Virtual Teams: Sharing our approach to leading a virtual team and surviving a pandemic – special podcast episode

This is the last of the conversational blog posts (cross-posted here) between Martin Hawksey (@mhawksey) and Maren Deepwell (@marendeepwell) and an opportunity to reflect on the past year. Our ALT Staff team will continue to blog about the journey as a virtual team and we look forward to what 2021 holds in store for us.

But for now, we want to recognise Martin’s contribution as over the past three years, over dozens of posts and blog posts and 65,000 words (!!!), we have been using this approach to create some space to think together about leading a virtual team – and continuing to do so in ‘unprecedented times’.

As many of our readers and listeners will already know, after many years of making a big impact as a senior member of staff, Martin will be leaving ALT in January 2021 to move onto new adventures as an intrepid edtech explorer.

Whilst the staff and Trustees of ALT are making preparations to say thank you (contribute to Martin’s virtual leaving card (read: spreadsheet) via this Google form), it also means that, sadly, this series of monthly posts is coming to an end. 

So this month we are recording a special podcast episode, a reflective conversation about working from home, leading a virtual team… the ups and the downs… our best tips and tricks and also some of the highlights we have written about together over the past three years.

December 2020 – January 2021

Maren: So, here we are, about to record our last podcast in this series, and there is SO MUCH I’d like to talk about. When we started writing these blog posts, I don’t think I ever imagined that we’d still be doing so three years and 65,000 words later! Quite apart from all the things I’ve learnt and discovered about leading a virtual team, our conversation itself has been a key part of my day to day work and of great value in itself. When we started blogging, just as ALT made its transition from having an office to operating as a distributed organisation, many people gave me funny looks. Not having a physical HQ seemed a bit suspect, I think, and now, in no small part due to the pandemic, it feels to me like everyone in our sector is working from home and not planning to return to their physical work places. Things have definitely changed and our posts reflect the journey we have been on with our team and our organisation. Thinking back to 2017/18, what tips and tricks do you wish we had known that we know now? 

Martin: The end of 2017 and ALT’s new journey into becoming a distributed team seems a world away. Given one of my hats has always been technology it is interesting to think about what we implemented then and what we use now. Looking back to the solutions we implemented then and now not much has changed in terms of our offering. Whilst platforms and services have inevitably evolved in the interim the tech landscape remains very similar, what I would say has changed is how we as a team use our tools. For me it feels like there is greater maturity in the tools we use as in a better understanding of how things like shared documents, chat and video calls are used to support a distributed team. As an organisation I think we are also better at recognizing the required skills of homeworkers and incorporating this into both our recruitment process and team support. Given your role are there any standout things you would tell the 2017 version of yourself?  

Maren: I guess to someone who is always several steps ahead when it comes to tech, it must feel like not much has changed :) I agree with you that the way we use technology as a team has scaled up and developed very much over the past three years, both in terms of the skills and capacity individual staff have developed and also the enthusiasm for and familiarity with different platforms. 

This time three years ago, the CEO in me was closely monitoring risk registers, just as I am doing now. The difference is that then the changes we were making were planned, strategic, intentional. Becoming a small, independent employer, moving to a virtual team, employing staff distributed across the UK. Just today, I said goodbye to the last piece of furniture I picked up from our office in Oxford this time three years ago. Goodbye, old office chair, hello, new home office chair. In hindsight, I would tell myself, hey, you are making all the right decisions (in 2017 not having an office seemed a lot less possible to many people). I would also tell myself that I was right to be cautious, as lots of things that aren’t a problem in the first 6 months can turn out to be a bit more difficult down the line. Also, working from home and caring for one’s own wellbeing takes more discipline than I had imagined. 

Martin: In the beginning of this series I felt my focus was more on the practical, tangible problems, the ‘interfacing’ of a distributed team. I feel there is still an aspect of that but increasingly, and I think largely thanks to your perspective, I’ve come to have a better understanding of myself and how to support others who are working remotely. I can completely relate to the idea that wellbeing takes discipline and also how often there are very personal solutions like particular smells, sounds or light. I’ve also come to realise how important the process we have adopted, sharing our reflections in a conversational format, has been. When we started I could see how others could benefit from us sharing ALT’s transition to a distributed team, but I never anticipated it being such an important part in terms of creating an opportunity to regularly reflect and share how things were going. Have you had any unforeseen benefits of doing this series of posts?

Maren: Absolutely! Quite aside from learning how a lot about working from home and being part of a virtual team, our collaboration has taught me much about the value of collaboration, particularly in a leadership role. Having a conversation rather than just my own perspective, has enriched my perspective on the work we do, and how we do it. It’s also enabled me to develop my skills in collaborative, conversation writing and over the past few years I have been able to expand the group of people I work and blog with, including for example writing a series of posts with my former coach, Margaret, and also writing with other colleagues in the staff team. It’s been a very rewarding experience for me and enjoyable to boot! Here is an open invitation to you to drop back in and share with us your new adventures – you will always be welcome as a special guest contributor :)

Martin: I’m looking forward to continuing to follow ALT’s journey through the ‘virtual teams’ posts. Also thank you for the opportunity to be part of this first chapter. Your gentle encouragement throughout this endeavour has been particularly welcome, especially having a stimulus to reflect and discuss progress when the pressures of delivering ALT’s strategic objectives has sometimes meant less time has been available.