What does it mean to work virtually and excelling in this new world of work?
Chapter 1: What does it mean to work virtually and excelling in this new world of work.
Chapter 2: Processes required for successful virtual teams
Chapter 3: Tools and technology required for virtual teams
Chapter 4: Addressing the human factors in virtual teams
Chapter 5: Legality and legal issues stemming from the virtual work environment
Owner Team Consultation (Pty) Ltd “OTC”
OTC consists of consultants with a diverse and current set of knowledge and skills, with the main aim to improve business and operations performance for our clients. During the development and implementation of projects, we aim to protect the owner’s long term interest. We make your owner team more effective through providing expert advice, training and support (https://www.ownerteamconsult.com).
What sets us apart: OTC follows an agile and lean approach to supporting projects and businesses. We have a virtual office, thus keeping our overheads low in order to provide a cost-effective service to our clients. We have access to expert resources that can be mobilised quickly on a needs basis.
Background to this series of articles
OTC has been operating as a virtual business for more than 6 years and has all the necessary tools and systems to support such an operation. We have found this a very effective way of conducting and managing our work and propose this virtual team concept as a cost-effective way to execute most of our contracts or assignments. Due to the impact of the Coronavirus, our way of working has become essential to many people and companies due to restrictions placed on movement and contact. This may well, in some form or another, turn into the standard way of doing business in the future. As such we are in a position to initiate work quickly using our proven “virtual” methodologies and tools rather than having to wait for opportunities to meet face to face. In deciding to write this article, we thought that many people could benefit from our experience in this virtual collaboration arena.
Covid-19 has brought about a whole shift in the world of work. Many articles have been published on this topic with social distancing expected to remain for the foreseeable future. This will, in turn, lead to a virtual work environment where individuals will be required to work from home. This, in turn, calls for making use of technology that facilitates working online. Having access to online data management systems and teleconferencing technology is becoming a necessity.
As said before, we have been operating as a virtual business for more than 6 years, yet, little did we know that our business model may very well become the standard for the future.
What does it mean to work virtually?
In the past, the term virtual teams were used when groups of people from different offices worked together. This has now changed into a situation where most people work from their own homes. This adds additional complexities to how teams work together (team dynamics), the tools required and the work processes used. Virtual teams need to get past the unforgettable nature of technology, be able to trust one another and maintain accountability. We need to replicate the factors that knit teams together. The work needs to be coordinated through multiple people working in multiple locations. The way in which this can be done is by implementing and managing technologies that will meet the team’s needs and establish the norms for how team members will work together in this virtual space.
Virtual teams have the following benefits
Virtual teams maximise the use of limited resources. We can engage, mobilise, ramp up very quickly and maintain a steady pace of production without having to go through the normal time-consuming HR processes. Having access to a wide network of experience from anywhere in the world allows us to look beyond the resources immediately available to us. In cases where the competencies and skills needed require engaging people from outside the organisation, we have found that setting up a virtual team and contracting the additional resources can be done very quickly and effectively. The savings on overhead cost and reduced setup time can be substantial.
With virtual teams, we are forced to rethink the best ways to do the work and tools to use. This can result in improved productivity. We have found that we can for example prepare a large and complex report with numerous people working collaboratively in real time very quickly. Streamlining collaboration through integrating technologies, allowing teams to interact in whatever way makes the most sense for each individual and task, becomes the norm.
Challenges and important issues
People must be kept engaged or they may go missing in action. Isolation could alienate team members from their mission and peers.
Picking the right technology to remove barriers is crucial. Technology choices govern how we communicate and how we share, store and work on documents. If tools are unreliable or difficult to use, we will not meet the needs, waste time, slow work down and generally demotivate participants. Open-mindedness is required to start using new IT technology and becoming competent in the tools. We also need to keep in mind that the tools are constantly being upgraded, new features are added, new tools are developed and older ones discontinued. It is a continuously moving target. Mutual support by team members to teach and support each other becomes a new reality.
Without physical cues, it is very difficult and requires clear communication norms. Shared behavioural patterns help people to build their proficiencies in the various channels available and build goodwill. One needs to be precise and concise using multiple media (audio, video, chat rooms, email, formal documentation). That said, one does learn new skills such as listening, whereby one can after a while even sense someone’s mood.
Self-discipline and self-motivation become very important since team members must stay on schedule. Be prepared to ask for help when necessary and have an easy way to “walk across” to the office of your colleague. People should also be able to work without a lot of supervision. Being more resilient in working under pressure becomes an important attribute under these circumstances.
You must set and manage challenges more proactively. It is great to work virtually, you can tailor the arrangement to your own needs. This, of course, means that everybody does it differently unless your organisation has a set standard. There is no standard workday, no common conventions and no one knows when it is their turn to speak on a conference call. You will spend more time building and maintaining relationships purposefully and proactively. You need to communicate with blunt tools without face-to-face interactions. You spend more time interpreting unspoken expectations, incomplete messages or reading through pages of reports and project updates.
