Virtual first – redefining ‘normal’ in a blended team

cc licensed via Steve SnodgrassMuch has been said over the years about the rise of virtual teams, including the benefits and drawbacks of remote workers and those staunchly for and against it. Not nearly as much has been said (or that I’ve seen anyway) on the topic of blended teams, where some staff are located in the same physical place and others are located elsewhere and working virtually.

I’ve had ‘remote staff’ in my teams for the last four years, with people based in Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and (for a brief period) Paris. Right now of the seven people in my team, two work remotely, putting them in the minority compared to the majority of the team based in the Adelaide office.

This has, I feel, frequently marginalised them as being the ‘extras’ in the team when it came to synchronous communications. Whenever there were team meetings, they were the ones who needed to be ‘dialled in’ via Skype or similar, and usually collaborating in something like Google Docs concurrently. I don’t think any of them would argue that they were constantly at risk of being the forgotten minority, and unless someone was constantly thinking about ensuring they were adequately connected then there was a significant chance that their participation would be less than optimal.

Now while some will argue (and with cause) that virtual is often ‘suboptimal’, the reality of working in physically distributed organisations is that a blended team is often unavoidable, both in terms of the people in the team and those in other areas who the team need to interact with on a regular basis. For us, being part of a medium-sized international company means that regular virtual interaction is unavoidable, so it becomes a case of making the best of the situation with the tools available at the time. With this in mind, I’ve been trying something different for a while, namely having a ‘virtual first’ mentality in as many team interactions as possible.

In practice, this means using our virtual classroom tool (Blackboard Collaborate) as the default meeting place for the team for most meetings, even when the majority of people are physically co-located.

Has it worked?

Yes and no.

For the Adelaide team, there have been times when it must seem kinda stupid to all be sitting at their laptops to meet when most or all of the participants are in the same building, even if I do give them the flexibility (if they want to) to band together around a computer – if they organise it themselves (rather than just staying put and firing up a new browser window). The latency of audio is also off-putting when you can hear the person speaking from two desks over being repeated in your headset a fraction of a second later, which often makes me go hide in another area so its not distracting. The technology itself has also taken a bit of getting used to in order to make it feel natural rather than something reserved for special occasions (and thanks to Kim Edgar for her guidance in how to not suck at running virtual meetings). Then of course there’s the large amount of nonverbal information which is lost when not having the person eye-to-eye with you, which is largely unavoidable – we could use video more, but some aren’t as comfortable having themselves on screen as others (not me though, I’m a showoff).

I think the pluses are outweighing the down sides though. Firstly, it does put all team members on an equal footing in terms of everyone needing to communicate as if they were remote staff – effectively making virtual the new ‘normal’, which I hope has helped us to better include our remote team members by walking quite a few miles in their shoes. I’m not sure how many of my team have noticed, but I now try and schedule meetings on Mondays, which are my work-from-home days, so that I can get the ‘full experience’ of being a remote team member. It has also been a good exercise in dogfooding the Blackboard Collaborate product, which in most cases (in my opinion) done the job well for us, even if it is more focused on being a teaching & learning tool than a web conferencing platform for businesses, meaning we’ve not used it to anywhere near its capacity. I think it has also benefited communications in some ways for team members who might feel more comfortable in the written word, and can use the live chat facility rather than using the microphone, effectively adding another channel which simply isn’t there in physical meetings. Finally, it has made everyone in the team (from what I’ve seen) more comfortable with interacting with the virtual members of our team, which as we grow and expand the team will hopefully mean that future remote members will be coming into a team where virtual is as natural as sitting down face-to-face.

It is also really important to understand that in the same way that a good ed tech tool won’t make a bad teacher into a good one, a virtual tool won’t make a bad meeting into a good one. All the underlying basics of effective meetings like leadership, respectful communication, listening, clarity of purpose and active participation still hold true, and  these need the same focus regardless of whether the meeting is virtual or physical.

…in the same way that a good ed tech tool won’t make a bad teacher into a good one, a virtual tool won’t make a bad meeting into a good one.

Are we finished? Hell no. Will virtual ever fully replace face-to-face in our environment? Probably not. But in an environment like ours where the business reality is highly dependent on effective virtual teams then I’ll continue to create ‘virtual natives’ to the best of my abilities.

I’d be keen to hear of others’ experiences and thoughts on this subject (including from those on my team if you’re game) – always keen to learn from the experiences of others.