By @mhawksey

Leading Virtual Teams with Dr Maren Deepwell Guest Episode

Imagen: A photo image representing a virtual conversation via video conferencing. One of the people on the conference call should look like a humanoid being scanned and digitised

I was recently delighted to to receive an invite from Maren Deepwell to appear on the ‘Leading Virtual Teams’ podcast. Not only was it great to have a chance to revisit some old conversations we’ve had around this topic, but also wonderful to drop back in to conversational blogging. Here is a link to Maren’s copy of the post, which is hopefully a handy jumping off point to find out more about Maren’s other work around coaching and consultancy. You can hear the episode on Maren’s ‘Leading Virtual Teams’ Spotify channel (embedded below) followed by our pre-chat discussion.

Maren: Hi Martin! Been a while since we last blogged about leading virtual teams and hybrid working. So… I have lots of questions to get us started: tell us a bit about what your current work set up is like, and what you are particularly interested in when it comes to all things virtual/hybrid working. 

Also, I am curious to hear how you think things have changed since the dark days of lockdown working. I have been doing some research into the data around home-working and evolving policies here in the UK (for example this 2023 report and the flexible working bill and this WIRED article provides a helpful insight into what’s not being tackled). What’s your take on the evolving picture of hybrid working?

Martin: Hi Maren, thanks for having me back! For just over the last year I’ve been working for a UK based Google Partner. We have offices in Manchester, Edinburgh and Utrecht, but the focus is very much on remote working. Even in a post pandemic world I see many businesses still trying to find the right fit around hybrid culture. One of the key challenges I see is how to replicate the benefits of being co-located when employees are hundreds of miles apart. For now let’s put these benefits in the broad bucket of ‘watercooler moments’, ad-hoc opportunities for social interaction as well as work discussions. Seemingly effortless and tricky to measure the benefit. It’s something I remember us talking a lot about and I know you’ve shared a number of approaches and strategies which can help. Where I work a recent internal ‘pulse’ survey has highlighted a desire for increased opportunities to work collaboratively. The business is exploring various approaches, including one of the skeuomorphic virtual office spaces, Kumospace. This pilot highlighted there could be real benefits in restructuring the way teams work, a virtual focal point with awareness mechanisms like location, icons, and camera status making it easier to immediately speak to someone if they are available. The challenge was the price point. It was interesting to read the surveys you highlighted which include data on the overall economic benefit of hybrid working. Whilst we had many anecdotal examples of conversations that unblocked issues or identified business opportunities it is hard to put a value on them. The other challenge was there was low engagement across the business in the pilot space. So while we could see benefits for our team, but possible to justify for the business. Does this example resonate with what you’ve seen? Do you get a sense that organisations are still trying to work out how to make hybrid working work?

Maren: It’s clear that businesses are still on a learning curve when it comes to hybrid working long-term. In the media, there is a lot of debate on whether or not there’ll be a big return to the office, but I think recruitment and retention without a flexible offering will be so challenging, that organisations won’t have a choice. There are a lot of parallels between the use of technology in education and training, and the use of technology in the workplace. Similar to how student expectations have shifted when it comes to digital, so have employee expectations, too. Organisations who don’t offer flexibility or effective hybrid working won’t be able to recruit or retain the diverse talent they need without entrenching structural inequalities further, for example disadvantage employees with care responsibilities. A few years ago we talked about the effort it takes to create and sustain employee engagement online, and your experience with the skeuomorphic virtual office space really chimes with me. Anecdotally it feels like ‘everyone’ wants more connection and collaboration, but at the same time they’d like that sense of connectedness to be maintained by others, so that they can dip in and out as they wish. Even something as simple as internal chat channels require a lot of effort to maintain. If you are using something like Slack or Mattermost to coordinate customer support tickets, then every support ticket becomes a reason to engage (and the value proposition is clear). However if you are in a water cooler or social space there is usually no external prompt to engage and someone usually has to take responsibility for kick-starting engagement by posting something. What are your thoughts on this?

Martin: The term ‘effort’ resonates with me. Internally in our department we’ve switched to using an all day Google Meet with breakouts for individual teams. In a recent conversation with a colleague about using this space effectively we talked about how it takes effort to join the virtual office, similar to the effort it would take to get to a physical office. I would also agree it requires someone taking responsibility for the use of virtual spaces. I would go even further and say it requires leadership. Similar to having an office manager it needs someone to take responsibility for monitoring and supporting the online office. Something I remember us discussing previously was effort in terms of cognitive load. Part of this is the brain doing overtime trying to analyze micro movements in facial expressions. Looking towards the future I think this could get a lot easier with the next generation video conferencing hardware. I recently had the pleasure to have a short demonstration of Google’s Starline immersive conferencing solution. This combines technology that can scan a face in 3D, and present this to the viewer maintaining a depth of field without the need of special glasses or headsets. The result is incredibly impressive. It was only a brief experience so I can’t talk to the long term effects. Two things I did learn was that maintaining a realistic 1:1 scale was important, so it’s unlikely we’ll see this technology on smaller screens. The other detail was for this solution they are focusing on capturing and displaying detail in the face. For example, when the person on the call held up an apple there was a strong 3D effect, but I could see some fragmentation in the detail between the apple and the person’s fingers. Still lots of unknowns with this type of technology including whether it will ever be affordable for the masses, but interesting times!

Maren: It’s really interesting to look out how technology might shape things in the future and what sort of skills and capabilities folk may need to develop to effectively deploy more advanced solutions. One thing I have been thinking about a lot recently, and also a topic I covered in the hybrid working course I ran recently, is increasing productivity whilst stepping away from the screen. There are a lot of reasons why we are glued to our screens, but the longer I work in a hybrid or fully remote setting the more I realise that I need to design my days to be a lot less desk based in order to be at my most productive. From getting more movement in and giving my eyes a break, to finding new ways to connect and communicate without staring at a screen I am interested in how we can mix things up a little more.

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