When I started my career in 1990 working for a small international agency, we still had a Telex machine, but we never used it. Instead, we heavily relied on fax. One of my duties was to collect the piles of curled pages lying on the floor after one of our project offices had sent through a report. I’d sort the pages into the correct order and set the pile on a table under a heavy weight to flatten before handing it to my executive director. The following day, I’d assist in faxing back a reply.
Today, most workers have never even used a fax machine. Instead, we struggle with the volume of email exchanged every day with colleagues, even while adjusting to the proliferation of apps offering even more ways to communicate and collaborate virtually. As a result, we now seem to be seeing the dawn of the fully virtualized workplace.
As a case in point, Humentum recently made the decision to transition to a virtual workplace model. In place of a collection of offices in several locations around the world, they’ll organize into a network of individuals primarily working from home. I would argue that this is a brave, strategic and—some may say—risky decision. It is also likely a prophetic choice, when we stop to imagine the workplace 25 years hence.
Recently, I joined the global Humentum team who had gathered together for a week of planning and team-building in Washington, DC. They’d asked me to facilitate a discussion on their transition to a virtual organization, which they decided to become to better deliver their mission, attract global talent, and create a more level playing field for everyone’s contribution. And let me clear—I joined them virtually and asked them to divide up into groups of up to six, each group joining a video conference session on a shared laptop. I figured if we’re going to discuss how to be effective as a virtual team, we may as well put our money where our mouth is.
As an experienced coach and facilitator who’s worked with many different organizations, I knew that even though Humentum had take their decision carefully, the idea of working virtually would cause worry for a variety of different reasons. As I listened to the discussion, I heard five broad “how to” concerns. How to…
- …mitigate individual isolation
- …sustain trust, understanding and culture
- …ensure effective, timely decision-making
- …address sensitive issues and disagreements
- …engage in creative idea-generation
During that brief one-hour session, the aim certainly wasn’t to develop a blueprint for how to address these concerns. My aim was to open a space for every team member to begin to voice concerns and solutions.
So what might those solutions look like? Glancing back at my notes from the call, I see a few pieces of that blueprint coming into focus:
- Make choices about which technology tools will be used and for what specific purposes
- Plan well in advance when, where and for what purpose the full team or portions of the team will gather together
- Articulate shared expectations and boundaries for communicating across time zones and cultures
- Devise an onboarding program that thoughtfully introduces new team members to the virtual setting
These are sound ideas and a good start, yet I would categorize them as tactical. But accompanying these and other useful tactics, any virtual team needs to be intentional about the cultural component as well. This means mindset and ritual.
A VIRTUAL MINDSET
When I opened up the session with the team, I told them that if there were only one thing to take away from this discussion, it would be that success as a virtual team requires equal parts discipline and compassion. The tactical elements—tools, policies, protocols—will fail unless applied with discipline. At the same time, because individuals lack the connection and context derived from sitting face-to-face or side-by-side, so much is lost in translation. The cue word “compassion” switches on a reminder that we can too easily read between lines or make assumptions in the absence of being able to have a spontaneous check-in. The cue word “compassion” reminds us to think a little more carefully about our choice of wording and our choice of timing. And maintaining that mindset of compassion also requires discipline.
Beyond this critical mindset factor, a successful virtual work culture depends on ritual. We practiced two examples of this during the Humentum session. One is a ritual I call “questions first.” It couldn’t be simpler. When initiating a discussion (virtual or otherwise, frankly) the very first step is to go around and take the time for everyone present to express the #1 question on their mind about the topic at hand. There is no debate or discussion, just giving voice to each person’s question one by one. You can decide how to proceed from there any number of ways. The second practice is what I call “knitting needs.” Here rather than questions we take turns speaking about solutions. No discussion, just articulation of our top-of-mind idea about how to address the subject at hand. Person #1 begins saying “We need to…” expressing their idea. Each person, in turn then adds “…and we need to…” or “…but we need to….”
These are two of the least creative facilitation tricks you may be able to imagine. Nevertheless, (a) most of the time the group fails to have the discipline to avoid devolving into discussion and (b) when you have the discipline to follow the ritual, the result is powerful. Everyone has a chance to speak and you have before you a pattern of ideas that point the way forward.
Different virtual teams may devise different rituals that work for them. Besides these two examples of rituals for facilitating participation, some virtual teams develop hand gestures that they can use on video calls to indicate agreement, uncertainty, greetings, etc. without the awkwardness of multiple people speaking over one another. The salient point is that when communicating virtually we’re cut off from the subtle cues that enable a more “natural” flow of discussion. Communication rituals provide a structure that compensates.
I think what Humentum is doing by adopting a virtualize team model is forward-thinking. I know as well that it presents real human challenges. But I also suspect that 25 years from now a new generation of the Humentum team may look back on these proceedings and smile at how worried we all were.