In the next articles, we will be elaborating in more detail on the tools, processes and people issues that we found to be working for us in the 6 years we have been working principally in virtual mode. We trust that these will help you to become more proficient in this virtual world.
Processes required for successful virtual teams
Whilst there are many processes that occur in the world of virtual work, we have elected to focus on the one or two we have found set the foundation for our success. It goes without saying that technology is the enabler for these processes and as such the fundamental starting point is a stable internet connection with decent connection speed. This is elaborated on further in Article 3 of 5 entitled “Tools & technology required”. It also requires people to affect these processes and as such Article 5 of 5 will deal with “Addressing the human factor in virtual teams”.
Assuming that we have a) the correct tools and technology for the team and b) the people, what happens next?
Well, it is surprisingly simple. The only things that change are the means of communication or collaboration and the place from which that communication is taking place. Let’s be fair, most of us are already using the technology at work and in our daily lives using tools like WhatsApp, Google etc. So all that changes is the ability to access the technology remotely and the ability to work remotely. Sounds simple? Let us see.
The first day in the remote office and we are ready to roll. Still, in our pyjamas, we log into our computer system and find that some of the tools do not work. Who do you call? How do you call – SMS, Whatsapp, email, phone call, Facebook etc.? You eventually contact someone who happens to be the wrong guy or is working in a remote part of the world where technology is less than adequate. Pulling your hair out you head for the fridge and spend the rest of the day between the fridge and getting your system working.
Heading into day two you sleep in a little as you are still stressed from yesterday and suddenly realise you have a document to complete within the next hour. Panic. But you complete it on time as your systems are working.
Day three promises to be a really productive day until you get invited to a virtual meeting and have no idea what is going on. You eventually enter the meeting and are then confronted by a plethora of attendee photos or videos, icon buttons you have no idea what they are used for etc. etc. You manage to get through the meeting but have no idea what was going on as you were getting used to this “new world”. Does all the above sound familiar? Do not worry, you are not alone. We will now look at the Plan, Do, Review process to be followed for easily transitioning into this “new world”.
Probably the most important step of the process is the planning stage. In this case, we want to map out all the steps or items to be addressed prior to us switching on our computers, we need to decide who the team members are, which software tools are going to be used, what are the working hours, what is the language protocol for the team, communication protocols, rules of engagement during the meetings etc. Standard document formats and templates must be developed during this phase for use in the virtual world.
Once this is all mapped out it is then time for training. Team members need to be trained in the use of these technologies and tools so that productive work can commence soonest. Do not let people engage with the working tools in a working environment until they are proficient. Remember also that each new team member will need to be trained or assigned a coach until they are proficient.
A handy feature is the ability to create “communication groups”. This is very helpful when you have a meeting at which the same attendees are required. Instead of having to invite people individually you simply invite the “group” and all attendees are then invited. You can also create a group with all the individuals listed and then you can quickly pick and choose who you want to invite to a meeting. In OTC we use such groups for general communication. Should you need to get a message out to everyone, it can be done very swiftly.
Last but not least, have a trial run prior to going live and iron out the challenges early.
Now the fun stuff can begin. We get to “play” for real. But wait a bit, I cannot contact members to chat because the system tells me they are in a “meeting”. I wanted to discuss the weekend that has just gone by.
The team has to remember that because you are working virtually does not mean that the routines that were in place at the office will suddenly change. People will still schedule meetings or discussions or collaboration time and this time must be actively planned and communicated to the team.
The same process that applied to the scheduling of meetings in the office will apply here i.e. who is the chairman, what is the agenda, what is the start and finish time, who is the scribe (and how will the notes be recorded), what are the meeting ground rules etc.
A vital role of the chairman is to keep people engaged. He/she should continue to elicit feedback and maintain all the members’ attention on the task at hand. It is very easy for one, or more of the members, to become distracted when they see that they are not part of the current topic of discussion and focus on “other” personal or interesting issues. They cannot see what I am doing, right?
Remember that DISCIPLINE and taking PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY are key to the success of the virtual team. As compensation, you get to arrange your life a little better and reduce driving in traffic substantially.
Wow, we have been doing this for a month now and I like what I see. What now? Well, as in any work that gets done, whether it is a project, performing a service or reorganising a business, the time comes for reviewing what has been done to date and what can be changed or improved. This is a necessary step and does not have to be a lengthy discussion. Make it a half-hour discussion and let e.g. three people each bring one item to the table. This has the benefit of ironing out flaws in the process or improving the way people work together.
Capture these refinements in a central depository for dissemination to other teams or arrange a discussion with other teams to share these learnings. Pretty soon the business will be flying and working from home will become a real privilege.
Whilst initially it may seem to be rather difficult to master the processes above, once the learning has taken place, it will be full steam ahead.
One of the strangest phenomena one will experience is the feeling of “isolation”. You will get used to it and the team should organise a regular day in the office or something similar. What also helps is to set aside a half-hour every day for general chit chat. We have found that to be very effective in OTC. It is not compulsory but a very handy way of catching up with general happenings.
Some tripwires to watch out for:
- people appearing on your screen whilst in a meeting with an important client, especially if they are not appropriately attired;
- trying to get someone’s attention by trying to talk louder than everyone else. Rather use icons for attention (for example the hand in Zoom);
- switch your phone off as you would normally do in a meeting;
- do not invite people if they are already in meetings, rather send a request for a meeting;
- ensure the setting where you are working is quiet with lots of fresh air etc;
- ensure your company security protocols are adhered to at all times, especially with the sharp increase in phishing activities.
Tools and technology required for successful virtual teams
There are certain basic tools that a virtual team needs:
- First of all – stable and sufficient internet access;
- Secondly, the team would need communication tools;
- Lastly, the team would need a way to collaborate during the preparation of, for example, documents.
- Computers with video and audio capability.
Technology makes it possible to communicate and collaborate. If you are not an IT Wiz kid it is tempting to try and avoid the IT technology and software issues. Being on a virtual team and most probably using your own devices and software licenses you are in fact the first line IT support for yourself. No one is going to solve your Internet connectivity issues, set up your file-sharing software and teach you how to use the tools. Do not be afraid to try out new tools. Pick tools that are simple, reliable and easy to use, maintain and replace. Unless you work for a bigger company with an IT department it is better to use tools that are generally platform-independent or can be used across all platforms (e.g. Apple, Google, Microsoft) as the people on your team will most probably be using a mixture of these platforms.
In principle, there are three key categories of technologies that you need namely Connectivity, Collaboration and Scheduling tools.
Connectivity – Internet Access
Two basic types of internet access are available, fixed-line connections and cellular connections. The availability, speed and types of access depend very much on your location. In some regions, very reliable high-speed fibre is available while some people still have to rely on ADSL connections. The availability of cellular connectivity and speed is increasing by the day. Fixed-line or fixed cellular connections are normally available at your house or place of work. Secondly, small cellular routers or mobile phone/tablet hotspots can be used when you are not at the location of your fixed connection. You will often need reliable and secure access to the internet when you are not at the location of your fixed connection. It is not advisable to use public access points when you are handling company sensitive data, so your own internet access point and even perhaps utilising a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is preferable. We have found that it is good practice to have two ways to access the internet to ensure reliability. Even the most reliable system fails from time to time and if you are part of a team working virtually, losing internet access is devastating. We would recommend a good internet service provider with sufficient download and upload speeds. If you intend to use a lot of video in meetings or workshops you should consider a higher speed and if working on a setup with various users or kids playing games or watching videos at the same time you will need to consider higher speeds.
Internet access at these speeds should be sufficient to handle both the programs you need as well as video and audio. Our experience is that especially the audio quality is generally good enough without having to resort to a landline or mobile phone for audio during work sessions unless absolutely necessary. Audio quality does deteriorate at times, however, we have found that we can manage. Even if the internet connection is lost most programs automatically reconnect when the connection is restored. We have found that having two alternative options to connect (e.g. cellular and fibre) to the internet as mentioned previously is a big advantage for the times when one or the other fails. We normally use the cellular connection as the backup (hotspot) or when we are not at the “office”. This account then needs not to cater for very high speed and high volume use and the cost can be less. This can also be of use in the case of load shedding, as is prevalent in South Africa.
Should you phone a person, Whatsapp, or connect with Skype? By “Phone” conversations we mean when you dial somebody on your phone using a “traditional” telephone number or perhaps using Facetime audio, Whatsapp or such. Or should you just send him an Instant message (e.g. SMS Whatsapp, WeChat, Slack)? Or do you use a more sophisticated conferencing tool like Teams, Zoom or Skype?
We use all these types of communication media and it often gets a bit confusing. As a small consulting company working with various clients, we have found that even though we have a standard set of tools for our own inhouse work, it is not possible to standardise on these tools exclusively and you need to get familiar with most of the communication tools available in order to be effective. In our company, we generally use Google Apps while many of our clients use Microsoft products.
There are standard tools available for example Microsoft (Skype, Skype for Business, Teams) or Google (Google Chat) and also many other independent solution providers like Zoom and Webex. You would need to select one of these tools as the primary tool to use within your business. Some of the attributes we would consider when selecting such a tool would be:
- Simplicity and ease of use. Can people easily link up, join a conversation, get audio and video and screen sharing to work?
- Quality and reliability of audio, video and screen sharing. Different providers use different methods to connect users together. Generally, all users are connected via a central server through which all data is routed. Depending on the location of such a server (for example not in your country but overseas connected via an undersea cable) quality can suffer greatly. If you find that the quality of your conversations is not good, test some other systems and look for a provider with services as close as possible to the areas from where you link up.
- Being able to schedule meetings by providing links to get into meetings with the necessary security (passwords, waiting room/lobby from where you need to be admitted).
- Reliable high-quality screen sharing is essential. To work collaboratively everybody in a meeting needs to see the document, presentation, spreadsheet or even some other sophisticated application that you may be using. Some of these Apps also provide additional functionalities like:
- A participant being able to take over control of another user’s computer to, for example, edit a document.
- Participant to draw on the shared screen to point out what they mean or using a laser pointer.
- A whiteboard where everybody can participate in writing text or make drawings.
- A chat function where participants can chat individually or to the whole group. This function is also particularly helpful in for example brainstorming sessions where participants can quickly list their ideas rather than waiting for their turn (very difficult to judge in virtual setup) or in presentations to gather questions or comments from participants. We would encourage the use of the chat function to support effective meetings.
- A view where you can see the status of people in your organisation and be able to “phone” them directly. This is a very useful feature to see if the person is “in the office” if you want to quickly ask somebody a question or have a conversation. You can also see if they are busy on another call. A feature that is very useful is to indicate whether you are available, do not want to be disturbed (closed office door), in a conference call etc.
- Other functionalities to make your presence felt like being able to raise your hand, show your agreement or disagreement.
- If you wish to get feedback and improve your virtual session, some tools have a polling option that can be activated and participants can tell you what worked or did not work or offer suggestions for improvements.
- Webinars are getting more popular. Only certain of the applications can host webinars. There are two main differences between a normal video conference and a webinar. Firstly, only the presenters are allowed to use their microphones. Other attendees can only listen and look and use the chat functionality to interact and ask questions. Secondly, the ability of webinars to broadcast to thousands of attendees. The more sophisticated applications also have the ability to handle registration and payments for webinars.
While most of the tools available have the functionality to share audio, video and screen, the more sophisticated applications attempt to replicate what attendees can do in face-to-face meetings. You can raise your hand, nod up and down (thumbs up) to indicate approval, shake your head (thumbs down), “walk” up to the whiteboard or screen to point out what you mean. While it is very natural in a face-to-face situation it feels somewhat unreal in a video conference but the more you practise the more you will get used to it. We encourage you to try these features and use them to your advantage.
Devices with touch screens are being used more and many of the applications can make use not only of keyboard and mouse input but also from the touchscreen. Use your finger or stylus to point out what you mean or draw a circle around a statement. Anybody in the meeting can do this to make a point and not just the person who is sharing his screen.
Research by the Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland found that the majority of good ideas or solutions to problems happen “around the water cooler”. The more you get comfortable with the virtual tools the more you will be inclined to use it even around the virtual water cooler. We have experienced many “light moments” and new ideas emanating from a casual discussion over the internet.
Over and above your primary video conferencing tool you will, in reality, have to participate in meetings and conferences using some of the other mainstream applications. One often gets a request for a meeting on one or the other platform not familiar to you and it is advisable to make sure that these alternative applications are installed and working properly on your device. Often audio or video settings are problematic or the firewall blocks them. Do not wait until 5 minutes before the meeting to test it.
Lastly, we have found that when working with clients who generally do not have good internet access or who do not have the necessary skills, it can work very well by setting up the conference with the other parties and then contact the “problem” party by phone, Whatsapp, Facetime putting the phone on speaker next to your computer. If all else fails, this has saved us on a few occasions.
We have found that unless you have an upmarket conference facility available to you, it does not work well if two or three of you try to huddle around one computer positioned at the end of a conference table. It really creates an unprofessional look, people are not visible on video or half visible and sound is normally awful. This is sort of natural to do but it just does not work. Even conference rooms set up with various microphones positioned around the table and a central project and screen often do not suffice. By far the best way is to sit in front of your own computer, in your own office, even if you happen to be in the same company building. An open space office is a major obstacle. Try to find a quiet corner, put on headphones, sit outside, whatever makes sense.
Instant messaging is another communication tool that we use often. Rather than sending an email to a person, one can create a “room” inviting the people who work on a particular task in the room. Messages can be sent to individuals or specific chat rooms can be set up by category. Messages posted to the room can be seen by everybody and a communication trail is created. In that way, the whole team can be kept up to date on conversations going on. Documents can also be posted to the room for comments. These tools (Slack, Google chat, Teams chat) have more functionality than a standard Whatsapp and links to your other office management applications to provide an integrated experience.
- One person to speak at a time. These collaboration tools force one to listen to the discussion. Should more than one person speak at the same time, no one would be able to follow. As mentioned before it is very difficult to know when you can attempt to speak and often more than one person starts talking. Agree on some protocol for example use hand-up or chat to indicate that you wish to say something. Have a co-moderator in bigger meetings to assist the chairman or presenter checking the chat board and other “Non-Audio” cues.
- Mute yourself when you do not have something to say. When working from home, inevitably there will be background noises such as dogs barking. This can be extremely annoying in a meeting. It is best practice for all participants in the meeting to mute themselves on the system unless they have something to add to the conversation. The host of the meeting also normally has the option to mute participants if background noises are disturbing the discussion.
- Recordings should only be done with the permission of all participants.
