Every day I ask my colleague Lachie, ‘Kei te pēhea koe?’ and he usually answers, ‘Kei te pai’ before we begin work together. Nothing unusual — apart from that he is in the North Island and I am in the South Island. We have a weekly meeting with our boss, nothing unusual apart from the fact that she is in Wellington and we are throughout New Zealand: Whakatāne, Picton, Christchurch, Dunedin.
The team I work with at CORE Education — The Learning Experience team, who work with content experts to create online courses — are spread throughout New Zealand — Whakatāne, Picton, Wellington, Amberley, and Christchurch.
Lisa Richardson and I discuss our five top tips for working in a virtual team in a podcast. These tips are:
- Make sure you have the right (digital) tools in order for your team to be able to work together
- Making sure you have team protocols in place.
- Have good induction processes + meet face-to-face when you can
- Schedule in fun (virtual coffee)
- Technology fails — have a plan B.
Top tips for working in a virtual team – Lisa and Rochelle
“There are days when I feel like, we are The Jetsons.”
“It sounds like a little thing, but it’s actually really invaluable.”
“Schedule in fun!”
“The magic thing about that is it’s the ability to all be in the same document writing at the same time.”
You’re listening to a CORE Education Podcast. Pushing the boundaries of educational possibility.
Rochelle: Kia ora koutou katoa, ko Rochelle Savage tōku ingoa.
Hello everyone, I’m Rochelle Savage, and with me today is Lisa Richardson, and we’re from CORE Education. Today our presentation is on Top Tips for Working in a Virtual Team, which is what we do, day after day.
Lisa: So, working remotely is not by any means a new concept, but because we’re able to work so collaboratively these days over the internet, there are days when I feel like, we are The Jetsons.
And we work together daily, yet we’re spread across the country, and most of us work from home.
Rochelle: So, how do we do it? Well, the important thing is, is to have the right tools. And as Lisa said, it’s the kind of situation we couldn’t have imagined, possibly, sort of five, definitely ten, fifteen years ago. As I often say to my children, my job didn’t exist when I left University, it didn’t even necessarily exist ten or fifteen years ago.
Lisa and I are part of the learning experience team at CORE Education, and we work with internal and external content experts to create online courses. Predominantly using the learning management system in Moodle. And we’re spread throughout the country, but what we do is we work on, often, the same documents.
And so, first of all, here are some of the tools we use to help us. One of them is a shared calendar. We have a shared calendar for leave, and knowing when people are taking leave, but we also can see each other’s calendars. We use Gmail, and so I’m able to sort of go in to a colleague’s calendar, see when’s a good time to book in an appointment, see when they’re busy, see if I can call them.
Skype — Skype is something that actually I use, almost, all day long. I often work with a colleague up in Whangarei, and what we do is when we’re working on a course, we will call each other, and then we’ll keep the line open, and when we’re working on a course we’re often working on separate paths of the course, but we’re able to ask each other questions, advice, talk to each other, and when we started out we used to have the video on, and we would see each other in Chat, but because of bandwidth and just to save on internet, what we’ll do is we’ll just have it without the video on, and just have the audio on.
We also use Hangouts as well, as another option. And the thing I also love about Skype is when you’re working together, you can very quickly drop links of documents you’re working on into Skype and the other person can click on them, and I often do that, but we all do that if we’re feeling a bit lazy with “have you got that up? Great — just pop it in there, thanks.”
Jostle is another is another thing we use which is an internal work system where we actually get to see what other people are doing, and it’s really helpful for staying in touch as our company is spread throughout New Zealand.
And the learning management system we use, well, one of them, is Moodle. And that’s where we build most of our online courses.
