Tuesday 20 June 2017

Virtual teams and collaborative working #BIALL2017

I've now completed my first full week of truly remote working so am reasonably well equipped to comment on and consolidate the notes taken from the various relevant sessions. As usual BIALL had ensured that although there were topic overlaps, a different perspective was given by each expert. Eleanor Windsor from LibSource presented on 'Managing a successful virtual team', whilst the entire Vinge law firm library team came in to offer insight on working together in different offices. And finally a duo from the University of Law talked about collaborative working to reduce pressure on library services.

Models for virtual team working

The common element was the reliance on, and adoption of technology. Although all three organisations are at different stages of the virtual and collaborative working process, they all had something useful to offer the audience. Eleanor listed models for virtual working, starting with agile teams, all the way up to a completely virtual organisation. Whilst the teams from Vinge and the University of Law are still largely office based, they work across various sites and cities, so are agile and flexible in outlook.

Certain practicalities mean that LibSource cannot be completely virtual. We rely on onsite staff to carry out important library admin duties. The company also recognises that it is useful for team members to meet lawyers as this builds up a relationship of trust and inclusivity. Therefore although virtual teams are possible, libraries will need to have at least one person on the ground some of the time. However we can encourage law firms to adopt agile teams, and flexible ways of working. As long as there is a normalisation of a 'working from home' culture, and as other sectors continue to test and improve the technology which makes the impossible possible, the legal sector should follow.

Communication and mobile working

The statistics show that by 2020, 70% of managers will have adopted mobile working. But in law especially (and anecdotal evidence from friends suggests that tech companies are sometimes difficult) there is a still a gap between wishing to work from home, and the actual reality. Productivity goes up 13% because you have fewer interruptions, and every work related interaction you have is thoughtful, managed and purposeful. As I have been discovering, it is possible to be super productive in all aspects of  your life by working from home.

Collaboration through enterprise social media technology such as Yammer or Slack is essential. Although the University of Law has had difficulties, for LibSource, Yammer has reduced email by 80%, as well as enabling staff to keep in touch and make everything open and transparent. In my view it's a mindset; if you are used to social media in other parts of your life, it's a natural progression for the workplace. Especially when people are all over the world and you want to create online communities around common interests. Water cooler/coffee/tea moments are still possible in virtual teams. How much personal information you want to share is up to you, but be real and as accessible a work colleague as you would be as if you were sat next to them.

Other electronic ways of communication are available and you just have to know which one is most appropriate. Instant messaging over Yammer is efficient especially when you pick up the notification on your phone app. Telephone and video conferencing also seems to work well and it's excellent to supplement that 'getting to know your colleagues' issue. Call me old fashioned but I still like to see the whites of their eyes! The usual document collaboration tools, like Google docs, ensures ease of sharing, and learning and development web applications are great for keeping up to date.

Challenges of virtual team working

No one is saying that virtual team working is easy. There are unique challenges that face managers but perhaps it is a more honest and adult way of treating employees. By putting together a network of mentors, buddies, managers, and working hard at work relationships, there is a lot to be gained. You become adept at making the most of face to face calls so that contacts are cemented. Be close and be in mind. And as Eleanor said many times, if there is a problem, speak up. No one will know if you are having issues, or are frustrated with something, so you have to say. Do not suffer in silence because colleagues can't help if they can't see you. This is something that information staff generally should be more aware of - we can sometimes be too quiet, even in an office environment.

Before noting Eleanor's conclusions, I want to bring in the Swedish view. After all, part of the advantages she finished on were highlighted by them. They opened their presentation with questions such as 'why should we collaborate? What's in it for me as an individual? What's in it for the team? What's in it for the firm?' They stressed that with a strong, competent and diverse information team the organisation will be far more successful. Wider access and better usage of resources means adding value and cost efficiency, and employment of technology means working together over different locations. So you can be more visible, with management regarding you as an excellent return on investment.

The importance of a good team cannot be underestimated whether you are working virtually, or in the same office. Co-ordinating everyday routines to improve work flow, respectfully sharing knowledge and solutions, sharing workload and increasing responsibility for all. Being able to carry out challenging pieces of work and asking for help, feedback and encouragement is essential. As information people I think we are good at dropping the prestige, and leaving the ego at the door. Ultimately you have to enjoy working together!

What else is in it for the organisation?

With an increasingly large pool of talented people who are willing to work from home, organisations would be foolish not to incorporate flexible working into their culture. Various professional service companies offer professional skills on an outsourced basis and represent amazing value for money. If you are suddenly faced with a large piece of work you can quickly draft in entire teams to supplement your existing staff. You can offer increasingly demanding clients out of hours assistance, total flexibility, and be able to scale up your team rapidly.

The focus on just in time rather than just in case now no longer just applies to expensive subscriptions, you can save money on office management. Why have someone in an office when they could be doing exactly the same job at home. Technology enables people on different continents to communicate as if they are in the next room. So why do they have to be next door? Why have infighting and office politics about who gets the corner office? With a little additional thought, you can have minimal overheads and maximum service. And everyone can have a corner office, with dog, kitchen facilities, and no worry than someone will take your sandwich.

Recent events in global security should also be encouraging people to reassess their business continuity plans. When your team is all over the world, the chances of all their systems going down is highly unlikely. However should the city transport system come to a halt, who is going to staff your expensive city offices? Although people say that fear isn't affecting their every day life, insecurity is encouraging people to reassess options regarding travel. Even on a good day commuting can be a challenge, so give your team the chance to try working remotely. Accept that a successful virtual team with happy staff will be more productive and will do anything to make it work. After all, it's in their own interests.

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