In order to work collaboratively, you need, in addition to communication tools, a platform to store and manage documents from where team members can work collaboratively on specific documents. There are many of these platforms available (Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, SharePoint, Google Drive, etc). These platforms can generally be divided into three categories:
- Real-time document sharing platforms where a large number of people can work on the same document at the same time. The document remains on a central server and all users interact with a single file on the server. You can see the users working on the document, what they are doing and can interact with them in a chat type of interface. Examples of these platforms are Microsoft 365 online version (OneDrive or Sharepoint, Word, Powerpoint, Excel) and Google Apps (Drive, Docs, Slides, Sheets). In order to use this system you generally need to be connected to the internet all the time. There is some offline functionality, you can generally view documents offline and edit but editing does not always work well as will be explained in the next section.
- “Semi” real-time applications where a document is offloaded onto your computers and while you are online it synchronises from time to time (every few seconds normally) to update the master document on the server and download changes made by others. You effectively work “off-line”. An example of this is Microsoft 365 Applications (Word, PowerPoint and Excel) on your computer. If you open an online document (from your OneDrive or Sharepoint folder on your hard disk) it works this way. The file actually resides on your hard disc. You can open it, edit it even when offline and it will synchronise back once you get back online.
- “Offline” Applications. These applications are generally not from the document editing applications supplier (e.g. Microsoft or Google) but rather from a third party (Box, Dropbox, editing Microsoft documents stored on Google drive using Microsoft 365 applications directly). It is not advisable for more than one person in the organisation to edit a document at the same time. This will create major problems and will result in some of the parties losing all of their work. In these applications you will be shown if it is safe to edit a document and if another user has the document open you need to wait until the document is closed and uploaded before you can open the document.
It must be stressed that the functionality of all these tools are developing continuously so it is best to check when you need to make a decision.
Each system has its advantages and disadvantages, but as we generally need to complete work quickly and efficiently with numerous people working on the same document at the same time, the only viable solution is real-time document sharing as described under point 1. Documents can be prepared very quickly and efficiently and comments and actions can be allocated to people, tracking or suggest mode can be used and comments can be made for the attention of others as you work. There are of course some caveats to this way of working and one needs to follow a very structured methodology as described under processes to prevent chaos and rework. It is unlikely that you will lose any of your work as everybody works on the same file at the same time but you need to be online all the time.
The second or third alternatives are feasible only if a couple of people work on the same document and you can organise amongst yourselves who will work when. Even with ‘Semi’ real-time, which synchronises frequently, if two people, for example, change the same sentence at exactly the same time the system will now not be able to know what to update and whatnot. You will be warned that a conflict exists and that you need to resolve it. Your changes will not upload until this conflict is resolved. You now have two choices. Either you accept the other person’s changes and lose yours, or you accept your changes and the other person’s changes are discarded. We have lost many hours of work using the semi real-time mode of operation very recently and will not recommend developing a document in that way. It also becomes a more pronounced problem if your internet connection is not very stable causing you to cycle between online and offline modes.
The best way by far is to use the online collaboration system to complete the document as far as possible and then to give one person the job to do the final editing and formatting using options 2 or 3.
Email and Calendar
Various calendar applications are available but generally, users generally tend to use the native applications on their system (Outlook, Apple or Google or maybe a third-party application). There is reasonable interconnectivity between these systems and email communication normally works seamlessly. This is, however, not always the case between calendar applications. Interconnectivity between Outlook calendar and Google calendar especially appears to be problematic when appointments are cancelled or moved and updates are not reflected in all people’s calendars. At the moment we would recommend to follow up with emails or directly contacting people if such changes are made.
In summary, it is crucial to become aware of the systems that exist and familiarise yourself with these. And make an effort to become proficient in using these systems. The reality is that there are multiple “human factor” issues impacting acceptance of the concept of virtual teams. In the next article, we will be exploring these people issues.
Addressing the Human Factor in Virtual Teams
Working in a virtual team requires a completely different mindset than working in an office. What is different? Going to an office, you feel compelled to show up on time. Should you not show up on time, someone will notice. Working from home requires self-discipline and responsibility.
The two extremes
Working from home, one typically is faced with two scenarios. The first scenario is that you battle to focus on work and to be productive. You are tempted to check updates in social media when the dogs’ bark, your concentration is lost and so forth. The second scenario is that you become a workaholic and can’t switch off. You can’t help monitoring your emails at all hours of the day and night. Some people fall into the trap of working 24/7. Never switching off. This is not a healthy scenario. One has to make a conscious decision to switch your computer off at a sensible hour and to then make the mind shift that you are home. A good habit is to go outside and do something such as watering your garden or exercise. Your body and mind will come into the habit if switching off as this would be your trigger that your work day is over.
Close your office door
Most people who start working from home for the first time battle to separate work and home. If you can manage it, set yourself up in a separate room where you can close the door when you are done. If that is not possible you should develop the mindset that once you switch your computer off, you are at home. That is without the hour in traffic! Not being able to make this switch will seriously harm your personal relationships. It is a decision you need to take to stay healthy and sane. And to protect those around you.