Lisa: So CORE uses Google Apps for Business rather than Microsoft, although we do have people who work in Microsoft, but the backbone of CORE and how we work collaboratively is with the Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides. And for us, the magic thing about that is, it’s the ability to all be in the same document, writing at the same time. And also to be able to see who’s cursor is who’s — it sounds like a little thing but it’s actually really invaluable. So we can be in a meeting, if you click on the person’s little icon, you can actually immediately be taken to where their cursor is, if they’re saying “hey, look at this”, or “this bit’s wrong”, or “I need some help here”. And it’s also quite trippy to watch five people concurrently typing in a document and creating it before your very eyes while you’re sitting there by yourself. So that’s pretty cool. It’s also free, which is, and built to be able to be used from anywhere really, so I’ve never not been able to get into Google Docs, which is great, even on the crappiest internet.
We also use a couple of other things. So we use a lot of audio and video in our courses. So for audio we mostly use SoundCloud, and we use this both for podcasts, but also for our language learning courses that CORE runs, and we can embed them into our courses.
YouTube, obviously, along with the rest of the world – it’s a great platform. We can embed those directly into our courses as well. We, ah, sometimes document as a team if we’ve done something really cool, we might actually make a little YouTube, private YouTube video of that, in terms of a little professional development about how to do a particular thing.
Adobe Connect online webinar software that CORE uses, which is, we’re running a course and the participants will come together. They’ll come together in Adobe Connect in their online space. They’ll have their video on, and ask questions, and give presentations and so it’s emulating that live classroom through the use of Adobe Connect.
Rochelle: So if Top Tip One is make sure you have the right tools that you use, in order for your team to be able to work together, such as we discussed: shared calendars, Google Docs…Top Tip Two, for a virtual team, is making sure you have team protocols in place.
Like in a face-to-face team, it’s really important to have your own particular protocols. So a Top Tip is, what are those protocols, and to make sure everyone who is inducted knows them. When we want to contact each other, what we’ll often do is a series of steps.
So first of all, most of us have Skype open all day. So first of all type “kia ora”, or “hello”, or something in there, “morning”, and the other person knows that you want to get in touch with them, and then when they reply, you will call them. If they don’t respond, and often most of us will respond reasonably promptly, or say “I’m in a meeting”, or “I’m busy”, or “Talk to you in an hour”, and it’s pretty urgent, which isn’t that often, then you escalate it up, so you might email them and say “we need to meet about such-and-such”, and if you get no response from that then you escalate it up, and you’ll text them, and if you get no response from that, then you’ll call them. Those are the, sort of, the series of stages. That’s pretty much the case, isn’t it Lisa?
And we all follow that, and it’s really good because then you know you’re not interrupting someone, and it’s also because we do work remotely. There’s nothing more frustrating, I find, is when I’m right in the middle of something quite complicated, particularly technically, and I get an unexpected phone call that isn’t urgent. We’re very conscious of not invading other people’s spaces unnecessarily because if you’re in an office, you can look across and I can see Lisa, that, you were right in the middle of something and you had your headphones on, and you were, you know, frowning intently and concentrating hard — I wouldn’t come up and sort of shake you and go “Lisa!”
But because I can’t see you, because you’re working somewhere else away from me, then I want to make sure it’s important that I interrupt you and I do it in the correct way.
Lisa: So, so far we’ve been talking about the digital tools that we use, but when you are a remote worker it’s really important to meet face-to-face when you can, and this is so you can establish that human connection. So in our team we honour this by making sure that when someone joins CORE they have a really good induction — so they’ll be flown to Christchurch and take part in a really comprehensive day of meeting people and meeting their team, understanding the company, understanding how, I guess, what the culture of CORE is like and they take a lot of pride in that.
For us, we also use things like conferences as key events to meet up. So we’ll all go to the conference, and the last conference we went to we actually hired a house together instead of staying in a motel or a hotel, and it was really awesome that we got to spend that additional time together, have a few blazey conversations around the dinner table, or over coffee in the morning before we went to the conference. For us, that time together, it gets really exciting, you know, to actually see people in the flesh.
