Virtual Teams: The heartbeat of a virtual team

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. 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 month we are talking about Slack, scheduling team meetings, and how our use of technology and different tools affect the rhythm of our work as a virtual team. 


Maren: It’s the start of a new year, a new decade, and January is not usually the most inspiring month for me at work. But this month is different, partly because there are some exciting things afoot at work (a new strategy is in the works, new visual thinkery being produced and new data to analyse…) but primarily because thanks to inspiration from our recent podcast guest Olaf Hubel (listen to the episode here) my experiment to create a better rhythm to our working as a virtual team is a real success and already making a huge difference. Result! In essence we haven’t really changed what we do or how we work together, but since the start of the year we have started to schedule specific activities at a new regular slot: for example, Mondays now start with an informal ‘watercooler’ catch up in late morning, giving us all the chance to say hello, catch up on the weekend and spend some time together not focusing on work. One to one catch ups for individuals (which is 5 for me) are now all on Tuesdays, and again, having a regular day for these and the same day for everyone has saved me A LOT of time and also seems to make it easier and more efficient for everyone to plan for those meetings. On Wednesday we have our full team meeting, which has moved from Tuesday to Wednesday, and I feel this is working really well also – giving us all a chance to catch up with each other and what’s happening across the organisation. And, last but not least, we have found a regular slot on the last Thursday of each month for our team sprints that we started last year – focusing on actively working together online synchronously. Small tweaks overall, but that bit of extra regular scheduling has made a huge difference and everything feels (to me at least) like it’s happening in a better rhythm now. It’s as if our virtual team now has a more regular heartbeat. What are your thoughts? 

Martin: I think all our team have also benefited from this tweak to our weekly calendar. Having a regular slot for catch-ups means I know when I have to prepare all my questions by and also better judge if something can wait or if I need to contact you at another time by different means. Initially I thought a Wednesday team meeting would mean that at the start of the week I would have to wait longer to find out where others are at with their work, but as it turns out, I think it works better because it encourages touching base with other team members more frequently. [An interesting point, dear reader, is after Maren drafted the start of this month’s post we had a chance to briefly discuss it in our one-to-one where I was able to say I thought the change was very positive however a small observation was that the Monday watercooler chat, which was scheduled for 10:30am, felt like after we all said hello first thing Monday put us in a limbo period where, for me anyway, I had to save small talk until we hung out together later. On mentioning this to Maren we immediately updated the timeslot to 9.30am – a nice reminder of why these shared posts are useful.] I thought it was interesting when we discussed this that you said you didn’t know why I just didn’t change this in our calendar. Reflecting on this I relate it to you being the conductor in our little quintet virtual team ensemble and it not really being my place to set the rhythm. Hopefully with this suggested timing change rhythm is just being finely tuned. As part of our continual tuning January also marks our annual home working check-in. This is where we all individually review our homeworking setups, share tips and also put in any requests for hardware/software. The most popular request has been for monitors, either more or bigger (our team clearly know my soft spot). You’ve shared the changes to our team calendar, is there anything else you’d like to share from another year as a homeworker?    

Maren: Looking back at my own assessment, this is now the third time I am reviewing my set up and reflecting on it. For various reasons I have made a lot of tweaks to my equipment over the last six months and so this time round my focus was more on the way my days and weeks function, like for example walking to the post office in order to get fresh air, even if I could use the local post box instead. Similarly, I made notes on things like finding the right balance between working hard and taking regular breaks, building in reminders to move, to pause, to prioritise my well being alongside my work. So I guess alongside the regular schedule of meetings, catch ups and sprints, I have also found a rhythm to my own home working. I feel more comfortable, more settled in this mode of working and I have learnt to explain it to people more readily and clearly than I could at the start. I have always found it hard to hear people talking about our team as “the office” of ALT. Whilst I know what they mean, I really dislike that short-hand for referring to staff. To me, it’s absolutely important to acknowledge, even implicitly, that we are talking about colleagues, or specific individuals, who do the work that is essential to the running of the organisation. I prefer talking about a distributed team much! It moves the perspective away from a faceless admin resource to consciously talking about people and collaboration and all that implies. It might seem like a very minor point and one that most people might not even be aware of at all, but to me, having seen the changes in the organisation over the past decade, it makes a big difference. 

Martin: Not being a faceless admin resource is very beneficial, plus it feeds my ego and aspiration to be famous. It a small point but I think that we have a policy of personally signing off emails from our shared inbox accounts, like [email protected] or [email protected], and when referring to other members of our team by name rather than department also helps us strengthen our connection with our community. As well as having shared inboxes addresses we all also have personal email accounts with our names. The exception is [email protected] but there are various practical reasons this is the case. We did experiment with role based emails addresses particularly when we’ve previously recruited agency staff to fill positions, but given we now are an independent employer there is more stability in our team and less need for staff handovers. In case readers are interested in how we administer our shared inboxes we use a Google Group configuration that enables us to assign messages to appropriate members of the team and also keep a record of the communication. I feel Google Groups mostly works for us and at this time don’t feel we need a more advanced ticketing system. My main grumble is that messages with the same subject line end up in the same thread making it hard to track when an enquiry has been completed. Our tweak has been to make sure when we contact individuals from one of our shared inboxes we include a person unique reference in the subject line. Email isn’t the only communication channel we administer and our social accounts are another way of contacting us. You also recently shared an interesting post from David Hopkins on how Slack has ruined the workplace:

Did you have any particular takeaways from this post in relation to our team? 

Maren: it was useful to read the post about Slack and how chat tools like this are adopted for long term use. I’ve also been thinking about the differences between various communication methods (text/icon based, voice, video) and came across this post on telephone calls. It isn’t work focused, but it makes useful points about the different nuances that each kind of communication brings with it. The slack post relates closely to what I was talking about above, about the rhythm of collaboration. Similar to what you describe about how we manage and administer external communication channels, the way in which we use our internal ones has changed over the last 2 years. Some, like our collaborative team meeting notes doc, have a clear purpose and use cycle. Others, like our new Monday morning water cooler chat, are still finding their long term shape. It changes over time and as different people bring their individual skills, personalities and expectations to it. There are questions I think about such as: if you’ve been away or on holiday, do you need to catch up on the team chat? Does everyone know enough about what should be put into an email to keep a record of the communication and what can be ‘chat only’. Why would I happily have guests in a team meeting but not in our team chat? Who gets the most chats during the day? Is the member of staff I am chatting with making casual conversation, is this a ‘serious’ matter, is it just venting…?! Everyone brings their own expectations to the communication channels we use but in my experience they are not necessarily the same – the decision not to chat and talk on the phone or hangout is similarly individual – it could be a bad hair day that makes someone prefer to chat rather than be on video… . And there’s also emoji, a topic we have talked about quite a lot in the past two years. What are your thoughts on all this? 

Martin: That’s a lot of very useful questions and I don’t think I’ll be able to cover them all in this month’s post, I have however discovered my emoji mojo and I’ve been particularly enjoying the Windows key + . to bring up the emoji picker. In terms of focus, particularly during video calls, I’ve found the minor tweak of placing my webcam on one of my side screens helps me maintain focus and not get distracted during calls … all part of developing your skills as a remote worker:

As a special contribution to this month’s post we include this tweet from our colleague Debbie Baff- sharing a very fun moment in the daily life of our virtual team: