By @mhawksey

Virtual Teams: Finding Oxygen with Olaf Hubel at Google – Podcast Special 2019

Welcome to this month’s  special podcast (cross-posted here) in which we, that is Martin Hawksey (@mhawksey) and Maren Deepwell (@marendeepwell), openly share our approach to leading a virtual team. If this is your first time visiting this post series or you’d like to review what we’ve posted in 2019 Maren has a Virtual Teams summary page.

This time we are joined by our special guest, Olaf Hubel G Suite Developer Relations Team Leader at Google. Together we talk about what it takes to lead a virtual team, collaboration and team communication. The podcast is embedded below or can be listened to on Soundcloud

This month: podcast with special guest Olaf Hubel (Google)

Martin: So Maren what were your main takeaways from our podcast with Olaf Hubel?

Maren: I really enjoyed talking to Olaf and I got a lot of food for thought from our conversation. One topic we discussed was how important interaction is for virtual teams and Olaf described the different approaches he uses to manage that both formally as part of team meetings and informally through things like water cooler hangouts and chat. We have a water cooler chat channel for our team and recently there were some real stand out moments for me, such as the morning when we all met a new puppy of one of our colleagues or when I was mid transit whilst travelling and the chat was suddenly all about domestic chores with a lovely pic that made me smile 🙂
Leading a virtual team requires us to be more intentional when it comes to informal interactions like that. We can’t rely on serendipity (and I’d argue you shouldn’t for co-located teams either). Providing tools is only part of the equation. We also need to put in place & maintain the necessary structures and that is something I feel we’ve learnt a lot about in the past two years. We’ve moved from experimenting with different formats and strategies to a more regular rhythm of working together. Hearing Olaf talk about focusing on team interaction as both valid and important really chimed with me. What about you? Are there any talking points that stood out for you? 

Martin: It was striking to me the number of similarities in the way that our team operates to Olaf’s team. This is perhaps not surprising as given ALT uses a number of tools that have been developed by Google. There were some small things I had never considered before until Olaf highlighted them like by default your webcam is on when you join a Google Hangouts Meet to encourage you to use video. As ALT has a number of video conferencing tools at our disposal with some to default to video off it’s interesting to reflect on the behaviours it encourages. Like you I found it interesting to hear about how some of the informal interactions were sometimes orchestrated. Besides the water cooler chat, ideas like the Monday morning social where Olaf’s team hangout just to share non-work related things like things they got up to at the weekend seemed like nice opportunities to build social connections. It was also interesting to hear how Olaf organised some of the formal interactions, in particular, dedicating a day for scheduled catch-ups with team members. As someone with a touch of OCD I could see how having a regular timetabled slot each week could be useful. The final thing I’ll mention was Olaf’s reference to Google’s Project Oxygen where “Google set out to determine what makes a manager great at Google”. We didn’t go into much detail about Project Oxygen but subsequently I know we’ve both explored the re:Work website which “Google and others to help share and push forward the practice and research of data-driven HR”. What’s your take on re:Work and Project Oxygen?  

Maren: it made for interesting reading for me! One key point it got me thinking about was scale. The more people are involved and the more levels of management you have the harder it becomes to get a sense of what good practice should look like and what is happening on the ground. Project Oxygen, for me, is an expression of meeting those challenges and providing output that can be scaled up to the size of a global corporation. The 10 behaviours of good management identified in the report all read like common sense, but putting that into practice consistently remains a challenge. The example you picked up on, scheduling catch ups for everyone at the same time each week, is particularly relevant to me. I already have weekly catch ups planned, but the process of scheduling them in itself is very time intensive. Each week or month I need to repeat the process. Taking inspiration from Olaf, I’m going to try the approach he shared, and by sending out one repeat calendar invite per person and in this manner I’ve now scheduled weekly catch ups with everyone for the whole year. For me, that’s a big win. Yet, beyond the efficiency, the regular schedule should also help to create a better rhythm for us as a team, with specific days each week for different meetings, both informal and formal. It should help everyone structure their time and that is particularly relevant for you and I, as we always struggle to carve our sufficient head space for strategic planning. Structure is so important for us as a virtual team and it can be hard work to create and maintain that when each week the calendar looks completely different. I LOVE planning support, structures, evaluation processes and so on and it is so attractive to look at the reporting and tools being shared on the re:Work site and try them out in our context. That said, I also know first hand that much of what makes work life tick day to day is hard to capture in quantitative data sets. Olaf emphasised the importance and value of spending time, communicating, building relationships and that I really chimed with me. It’s a constant regardless of whether you share a desk or whether you are an ocean apart. 

Martin: Another aspect of relying on quantitative data, particularly when what is being measured leads to reward is Campbell’s Law, that is “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor”. Looking at the Google Manager Feedback Survey, which is based around 13 quantitative and two qualitative questions I could see it being an easy to fall into the trap of managing to the survey. Perhaps this in itself is not necessarily a bad thing because as you mentioned these questions are designed to measure behaviours that appear to be common sense and personally I value a manager who ‘assigns stretch opportunities to help me develop in my career’, ‘communicates clear goals’, ‘gives me actionable feedback on a regular basis’ and so on. Saying all of this Olaf doesn’t seem like the type of person who teaches to the test. I hadn’t actually appreciated the size of Google as an employer. When we spoke to Olaf I mentioned ‘ten of thousands’ of employees. As of Q3 2019 Wikipedia lists Google as employing 114,096, which is a scale I find hard to get my head around. With that scale it’s perhaps not surprising that the re:Work site includes a section dedicated to ‘People Analytics’, something not really needed when you employ 6 people … I would guess, or do you see it differently?

Maren: We are definitely on the same page here. For me, it comes back to values. From the outset our journey to become a virtual team has been informed by our values, and over the past two years we have learnt much about how to put those values into practice at different levels and we’ve blogged about it along the way: from an employer perspective we’ve talked about formal policies, financial support and flexible working; reflecting on our organisation we’ve discussed priorities like support for staff, professional development and our technical infrastructure; as senior staff we’ve shared the challenges of managing a crisis as a virtual team, delivering large events and our team culture; and as individuals we have thought much about the personal dimension of being a  home-worker, from mental-health and wellbeing to work/life balance and physical work spaces. Talking to Olaf brought into perspective that we are no longer in the process of ‘setting up’ a virtual organisation but that we are actually running a highly successful distributed team (and thanks to our recently published Impact Report 2017-2020, we have the GIFs to prove it ;). When becoming a virtual team was still nothing more than a spreadsheet, we talked about how leading a transition like this would be a unique opportunity for us and it has been an extremely rewarding one. Hard work for sure, but rewarding nonetheless. That said, I feel that now that the set up period and transition has been successfully concluded, working in this manner is just as interesting and keeps bringing up new things to learn, think about and share. From your perspective, would you agree that we are in a new chapter and is there anything ahead that you are particularly curious about?

Martin: I agree there is a maturity in our organisations approach to being a distributed team and as well as policy and procedure our team seem confident in our approach. Speaking to Olaf has been incredibly beneficial and I hadn’t anticipated how useful it was to speak to someone in a similar position and reflecting on the discussion afterwards. It was good to hear from Olaf and discover that there are a number of areas where our working practices are similar, which feels like validation of our approach, but also to learn about some of their working practices which we don’t already do but have started implementing. In 2020 I think it would be useful to find other people to speak to and share both the conversation and reflection so if you’d like to join us in a future podcast and share your experience of leading a Virtual Team please get in touch with us. 

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