Moving from an office worker to a virtual team worker means that you need to apply the discipline to be seated behind your computer at 8 am, or whatever time you decide on. To avoid lapsing into a casual mode, it is crucial to get up in the morning and get ready as if you would be going into the office. You still need to look and feel the part. The psychology behind it is quite simple. If you sit behind your computer with your nightgown and slippers, that is the frame of mine you will be in. Decide what your working hours will be, agree on these with your employer and amongst the team, and stick to it. Leaders or supervisors should engage their employees and agree on the rules upfront.
Another simple strategy is to have a check in meeting every day at 8am. This will help employees to get into the rhythm of getting up and being ready for work. The milestones can be checked and updated at the morning check-in. Morning check in meetings can be used as “around the water cooler discussions”.
Another strategy for beginners in the world of virtual teams is for team members to have daily milestones. It is important that these milestones be realistic and achievable, otherwise the team will be demotivated. If realistic, it would help the team get into the discipline of working from home.
Respecting people’s time in a virtual setup is crucial. The temptation is great to contact team members after hours. This should be avoided as far as possible. Share your working hours with your colleagues and Clients. Care for your own health as well as the health of your colleagues, and avoid contacting colleagues after hours, unless it’s an emergency or the team agreed to work overtime to achieve a deadline.
One of the pitfalls or challenges of a virtual team, is the risk of not communicating. This can lead to isolation and team members pursuing different agendas and objectives. When sitting in a single office, it is very easy to strike up a conversation at the coffee station and to stay in the loop with what the team is busy doing. In a virtual team setup, both team and Client communication must be structured, planned and actively managed. Do not assume that team members or the Client is aware of what’s going on. And do not allow yourself to be isolated. If you are in a leadership position, set up frequent engagement opportunities with the team. If you are a team member and your team leaders do not make provision for frequent engagement, take the responsibility on yourself and initiate such opportunities.
Move – Do not get stuck!
Another health factor is avoiding the risk of getting stuck behind your computer. Get up every hour and walk around, preferably outside if you can. Take a few deep breaths. Having screen breaks are crucial for protecting your eyesight. Exercise is very helpful. Walk around the house you work from, or do office style yoga exercises. Ensuring blood circulation also contributes to oxygen going to your brain, which will greatly enhance your performance. Decide when you will take a break and use that time wisely.
Some people do not give much attention to their cellphones. Working from home will imply that your office landline is not accessible. It is possible to reroute your office line to your cell phone. But this requires you to answer your phone. The same goes for your emails. Make sure to respond timeously to emails and any other communication tools.
In a virtual setup, teams make use of apps to facilitate communication. These apps can include Whatsapp, Chat, Google Hangouts or any other. The team may find it hard to get accustomed to all the new technologies and various forms of virtual communication. It is strongly advised not to overload team members with too many new systems and apps. Set up your chat forums such that it also sends an email to the recipients. This way you can ensure that important communication is not missed. It is important though not to only rely on written online communication. If you send an important message, follow it up with a phone call.
Be on time
When teams initially convert to online meetings, many meeting participants tend to show up late. This is poor etiquette. Set an alarm on your calendar that warms you that meetings are coming up. Show up on time. Not showing up on time is a sign of disrespect to your fellow team members.
Enjoy the flexibility
Working from home does bring some flexibility about which you do not have in an office environment. When you need it, enjoy it, but do not abuse it. Make sure that your superiors are aware of your whereabouts and that you will work in the hours at an agreed time.
Know yourself and get to know others
One of the key success factors of virtual teams is knowing yourself and knowing your team members. This also implies understanding their communication preferences. In large teams, one can unfortunately not accommodate all preferences. But knowing your audience can make life much easier. To use an example, when you are in a virtual conference, some individuals may be reluctant to say anything, whilst certain dominant members of the team will make sure they are heard. It is crucial that the chairman elicits feedback from all members. Another example is that different team members may feel more comfortable with certain collaboration tools than others. If you pick up on reluctance from a team member to use a certain tool, make an effort to spend time with that individual to make sure they know how to use it. Once they have the confidence to use it, they will. One easy way of knowing someone is not comfortable with a tool, is when it is not used. If a team member does not respond to your chats using a specific tool, he or she needs some guidance and coaching.
Learn to listen
The one skill that virtual team work teaches you, is listening. When in a meeting, it is crucial to listen to what team members have to say. Wait your turn, and if you need to say something while on a conference call, make use of the icons available such as raising your hand. This is especially important for meeting with 4 or more attendees. This takes some time to master.
Do not assume people know the systems
Coaching is crucial. It facilitates quick adoption of the new tools. The current technologies are changing and improving all the time. Daily updates are pushed to load additional security and other features. It is a key success factor to have a champion/s in the team who stays abreast of technology changes and informs the team as these changes are being rolled out. One such example that we use in OTC is Chat Rooms. One of our chat rooms is Apps Tricks and Tips. This Room has a champion who keeps us abreast of any changes or improvements to technology that the team should be aware of. The chat room allows for engagement between preselected team members, and if further in person communication is required, it is followed up with a Zoom meeting. Many of the technology suppliers would also issue short training videos which can be issued via email, chat or any other messaging tool.