Rochelle: One of the things that we talked about before was that, um, where you Skype on a daily basis , and with Skype, obviously you have the opportunity to use video, and even though we mainly where we’re working together — don’t turn the video on anymore, we still do on special occasions, or if we just want to say hello, or, I had dyed my hair blue once, true story, so I showed everyone that day, and, one of the things that is really nice about the video is that you get to see insights into people’s lives. Like, we’ve all seen each other’s home offices, and houses, and we get to see at times each other’s partners, and I mean, for one of my colleagues, um, when I met his wife, I was, “Oh hi, how’s it going?”, and then I realised I hadn’t actually met her in person — I’ve met her via Skype maybe fifteen, sixteen times, so in my head we’ve met, but we hadn’t, and we’ve had conversations and that, but we actually hadn’t met in person.
So as long as the right culture is in place, you, you actually could be an even tighter team that a traditional team that works in an office, and I, I actually think this is true. Where I’ve worked in offices before and you can be right beside someone and you just get on with your day. And you go to your office, you say “hello”, and you might chat a bit at morning tea, but it doesn’t get that in depth but I would say, for most of us who work together, we know about the right amount of each other’s lives, and families, and what’s going on, and that’s really nice, and I think, also, it’s really important to have that, because it can actually be quite lonely.
I think one of the things about a virtual team, a Top Tip, is find a way to combat loneliness, because for myself, in my own situation, my children are at school, my husband is at work, and I’m in my home office, working away by myself, and it’s actually only those Skype calls and the other team that often can be part of what I’m doing, or otherwise I’m just tapping away, working away, for sort of six, eight hours by myself. It is important to, to do that. So another message is to have fun. And connected to combat loneliness, and another Top Tip, having fun, Lisa came up with a fantastic idea. She suggested where, normally, when you’re in an office and you bump into someone, and you have what you call, you know, those water cooler conversations, or you have morning tea, or you go out for coffee, and we don’t do that, we just tend to carry on working, so she suggested that, twice a week – at the moment it’s Monday and Thursday morning from nine till nine-fifteen – we meet as a team, virtually online, and we discuss a really interesting question, and she’s put that to us. And there’s been some hilarious ones. Like, one of them was, recently, was “Have you ever fantasised about having a name other than the one you were given” and so we all discuss this, and it was great, because we all found out things about each other, that, you just wouldn’t normally know. And also I then discussed it with my family at the dinner table, and it was great, and I think that, it’s really, really important is that you don’t just constantly talk about work. It can be very easy in a — people joke about virtual teams, like, “oh, how do you get any work done at home?”. And I would actually say the opposite is true. I would say it’s very easy to just carry on working and just to be very efficient, and not sort of stop and chat, and so, it is very important schedule in…schedule in fun!
Lisa: One of the final tips is that the technology fails all the time. As much as we like to think it’s, you know, that our world is now built on it, it does fall over quite often. We always have a plan B, and because technology and deadlines are really not friends, they’re kind of frenemies really, and we will combat this by, uh, we actually build in false deadlines, before the actual deadline, when something is due to go live or to be completed, just to give us some wiggle room in case there is a problem with technology. The most frustrating thing we find is actually when Skype doesn’t work. Ninety percent of the time it’s amazing, it’s—it’s great, it’s the backbone of how we work, but when we have a bad Skype line and we’re trying to have a meeting with five people, which happens a lot, and it’s not working, it is the most frustrating experience. In that case we will either move to Hangouts, or if that isn’t working we’ll phone in, go back to the old mobile, just in order to get that meeting done, if it’s — or we’ll just say “Hey it’s not working, let’s just reschedule”.
Rochelle: So, Tēnā rawa atu koutou, many thanks everyone. We hope that we have given you some insight into how we work as a virtual team. Give you some ideas of how you might work, if you are a virtual team, or would like to be a virtual team.
You’ve been listening to a CORE Education podcast. Pushing the boundaries of educational possibility.