Keeping your team together when they’re apart

Written by Vincent Franklin

Along with loads of other companies, we’ve transformed into a virtual office. On the surface, this move should be pretty easy for companies like us. Lots of us spend a big part of our day sitting at a keyboard, writing stuff for or to our clients. We can do that almost anywhere. I once wrote a letter for a board of trustees from a layby on the A40.

But clients need more from us than just one person’s words on a page. They need to benefit from the collective experience, knowledge and creativity of the team. And our people (with maybe one or two exceptions) are social animals. They don’t come to work just so that they can swap their toil for a pay cheque. They want to feel part of something bigger, learn from those around them, connect with other people, and have a laugh.

How do we make this happen when we no longer sit opposite each other? Here are seven things we’ve learnt.

1.    Create a new geography, where everybody remains a human being in the landscape

As we moved out of our office, everyone shared a photo of where they were now working from – the view from the window, the special place to stand a coffee cup, the guitars in the corner of the room. The mess. We all did it. As people have built up their nests, they’ve shared more photos. We created a new office geography. So, when we’re sending each other messages or giving each other a call, we know where the other people are, what they’re looking at and what kind of coffee mug they like best. No one has been reduced to an email address.

2.    Meet every morning to start the day as a team

Before we all decamped, we had a couple of team meetings each week. We’re a small team, so this, along with informal chats and meetings about work, is enough to keep us together. But now, we meet at a Google Hangout every morning at 10.00. It may only be for ten minutes, but everyone is there and we can make sure we’re all okay. Our Director of Copy chairs it, as she’s not the person who will talk all the time and make it all about her. Initially, we said it wouldn’t be a three-line whip. But now it kind of is. This is because some people, quite understandably, thought they didn’t really need this chat, were up against deadlines, and wanted to crack on. But other people do need these meetings. And they need everyone there. It’s a way of starting the day as a team.

3.    Set up an informal network for chat – but not one that invades people’s space

Tea is the fuel for lots of workplaces. But it’s not just to keep up our liquid intake. People who need to get their head out of what they’re doing for five minutes offer to make tea for others. Or they join the person who’s already making tea and lend a hand. Sometimes a couple more people join them. They might pick each other’s brains about a tricky nut they’re trying to crack or they might just chat about the latest developments on The Voice. This stuff matters. Both the five-minute break and the chit chat. We’re not work units.

We can’t make tea at the moment, but we can have teatime. We’ve set up a channel on an app called Slack that lets us to text or chat in groups of different sizes. We’ve added a new channel, called teachats. If people need a break, they start a video chat on it. Anyone who sees a chat has started, can sidle over and join in if they want. Or not. No biggie.

And when it comes to these every-day social interactions, a little and often works best.

4.    Keep going out together – even if you’re staying in

We socialise together quite a bit outside office hours. We run a Pilates session in the office on Monday evenings, we go to events, we sometimes have a drink down the pub – though we never drink to excess and we’re always home in time for Newsnight. These events help to define what it’s like to work at Quietroom. They matter.

Lots of these things can still be done with a bit of imagination and a touch of technology. Our Pilates session is going ahead tonight – via Zoom. In fact, we’re going to start doing it twice a week. My colleagues don’t know it yet, but I’ve planned a pub quiz for them next week. They’ll have to bring their own beer, wine or camomile tea – but there will be prizes! And every day at 11.00 we used to do a stretch – just to get people out of their chairs and nicely loosened up. We still do it, only now it’s at a Google Hangout.

5.    Make it easy to ask for help

When we’re just across the desk from each other, we quickly spot the person that’s under some pressure. So, it’s easy to offer help, check they’re okay, shift the load. That’s not so easy when you’re all in different counties. We already had a ‘help me’ channel on Slack, where people could ask for someone with the time to give them a hand – but now it’s doubly important we encourage people to use it.

6.    Manage projects closely, set short term goals and keep checking in

We have a fantastic team who run our projects. Now, more than ever, we need to let them run things. So, just because you’re working on your own in your shed, don’t go rogue. Make sure there’s a plan and that you’re checking in regularly with the people who helped you put it together. And project managers – don’t set people a massive task and then leave them for a day or two to sort it out. Regular check-ins and short term goals that you can achieve and celebrate are much more conducive to everyone’s mental health and productivity. 

7.    Give people time to adjust

These are worrying times. People are understandably distracted from the day-to-day business of work by the extraordinary things going on around them. When our lives are in flux it’s difficult to settle down to work. So we need to do all we can to give people time and reduce the pressure that deadlines put them under. 

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