Coaching plays a very important role as it deals with fear. Remember that for many people, adapting to new technologies may not come easy. People may fear making mistakes or being perceived as not knowledgeable or competent.
Coaching and training contributes to efficiency of the roll out and use of these technologies.
The most important role – the Chairman
The Chairman plays a key role in the success of any online meeting. He/she has the responsibility to structure the meeting, to make sure participants receive the necessary information in time prior to the meeting to be able to make informed decisions in the meeting. The chairman has an even more important role in managing a meeting. Making sure the pace is kept up and ensuring everyone gets their say.
Discussions in an online meeting can tend to linger on. Most meetings are run without video in order to save bandwidth. The drawback is that people can’t observe each other’s body language. In a person-to-person meeting you can very quickly pick up if people are bored or feel that the meeting is moving too slow. To this effect, Zoom has introduced icons such as raise your hand, move quicker, go slower. These can be used by the participants to help the meeting on.
A co-moderator supporting the chairman can also be useful. Should the chair be sharing his screen working through important information, the co-moderator can observe the chat box and any other functions in support of the meeting.
The chairman sets the scene, and in a virtual meeting should welcome attendants as they join.
Conflict is quite normal, the opportunity lies therein to ensure that it is constructive conflict. Never attack or criticise a person in an online meeting. If you disagree with the approach they follow, phone them up and speak to them one-on-one. No one likes to be belittled in front of others.
In conclusion it must be noted that when a team starts off working in a virtual manner, there are many lessons to be learned. The team can use one or more of their morning coffee sessions to share lessons learned and success achieved in applying virtual team methodologies. Through sharing feedback, the team can create awareness of issues such as certain people taking too much or being too quiet. This will not only raise the awareness of team members, but also facilitate learning.
Having covered the human factor, the only fact left is legal aspects. In the next article, we will be discussing the legality and legal issues stemming from the virtual work environment.
Legality and legal issues stemming from the virtual work environment
Author: Dawie Coetzer
More about Dawie: Dawie is a practicing attorney and director at CDK Incorporated. He specialises in Labour Law and alternative dispute resolution, with a focus on mitigation of risks for employers and employees.
Distinguishing the formal from the informal legal issues
Any attorney, legal advisor or compliance officer will stress the importance of understanding the legal nature and consequences of online and remote discussions with clients, colleagues and stakeholders. In order to have a broad understanding of these consequences, it is necessary to distinguish between the formal and informal legalities of online communication.
Formal consequences relating to online communication
The Electronic Communications and Transactions Act regulates, amongst other things, the recording of electronic communication; the ins and outs of electronic transactions, the protection of information and databases; as well as complex issues relating to cyber crime. It is vitally important for users communicating online to ensure that information which is shared over remote databases, such as Skype, Teams, Google Drive etc. remain confidential and remains the property of the originator. Complex disagreements relating to ownership of joint projects and documents often emerge, due to a lack of inherent understanding and agreement between the various contributors. The safest preventative method to adopt in such scenarios is to ensure that authors who wish to maintain sole proprietorship in their work reduce the agreement to writing and to obtain acknowledgement of that agreement from the other contributors.
The Supreme Court of Appeal had recently passed down a judgment that an agreement that two parties had reached over WhatsApp, regarding the sharing of lotto winnings, was not a binding agreement in accordance with ECTA. That does not automatically mean, however, that agreements reached over text based messaging cannot be held to be binding in future. The best practice would be to err on the side of caution in times of uncertainty. When business representatives communicate through electronic means, it is best to treat every message as if it will be fully enforceable in a court of law.
OHSA and COIDA
Another formal legal issue that might easily stem from the increase in remote communications in the daily work sphere, relates to injuries and occupational diseases. The Occupational Health and Safety Act, along with regulations promulgated under the operation of this act, finds its applicability in regulating these aspects and goes hand-in-hand with the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act. The act further places an obligation on employers to ensure safe working conditions at the workplace.
In essence, the Act allows, among others, for employers to register its employees for coverage should they be injured in a work related incident. Should such an injury occur, that employee would be entitled to lodge a claim in order for their medical expenses to be covered by the compensation commission. Such a claim would be made with the assistance of the employer.
Of interest to this article is the question of whether these provisions would apply to employees working from home.For instance, is an employee who renders his or her services from home able to claim from the compensation commission should they be injured going down the stairs at their home?
The act will ordinarily find its applicability for people who render their services at the workplace. “Workplace”, in this context, is defined as the premises or place where a person performs work in the course of his/her employment. In assessing this definition, there should be no reason why the act would not apply to an employee working from home, as long as the employee’s home constitutes the workplace from where he/she would ordinarily render their services.
