Virtual Working

Virtual working – lessons from the past decade

The coronavirus is forcing more and more of us to work virtually. We’ve been working this way for over a decade. Here are some of the lessons we have learned.

In 2012 I nearly lost my business, it wasn’t through a lack of work – to the contrary – we were very busy, it was due to a failure to find a way of working effectively. We had abandoned our offices as no-one was ever in, instead we were all out on the road with clients and perfectly capable of working from home in between. This meant more time with their families rather than yet more travel to an office. As a people-centred business, wanting to apply best practice, this seemed to be the best idea.  It is one of many advantages of virtual team working offering flexibility both in terms of where people work and when people work. It’s the old concept of ‘flexi-time’ but on a whole new level.

Whilst virtual team working suited everybody better in terms of the work/life balance we did not have the mechanisms in place to work together virtually – we lost our mojo. During this time some of our best people left and I ended up buying out my business partner, our sense of connection, shared purpose and ability to address issues as a team had faded.

Whilst staring into the ashes of the crisis wondering if the phoenix was going to emerge I realised we needed to do things differently.  I began to look into virtual teamwork and the more I read, the more I realised how important it was that we improved or virtual capability. I also came across clients struggling to find effective ways of working with their colleagues on other sides of the world.

Here is what I have learned since then: 

Virtually the same

We prefer to communicate face to face, evolution has led us to a place where “synchronous face to face communication has been the primary mode of communication” (DeRosa, Hantula, Kock and D’Arcy). To put it another way, the more face-to-face communication we can achieve – the more likely our interactions will be successful. Unsurprisingly then, email is a very poor way of working together – it’s about as bad as it gets. You will have experienced an email exchange getting out of control as each part misinterprets the words and fires a challenging missive back that in turn generates more ill will in a vicious cycle of mutual self destruction. So the challenge is simple – find technologies that enable you to communicate as close to face-to-face communication as possible.

Top tip

Telephone calls are better than email, and video calls better than telephone calls. If you have a choice – upgrade the communication medium to the highest possible available to you.

The challenges of technology

Technology on its own is not enough; it brings its own challenges. When my own business was imploding due to an ability to work virtually we did have some technology solutions in place, we used ‘chat’ services and face to face tools such as Skype. However it was not as easy to use as it is today, the technology had glitches, it was unreliable and harder to use than email or making calls and therefore we stopped using it. We learned the hard way that the technology has to both work and be very easy to use. As Nunamaker, Reinig and Briggs noted in their article on effective virtual teamwork “technological glitches will cripple the productivity of even the most knowledgeable and motivated virtual teams”. These days we use Google Hangouts. It is so integrated into our lives it is easier to make a video call than it is to pick up the phone and dial. It still falls over from time to time, but its ease of use means it is our first port of call for contact.

Making a video call has become the equivalent of sticking your head around someone’s door and asking “….have you got 5 minutes?” Video calls have been one of the things that has made the greatest difference to the business. We have two team video calls each week. On Monday morning it’s about business administration issues and work coming up that week. On Friday morning it tends to be focused on specific client issues. In between we communicate as often as we need via video, conference call, phone, email, or SMS – in that order of preference.

Top tip

Use technology that is as easy to use and reliable as possible.

Distractedly present

As a facilitator, years ago the challenge was making sure people stayed focused on the topic in hand. I remember on one occasion, before mobile phones were day-to-day objects, someone trying to read a newspaper surreptitiously in a meeting. These days it is the lure of the flashing LED, the quick vibrating buzz that announces to the owner someone wants to tell them something and then the furtive attempts to unlock the phone, casually open the right app and read the content all the while nodding and pretending to listen. It’s tedious. You can either concentrate on your device or the meeting, but not both.

Similar things can happen in virtual team working sessions, for example if the medium is a telephone call, people can mute the microphone and go and make tea or coffee, or respond to an email. Even when using video software, if everyone is looking at a document on screen they can’t always see when other people are no longer concentrating and are engaged in something else. A large screen can help here as it allows you to both view the document in common and also have on the display the other people on the video call.

What we’ve found works is simply telling everyone you need to respond to an email or message and then people can either continue the discussion or wait until you are ready to resume. Some honesty is required to make this work. Sometimes things come in which do require a quick response and with the team present it is possible to get a bit of input from them and deal with it.

