Virtual Teams: Strategy unpacked… how being a virtual team is changing our organisation

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 much strategic progress we have made in the last few years and how being a virtual team has contributed to that. We also discuss our values as an organisation, how we have tried to reduce our impact on the environment and the upsides of being geographically distributed. 

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Maren: in our last podcast we talked about approaching our second anniversary of becoming a distributed team. Given that it took a year to execute the transition it was about this time three years ago that the strategy for this organisational change was set out. We are currently in the process of reviewing our strategy so this seems like a good time to take stock: let’s start with money. Financial efficiency was not a key driver for becoming a digitally and geographically distributed organisation but it was part of our strategy to spend less of our resources on renting under-utilised office space and all the costs associated with it, and instead increase resources for the services we provide to our members. Even taking into account one off transition costs, we have been able to redistribute between 5-10% of our annual turnover and that has begun to make a real positive difference to our budget each year. In this series we often focus on our experience of leading a distributed team day to day and in our last podcast we discussed how the distributed nature of our work has become a benefit to how we deliver events. It’s interesting for me to take a step back and see what other benefits it has delivered. Another example is our aim to recruit staff located in many different parts of the UK in order to better collaborate with our national community. We have previously talked about the positive experience of recruiting for our virtual team and how being independent of location has enabled us to attract a much wider pool of high calibre applicants. 

Image credit: Voronoi by @visualthinkery is licenced under CC-BY-SA.

Whilst a charity with a staff team of six can’t cover all parts of the country, we are now far more geographically distributed and able to travel to local events and meetings than before. In contrast to only two years ago when nearly the whole team was Oxford based and our ability to support remote working was limited, our reach has significantly increased! That’s two big wins: more financial resources for what matters most and more people power where it makes a difference. 

Martin: It’s interesting to reflect on the bigger picture and the differences from 2-3 years ago. Something I’ve not analysed but is at the back of my mind is differences in travel and in particular air travel. With a team located across the country more travel is required for us all to come together. We try to be efficient in terms using other commitments like the face-to-face events we run our our Board meetings to minimise additional travel. In terms of whether we are generating more carbon emissions the calculation is complicated because when our office was located in Oxford I would fly down approximately once a month. In a distributed team my need to meet face-to-face is less frequent, but there are more of us to move around the country. In terms of carbon cost none of us need to commute to work. As a distributed team we’ve also greatly reduced our print requirements moving to a virtual filing system. Even our expenses are entirely electronic and we’ve no need to print or post receipts. Some of our changes are by design, others are born from practicalities. For example, I know that you will often take the train for events in Scotland because it is impractical for you to get to an airport. For this year’s Annual Conference it was fortunately on my doorstep making it easier to transport the equipment we require. How much equipment we need varies from event to event, but with the environmental impact or air travel I’m rethinking how our get to our events and meetups. 

Maren: I suppose it’s all relative.. and there is always more we can do – but having reviewed our operations over the past 3 years, we can see that we have definitely reduced our impact on the environment overall. A different kind of strategic change I’ve been thinking about and which relates directly to our organisational values is creating and using openly licenced content, anything from our strategy documents, call for proposals, photos from events, artworks, member badges and more. The call for proposals and guidance for reviewers have been adopted by other conferences and remixed to fit their purpose, whilst some of our policies, such as our privacy policy, and governance documents have likewise been used by other organisations and referenced back to us. We have also been working with Visual Thinkery to create a number of remixes and those often take on a life of their own in the wider community. For me, these are examples of how our values shape our operations and a contrast to how ALT operated when I first joined. In a recent blog post Frances Bell wrote about her sense of the Association being a generous organisation and that made me reflect on how generosity is a big part of our approach to leadership and one of the motivations behind our open practice. 

Martin: I’d also read Frances’ post and it was interesting to reflect on whether having a virtual team with an inclination towards “generalised reciprocity” makes things easier. In terms of qualities I think it does make a difference to have people willing to support others particularly when contact time in a distributed team can reduce those serendipitous ‘watercooler’ moments – this is not so say those opportunities don’t happen instead they take place in other spaces, there however has to be a willingness and culture that values sharing and values supporting others.

Just coming back to the environmental factors for homeworkers. We’ve previously talked about the advantages of working from and having more control on your working environment. At the recent Labour Conference shadow equalities minister Dawn Butler announced a proposed policy which is designed to consider the specific needs of menopausal women in the workplace. As part of this “adjustments that employers could be required to make could include the provision of ventilation facilities”. There are a number of factors that can affect your personal thermal comfort level and research has shown there can be biological gender differences. As the colder weather arrives, so does the annual team chat about our individual workplace temperatures, which can bring its own challenges. These are not just limited to personal comfort levels.  From the Wikipedia page on thermal comfort:

Residential buildings in particular can vary much more in thermal comfort than public and commercial buildings. This is due to their smaller size, the variations in clothing worn, and different uses of each room.

So as our team starts the ‘discussions’ with partners over the thermostat there are plenty of opportunities for us to show some generosity towards each other … and pictures of snuggly pets.      

Maren: I have lots of thoughts about how the seasons impact on homeworkers and on balance I much prefer a working environment in which you can feel the changes in the weather and adjust accordingly instead of being at the mercy of a centrally controlled heating system or indeed working in a building where you can’t open the windows.

What really struck me however is you talking about an organisational culture that values sharing and values supporting others. I recently had a conversation with the Chair of our Board of Trustees, Sheila MacNeill, where this came up strongly and it resonates, too, with what Martin Weller wrote recently in a post on ‘meticulous informality’. The point I am getting at is that our values, as an organisation, are very practical, day to day elements of how we lead our team and how we operate and leverage them to achieve our strategic aims. And more than that, our values as an organisation and the core principle of our professional accreditation scheme are closely aligned:

When we set out to define our shared values in 2016 I didn’t fully consider how these elements connect with each other. Now I think that this is one of the most interesting areas to think about and there’s a lot we could unpack here, for example how openness enables us to critically examine the interplay between technology and  learning or how ALT being independent of government and industry supports effective (and less biased) sharing of practice. You recently achieved your accreditation (and blogged about it) and I wonder whether you have any thoughts on this, as you work as a Learning Technologist in a senior role?

Martin: It’s really interesting to consider how our values and core principles interact with each other and influence what we do, including as a virtual team. In terms of openness for me I can’t see a direct link to critically examining the interplay of learning and technology … just because you value openness doesn’t mean you have a more critical eye. Generally I do however believe those who value openness are more considered in what they do. As someone who has been blogging for over a decade I developed a level of comfort in publishing things in the open. I’ve published a variety of content from thought pieces to practical tutorials and there is still always an aspect of how it will be judged by my peers but at the same time the consequences of publishing something that is wrong are fairly low. In the case of my peer reviewed portfolio for CMALT the stakes are higher, you are seeking accreditation of your knowledge and skills.  In my case I deliberately chose to do my portfolio privately, only publishing it once I knew I had passed. I know others who have very successfully developed their portfolios in the open getting feedback, encouragement and contributions as they produce it. For a number of years my philosophy was that everything should be done in the open, but more recently this has become more nuanced and I now recognise that learning can be a very vulnerable process often referring to Alec Couros’ ‘thinning of the walls’ in my presentations on this topic.  In the context of virtual teams it is perhaps useful to think in a similar way. Aspects of virtual teams can for some expose vulnerabilities and discomfort, for example, most video conferencing applications include a preview of your webcam which some people might find discomforting – when you meet face-to-face it is very unlikely that the person you are speaking to will hold up a mirror so you see yourself.