There is, however, an issue with this basic approach. An employer exercises control over their own premises, but has little to no control over the health and safety conditions that exist in the houses of its employees. With little to no control, one would think that there should be little to no responsibility. Luckily, the OHS Act goes further to provide requirements that need to be fulfilled prior to the obligation that the employer holds to provide safe conditions, becoming applicable. It may, on the discretion of the chief inspector of the council, be necessary that an employer should prepare a written policy which regulates the protection of the health and safety of the employees at work. This requirement may include employees working from home. Employers are further duty-bound to ensure the safety of any machinery that they provide, which will remain enforceable whether or not employees perform their duties at home or at the employer’s premises.
Prominently, the employer is entitled and in certain scenarios obliged to have the appointed health and safety committee establish and identify the hazards and risks associated with the workplace. In these circumstances the employee’s ability to claim for any injuries that occurred at the workplace will be subject to the risk management and compliance that was exercised by the employer and employee respectively. Practically speaking, the employer might have identified risks and required that the employee wear shoes with gripping, rubber soles at all times whilst at work, and the employee wouldn’t be covered under the act should he/she not have complied with this policy. These measures will be informed by the assessment that is done of each workplace.
The answer to the question initially posed in this section, is that the OHS Act may very well apply to employees working from home, provided that the requirements and regulations are fulfilled. Employees who are to work from home for the foreseeable future will be well advised to assist their employers with the fulfilment of the requirements to ensure that they will be covered under the act.
Informal legal consequence to online communication
In considering informal consequences flowing from online communication, it is necessary to focus on the practices, procedures and policies that regulate the communication and the environment surrounding it.
Individuals should be reminded that the company policies and rules remain in force and effect, despite what may seem to be a more casual approach to meetings. Whilst we have stressed the importance of fixing your schedule whilst working from home above, employees may face disciplinary action if they attend meetings late, albeit online. Individuals may further feel a false sense of security as they operate from a familiar, unassuming environment, which may cause them to relax their behaviour in situations where they would not do so ordinarily. A casual comment or remark to a colleague or client over Zoom could have dire consequences should the recipient not share or acknowledge the intent behind the comment.
Individuals should remain cognizant that each of them connecting through their devices, has a microphone inches away from them. Their comments and remarks will be audible over the speakers of the other participants and they will be accountable for each and every remark uttered. It is far more difficult for people to make private remarks under their breath. It is therefore advisable – in order to stay out of hot water – to have full and literal intent behind every remark made. It is further good practice, for reasons highlighted earlier in this article, to mute your microphone constantly when it is not your turn to speak.
This brings us to the end of our series of articles on virtual teams. In conclusion, we support owner companies in:
- Developing and setting up projects, which includes prefeasibility and feasibility studies;
- Reviewing projects and businesses – project audits, project gate reviews, due diligence;
- Optimisation of their projects or businesses – this can include consulting, coaching and training. Having the capacity to deliver online training, and using online apps in our service delivery.
Our consultants provide owner project teams with expert and practical guidance to enhance project performance in the following areas:
- Business skills in market and product research; business case optimisation, business development, economic evaluations;
- Project skills in project development (e.g. desktop study, FEED);
- Owner Roles throughout the project life-cycle;
- Strategic partner management (e.g. engineering and management contractors);
- Technology and engineering expertise to assist in the evaluation, development and licensing of the different technologies and configurations to optimise facility conversion, energy and environmental efficiency;
- Operational and maintenance expertise that will positively affect the facility’s availability, reliability, life-cycle costs;
- Inherently safer and greener technologies;
- New energy (renewables and gas);
- Specialist subject matter expertise in areas such as business systems and information technology, specific project interventions, value assurance, facilitation and more.
Our consulting methodologies are backed by an extensive library of toolkits relating to capital project development, comprising practical guides, templates and training courses.
Freek Van Heerden
Consulting Partner, Director
With over 40 years experience, Freek has expertise in project & engineering management, front end engineering, project development and integration. He has worked extensively in gas/coal to liquids and chemicals. More...
Consulting Partner, Director
Kevin has been in Project Controls and inter-related fields for more than 30 years. He has an Electrical Engineering qualification from Wits Technikon as well as a BCom degree and Project Management Diploma. More...
Consulting Partner, Director
Koos has over 38 years experience in multidisciplinary mining, mineral beneficiation and the cement industry in various executive, projects, operational, engineering, business development and consulting roles. He is a registered professional engineer with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. More...
Riaan van der Merwe
Riaan holds a B.Eng (Mining) and MBA. He has 38 years experience in mining, holding several positions in Anglo American (Gold and Coal), and CoAL (now MC Mining). These ranged from Section Manager, General Manager and Chief Operations Officer. His skill set includes executive- and general production management, director’s duties, optimisation, mine design and project management, DD and feasibility studies, as well as safety/risk management and auditing.
Davida van der Walt
Davida is an industrial psychologist with more than 20 years’ experience. She has extensive experience in framing / alignment, change management and stakeholder communication on megaprojects, as well as corporate social investment and community engagement in the petrochemical and mining industries. More...
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