Leading Virtual Teams / Part 1 #LVT23

In an effort to keep myself to task, and to keep up to date with a course, I’m going to blog my progress and thoughts (if I have them) on this course from Dr Maren Deepwell – Leading Virtual Teams.

The first email landed last week, directing me to Maren’s opening blog post supporting the course. The email and blog post talks about the podcast and course text/book (downloadable from the RILT journal website).

For ease of finding my posts, the below list will be updated with links as I write a supporting post of my own reflections:

I’ll also use my posts to add a quote or two that I feel epitomises virtual teams and leading them.

Part 1: Orientation & Introduction

My interest in the course and leading a virtual team is complex, but based on the reality of working remotely from my team (they are mostly overseas but even those based in the UK are not local to me, or me to them).

In November 2022 I started a new role with a fully remote workforce, with the majority of my colleagues and the team working overseas. Despite working from home for the better part of the last three years, this does not prepare you for the time difference or cultural aspects you need to consider and adapt to. There’s no orientation or induction that can really help with this, but just getting on with it, listening to what’s said, who says it, and asking all sorts of probing and difficult questions helped me hugely. I’m sure I also asked a whole heap of pointless or silly questions too, but I knew I would and I was upfront with everyone from the start – I don’t know the value of the question until I understood the answer.

The book is right to point out the distinction between working from home, working remotely, hybrid working, and working as part of a distributed team. What is more important, however, is the distinction between what we all did in March 2020 as a result of the pandemic, and what we would have done with more time and effort to prepare. The shift from mainly office-based to fully remote/home working, for the most part, was not coordinated beyond a few meetings to ensure people had working equipment.

There was very little understanding as to how it would/could work, how we’d keep in contact (and I mean the manner of contact, not just the technical tools we’d use for it), or how we should approach our daily tasks. The need was an immediate one. The considerations were practical in so much as we needed to make sure everything worked, and we felt confident we had what we needed to continue. The general feeling was “We’ll work the rest out as we go.” – it’s not a bad approach, but clearly could have been better.

The thing that made it work, however, was that we were all in the same position. All bar a few people, who didn’t have somewhere they could call dedicated ‘work’ space in their home, we set ourselves up and just got on with it.

Setting out to take an office-based team to a remote one is clearly different. Whilst the work we did in Match 2020 was as engaging and collaborative as we could make it, some aspects had to be decided without a general consultation due to the pressures of time and necessity. In another time it would have been different, it woud’ve been the consultation and individual process allowing each person to consider their personal situations and prepare their home for the intrusion of work.

I am very much aligned with Maren’s open leadership style – this is how I have (successfully) been managed in the past, and how I like to work with those I have responsibilities to. Like many of us, I’ve had the other type of leadership, the sort that causes friction, keeps important information from you and hinders your ability to work. It does not make anyone happy or confident in their ability or sense of value, and it eventually destroys people or businesses. Or both.

Many virtual teams find that they have to adopt an iterative approach to designing processes as the tools they use, change or are updated. Whilst an agile way of working is good in many ways, it’s important to be aware that any change requires time and effort that would not be needed if things stayed the same way … As well as requiring time and effort, changing internal processes can also temporarily rob teams of the comfort and confidence that comes with familiarity.

Deepwell, M. (2022) “Leading virtual teams. field notes from a CEO,” Research in Learning Technology, p. 10. Available at: https://doi.org/10.25304/alt.2022.01

A physical workplace does a lot more than provide a registered address. It houses the material and technological infrastructure required and it provides space for individuals to spend their days, working together and individually. Architecture, layout and furniture impose a sense of order and provide structure. An open plan meeting room, a row of closed office doors, cubicles decorated with family photos, the watercooler or tea kettle: these are all familiar elements of the contemporary workplace and they impose a sense of ‘being at work’. Even in non-traditional work- places, where casual clothes, well stocked kitchens and sleep pods set a different tone, there are material and visual signifiers that convey that this is, predominantly, a place of work.

Deepwell, M. (2022) “Leading virtual teams. field notes from a CEO,” Research in Learning Technology, p. 16. Available at: https://doi.org/10.25304/alt.2022.01

It’s especially important for leaders and managers to be very clear during the transition period about what issues can be fixed by the employer and which are the responsibility of employees … Whatever you set out as an expectation at the beginning is going to shape everyone’s expectation of what working in a virtual team will be like and it’s important to make sure everyone is clear what the vision is from the outset.

Deepwell, M. (2022) “Leading virtual teams. field notes from a CEO,” Research in Learning Technology, p. 21. Available at: https://doi.org/10.25304/alt.2022.01

In considering recruitment in a geographically disparate team, there are aspects of the role and how you introduce the aspects of the working arrangements, and then there’s the actual recruitment process itself. I’ve written a little about this here and here and here and here and here.

With everything in this world of remote and virtual teams, it’s how you position yourself as a leader and how you lead that will determine your success – treat me like an adult and let me make my choices and I’ll repay you with the same loyalty and openness you’ve shown me. Anything less than this means I’m not fully valued, therefore I’ll feel less than 100% and perform at something less than my best.

Equality and equity are particularly important in the context of virtual recruitment, starting with the connectivity and equipment required to apply, to the tools and software required to take part in the interview process … The relationship between technology and human beings is an important theme that runs throughout all chapters of this book. Virtual working requires us to establish what that relationship looks like in a work context and consider what tensions it causes alongside the benefits it offers. This is particularly important when it comes to designing equitable and fair recruitment and selection processes.

Deepwell, M. (2022) “Leading virtual teams. field notes from a CEO,” Research in Learning Technology, p. 30. Available at: https://doi.org/10.25304/alt.2022.01


This start to the course has encouraged me to reflect on my own practices and my own experiences in being a remote leader, a remote colleague, a remote recruiter, and the ability to enable those around me to make the best of these unusual surroundings.

The transition to a fully remote workforce and business in March 2020 to account for the pandemic and the first UK lockdown was a rushed affair. Given time and a better understanding of what we ought to do it would have been different, as Maren outlines in the example of transitioning ALT to a fully remote business, but I am comfortable and confident that what we did was the best we could do at the time. In fact, I’d go further to say that, despite the rush and the stressful situation of an infectious disease hunting us down, we did a lot in a very short space of time, and it worked extremely well.

One of the key aims for the team throughout the transition was to provide consistent support for collaboration. Effectively working together online is one of the most challenging aspects of working as a virtual team and the organisation identified this from the outset.

Deepwell, M. (2022) “Leading virtual teams. field notes from a CEO,” Research in Learning Technology, p. 38. Available at: https://doi.org/10.25304/alt.2022.01

Image source: David Hopkins / Twitter