what USB-C hubs to buy as well which monitors have suitable connections and adjustments. As I’m not a day-to-day Chromebook user an area I struggle more is shortcut and command keys but luckily we’ve got a good cross-section of experience in the team now so if I can’t help there is generally someone else who can point us in the right direction. An area I’m often left in the dark with is iOS (for the last decade I’ve been exclusively using Android based devices). At ALT, we don’t have a policy of providing mobile devices to staff, the exception being our events manager. In the case of our recent Annual Conference it meant when one of our team asked how to install Google Hangouts chat on their iPhone I was completely lost, but fortunately as you are an iOS user you were able to help. The desire for a standardised provision is likely to be the wish of every IT manager in the land, in a distributed team it perhaps becomes more important because remote support of physical things becomes much harder. Similarly, I can see why having a common format for catch-ups means time better spent.