Strengthening an Online Community

Five of us got together yesterday to take part in an open discussion on “What environment can we create to enable people to experiment or instigate change, in a remote set-up?”. We used the Lean Coffee format, where attendees suggest at the beginning of the session those specific issues or questions they want to address, and then the group creates the roadmap for the conversation through a voting system.

All the issues suggested yesterday were connected to understanding what conditions could encourage people specifically within Virtual Team Talk to initiate experiments or projects within the group, or to feel free to call group meetings or even organise events as a collective. At the moment there are plenty of asyncronous discussions and information exchanges, but very rarely do we actually collaborate.

The discussion moved very quickly to a suggestion by Nenad:

Could we try out Donut to randomly pair up people in the group to have chats together, to facilitate (in the pure form of the work, as in, to make easy) people in the group to meet each other informally?

(The app has actually been created for organisations to enable people who don’t work together to get to know each other. Trello also has a similar process, Mr Rogers, for doing this, but using Trello, of course.)

As we were discussing the pros and cons and how it might work practically (and emotionally) within the group, Simon pulled up the app website and integrated it into our Slack.

Voilá, by the end of the meeting (should we call it “meetup” as “meeting” sounds a bit formal…?) two relatively new members to the group had set up an experiment with the aim of strengthening relationships within the group: a first step in encouraging others to try initiate “stuff” themselves.

One of the reasons for encouraging people to experiment within an online community is to bring people closer to each other through “doing” something, sharing a common, specific objective or solving a problem that’s worth solving together (I could go as far as to say, it’s a problem they can ONLY solve together).

When you have limited personal time to put into a community (a self-organised community, not a component of a marketing strategy), the only way forward is to keep experimenting, to keep trying things out, a few times, with different people.

It was during a debrief of our Internal Affair, with only Mark, Mikey and myself that we identified that we weren’t sure what we needed in order for more people in the group to take the initiative to do “stuff” involving others. That question was then taken to our next video discussion, addressed by new people and turned into action, which now involves a wider group.

Creating an Environment for Experimentation

On Thursday 27 July 2017 at 4pm CEST we will be holding an online open discussion on the theme:

“What environment can we create to enable people to experiment or instigate change, in a remote set-up?”

The discussion will be facilitated, but what direction we take will depend on who is present on the day. So all we require from you is to bring your views, thoughts, struggles or even just your curiosity to the session.

On a practical note, you will need access to a Chrome browser, so that you can join us in Sococo (we’ll invite you) and we might be also using Zoom.

This event is for members of Virtual Team Talk, but you can easily become a member of the community by filling in this form: https://markkilby.typeform.com/to/l9kVcd

And if you have any questions, please contact us through the contact form on this site.

We look forward to seeing you there!

27JulyInvite

An Internal Affair 14 June 2017

To join us CLICK HERE.

(To find out more, scroll below…)

The Members of Virtual Team Talk are delighted to invite you to our annual Internal Affair.

We are a group of people who know that working in virtual teams can be just as joyous as working in the collocated space. We know it doesn’t work for everyone, but we know that it works for us – and we understand the deliberate practice it takes to be able to operate as a remote / virtual / dispersed or even hybrid team.

2017_InternalAffair_Invite
On Wednesday 14th June, we will be gathering online for twelve hours from 10:00 CEST to 22:00 CEST (4:00 EST to 16:00 EST).

We have been creating a programme of talks and discussions around aspects of working in virtual teams. We’ll continue to massage the schedule as we go along, right onto the day, so that the schedule can adapt to those wanting to attend.

10:00 CEST Virtual Coffee
10:45 CEST  How To Convince Your Boss to Go Remote (Lightning talk and discussion)
12:00 CEST Open Space-style discussions

13:00 CEST Break

14:15 CEST / 07:00 EST Regrouping
14:30 CEST / 08:30 EST How Can We Best Advocate for an Office-Optional Workplace? (Facilitated discussion)
15:30 CEST/ 09:30 EST Conflict in Virtual Teams (Facilitated discussion)
16:30 CEST / 10:30 EST  Open Space-style discussions
17:30 CEST / 11:30 EST Facilitating Remote Team Discussions (Workshop)

18:30 CEST / 12:30 EST  Break

19:00 CEST / 13:00 EST Games Product Owners Play (Talk)
19:30 CEST / 13:30 EST “Squish Me”. Moving through dimensions in space and time (Talk)
20:00 CEST  / 14:00 EST Open Space-style discussions
20:30 CEST/ 14:30 EST Success with Agile Ceremonies in Distributed Teams (Collabinar)

21:30 CEST / 15:30 EST Virtual Coffee and Close

All the sessions are led by one or two Virtual Team Talk members.