Top tip

Be honest with everyone – if you have a pressing email that needs attention – stop trying to do it furtively, get permission to take 5 minutes and deal with it.

When the numbers start increasing

Currently, our business is working on an interesting research project investigating mental workload. It involves a large team and briefings take place via conference calls. In these circumstances we use a simple table like a school register with everyone’s name on it. After each discussion point we use the register to check in with each participant to ensure their views are heard. Whilst it feels a bit mechanical it does make sure everyone’s voice is heard and all viewpoints are considered.

In a face to face meeting you could just look around the room. On a conference call this is not so easy and it’s quite possible that someone gets dropped from the call and no-one knows until too late. In video calls it helps to check in with people with the same formality as deployed during conference calls. Whilst the technology is getting better all the time, it is still possible to miss someone’s attempt to get on the conversation.

Top tip

Use checklists of attendees to make sure you have involved everyone in the discussion. Check in with everyone regularly. It doesn’t require a big response from each person. 

Be disciplined

It doesn’t matter whether the meeting is face to face or virtual. Being clear about the purpose of the meeting and the outcomes sought helps ensure the time together is efficient and effective. This is particularly important in the virtual environment where digressions and tangents are not so easy to get back on track.

Top tip

Virtual meetings benefit from clarity and precision about the purpose of the discussion and the outcome sought.

Keep it simple

In virtual communication it seems even more important to make sure people are speaking a common language. In one memorable occasion I recall an extensive discussion taking place on the merits of a series of options. The debate became more heated and people more frustrated until the penny dropped – they were both talking at cross purposes. It sounds tedious and a touch pedantic but it’s worth occasionally checking what people mean by a particular term and concept. Just this morning my colleagues were surprised by my lack of enthusiasm on a topic – it took a while for them to figure out I hadn’t seen a significant email and for me to realise I was missing something. Once this misunderstanding was sorted, normal service resumed. However clear you think you are being you should assume and be prepared for misinterpretation. According to Nunamaker, Reinig and Briggs “Virtual team leaders must communicate directions in painstaking detail” this has certainly been our experience, even more so when working virtually with our customers in other countries where conversations are conducted in people’s second or third languages. On this note cross cultural differences apply to the virtual world as much as they do to face to face communication. It’s important to be sensitive to cultural nuance.

Top tip

Consider having a lexicon of commonly used terms to ensure everyone understands what is meant when a given term is used. Don’t be afraid to check what people mean by the words and concepts they are using. If you feel unsure – the chances are others will too.

The future of virtual teams

A few years ago, Venkatesh and Windeler published the results of a longitudinal study into the use of technology in virtual team collaboration, in particular comparing 3D technology with other more widespread tools. The findings are intriguing. It seems that the use of Avatars (a graphical representation of the user) can facilitate engagement. It seems that if your avatar is attractive (whatever that looks like!) you are more likely to self disclose. If your avatar is tall then you are more likely to be confident in a negotiation. What’s more, with an avatar people tend to be more comfortable expressing themselves. What is clear is that whatever the technology is used, it can help drive team cohesion.

Top tip

The pace of change in technology is rapid, keep in touch with developments. Be curious to try and experiment with new tools. The more methods we have at our availability to ensure high quality interaction between team members, the better.

It’s about people

I loved the concluding point to DeRosa et al’s article: “No matter how complicated the new technology may seem, it is still the human that is the most complex, flexible, and adaptive part of the system. To the extent that we can adapt communication technology to ourselves, we will, and to the extent we cannot adapt the technology, we will adapt to it.”

Top tip

People are adaptable. Help them learn how to use what’s available and they will be able to use it. Have faith in people’s ability to embrace technology, millions now use smartphones without ever going on a course to learn how.

So what about us?

Our disciplined effort to learn how to use the technology at our disposal has paid off. Never before have we worked so effectively as a team. But, and it’s a big but, we have also instigated a regular face to face meeting where few existed previously. This meeting is perhaps the foundation of our success as a team with the use of technology allowing us to maintain the cohesion, effectiveness and enjoyment of working together between times. When the coronavirus threat has passed, don’t forget to come back together again for a face to face catch up.

Top tip

Face to face communication is still the best.

© 2020 Dominic Irvine. All rights asserted.