Whether you can pop in for a couple of hours or whether you would like to spend a day online, we’d love to see you there.

Interested?

Here’s how you can participate.

Click here and sign up to be part of Virtual Team Talk.

You will then be invited to our communication and collaboration hub in Slack, where you can follow how planning for the event is unfolding and pick up your joining instructions.

You’ll also have access to our online co-working space in Sococo.

On 14 June, you will need to have access to Slack to follow the schedule and any developments during the day.

You’ll also need to be able to access Sococo (via Chrome) and Zoom.

You will need a microphone and ideally a quiet space (so that you don’t have to be constantly muting/un-muting yourself) and a camera is important if you want to connect with those you haven’t met before.

Don’t forget to wear your best smile.

That’s probably all you need to know for now.

Sign up now by following this link: https://markkilby.typeform.com/to/l9kVcd

And if you have any questions, fill in the contact form below.

We look forwards to seeing you soon!

We Continue Talking about Trust

We’re still having conversations around trust in virtual teams: how it’s built, what gets in the way, how it affects the work and its relationship with “working out loud” and values.

Yesterday, three of us continued the conversation and decided to press record so that we could share it with you, to see whether these conversations are any use to anyone else out there and to show that you can have high-quality conversations on video, as long as your internet is speed is good throughout and you don’t have too many interruptions (which we did, being home…)

We’ll continue publishing here our findings and thoughts. We’re also working on a framework/guidance notes/something or other to start pulling our findings into something that can be used by those working in virtual teams.

Let us know if you have anything to add, we’d love you to be part of the conversation. Please use the contact form to get in touch.

Does Trust Enable Great Virtual Teamwork? (Part 1)

Virtual Team Talk is a community of people who know that great things can happen through working with others in a different physical space to you. We’d like to share with you one of the projects we’re currently working on.

One of the most common concerns that people have when first working in a virtual team, or when thinking about working in a distributed way, is the effect that not being collocated will have on trust amongst team members.

“How will we trust each other, if we work from different locations? How will we build trust with newcomers into our team?”

These worries are not unfounded. We are gradually finding that problems that go unnoticed in the collocated world often become amplified in the virtual sphere, such as aggressive cultures, lack of alignment in teams and lack of trust.

Whereas in the collocated space you might coast along in spite of the absence of real trust between teammates, in the virtual space, it will impact your work. And trust can indeed be built as a virtual team: Trust is built through your actions, not your physical presence.

Is Trust Important?

There are many simple practices that virtual teams share to build trust: in-person get-togethers, sharing personal stories, having virtual coffee or even virtual popcorn regularly… but what does “trust” really look like in a team? Why is it important to make sure we build trust? What can we do to ensure (and even accelerate) its development?

And why should we bother? Is it just that it makes us feel closer together as a team? (And that would be enough from my point of view to work on it.) Or does it also help with our productivity and performance?

These are some of the questions we’re currently tackling in Virtual Team Talk. Yesterday, four of us met to talk through these questions and share the processes and practices we need when working in virtual teams. We’ve gone quite “meta” (like Melanie P., also from VTT would say) so we don’t have ten simple tips to share with you. However, below, we have pinpointed three areas of the team process worth revisiting if you’re worried about trust being eroded in your team.

The Role of the Individual

Before we dive into how trust can be built amongst people, it’s worth remembering that regardless of how we operate as a team, our propensity to trust as individuals will vary. Some of us (like me!) are quick to trust others. And there will be other people who will be on the look out for untrustworthy behaviour for months after they start working with a team.

This is quite important in all teamwork, but in distributed work the propensity to trust is key. Unless we start to trust each other soon, even before we meet face to face, our work will be sluggish and maybe not that enjoyable. As soon as we start to trust each other, we reach out for help faster, we share our problems more often and we might even be happier at work. The individual’s natural tendency to trust others will play a part in all this.

We discussed whether there is anything that can be done during the hiring process to assess someone’s propensity to trust. The only conclusion we came up with was to think of the hiring process beyond the initial interviews and into a three month “trial period”, during which a person’s trusting behaviours are also monitored, not just their skills.

(We might well come back to this in detail, as Mel had something to add post-meeting on how to use the VIST model (Hertel, 2002) during recruitment.)

Team Process

Ideally, our team process, our communication habits and even how we design our tasks will have elements that help us to build trust. Here are three areas worth addressing when revisiting how you operate as a team.

(A) What’s Your Purpose?

Regardless of the differences existing in your team, you will all have a shared purpose. It might a broad, top-level organisational purpose; or the purpose of your activities might change with each project.

In any case, having this top of mind can help nurture trusting and trustworthy behaviours. For example, if I know what the wide purpose of my team is, I can continuously search for areas of improvement where I can add value, rather than worrying about protecting my own work.

There’s a fine line between remembering our purpose for working together and being constantly reminded of it through visuals and top-down communication. You might need to be creative in how you embed purpose in your team. An interesting practice shared by Terrance during our conversation was placing an empty chair (a real one if in person or an imaginary one if virtual) at the end of the meeting for the “customer” to sit in. (For more on this, check out https://goo.gl/lfq7mA )

The role of the customer could be taken up by anyone in the team. They would probe team members and answer questions themselves about their needs. This brought about an immediate shift in perspective not just for the person in the chair, but for the whole team.

The team purpose becomes clear: helping the customer.

In this scenario, team members are not just drawn together into discussion around a common purpose, but they also get to probe and understand the problem together. This common experience makes their own thought processes visible, and so helps to build trust. It also reminds us of the value of feeling empathy for those around us – whether our customers, our team members or other people in the organisation. Being able to step into someone else’s shoes helps us to understand them better and this, in turn, can make our own behaviour more trustworthy.

The exercise described here is specific to teams building products, but there will be similar exercises your team can come up with. Whatever you end up trying out, the challenge will be to incorporate it into your team’s workflow.

“Trust helps us get better results in less time.”

(B) Making the Space for Difficult Conversations to Emerge

One of the characteristics of trusting relationships is that people are able to have difficult conversations. In virtual teams, this might require extra effort, as a real time conversation needs to be planned for – as opposed to finding a moment near the coffee machine to have a five minute chat. Asynchronous communication might not be an attractive option to raise small issues, as these might gain extra weight if they are written down.

It therefore becomes even more important in the virtual/distributed space to ring-fence time for team issues to be discussed, for problems to be raised and to find ways of facilitating spontaneous conversations when they’re needed.

(If you don’t want to have to plan for spontaneity, there are tools out there through which you can easily signal your presence, to enable spontaneous conversations to emerge. You will still need some sort of guidelines within your team to be able to use them.)

Depending on the rhythm of the team and the time team members can find to meet in real time together, sharing doubts, concerns and successes (everything we mention under “Transparency”, below) might not always be that easy. Deliberately creating the space is therefore crucial. How you do this will depend on your team, so look out for those times when your team is in a sharing mood.

If the most candid conversations happen in real-time meetings, consider having some “buffer time” at the end of your meetings, where you can continue the conversation – but only if requested, don’t let it become part of your regular slot. Or you could all agree to “hang around” fifteen minutes after the meeting has ended, in case people want to pursue a conversation privately.

If your team members like to communicate asynchronously, or they just can’t get together often due to time zone or other differences in schedule, provide a space for this to happen. Have a channel or a group for “emerging conversations” or dedicate a space for people to answer “Is there something we’re not saying that needs to be said?”

(C) Transparency

Sorry, another word as difficult to pin down as trust.

So what do we mean by that?

Being transparent is making information available to others and this information might be of many kinds:

– Technical information / financial information or information about “things”.

– What people are working on.

– When you are having a hard time at work or in your personal life.

– What blocks you’re encountering.

– When you’ve made a breakthrough.

– When you’ve had success.

Being transparent includes being vulnerable and we might not always be prepared for this. However, “you can’t create trust out of thin air” and sometimes you’ll have to make yourself vulnerable first to lead by example and there are degrees of vulnerability, it’s not an all or nothing.

“Identification based trust”, where we trust people to act in our interest, emerges when we accept and understand someone’s wants and desires. This understanding is not going to happen as if by magic, so we need to make sure we make the space for it. I can’t accept and understand your wants and desires if I don’t know what they are.

In virtual teamwork, we can’t be afraid of formalizing the informal, so if we can’t design a process to understand each other better through our tasks, we’ll need to find ways of bringing us closer together parallel to our tasks.

This is often done through sharing personal information about our environment, our moods and even our meals. How we get to know each other will vary from team to team – in some teams, where tasks are ongoing and processes rarely change or are revised, discovering a person at the personal level might help us to feel safer with them. In other teams, where we continuously change our processes as we try to innovate, we might really get to know someone through their work style and how their values are reflected in the decisions they make.

Key to having a culture of transparency is knowing that whatever you share will not come to bite you back. This has been one of the many concerns of organisations becoming more transparent, but it can also happen at an individual level. Sharing that we’ve made a mistake is difficult enough. But sharing a mistake we’ve made and then having to deal with people reminding us about it three months down the line will completely quash any desire to share any future obstacles or concerns.

However you decide to continue building trust in your team, know that it won’t just be a long-term process, but one that will never end.

(This blog post reflects the current conversation a group of us at Virtual Team Talk are having around the topic of Trust. We’re communicating through text asynchronously, meeting on video synchronously and sharing resources. If you’d like to join the conversation, let us know.)