Virtual working | let’s rethink office working

It’s a cool wet day, I am sat at my dining room table with the BBC London playing on the ipad, and flipping between chatting to family via text and Facebook on my phone, and typing this blog on a little laptop. A cup of decaff tea is constantly refreshed. The phone lays next to the laptop. Pieces of paper, with scribbles of notes of conversations, client work are spread out all over the table. This is a day in my new working life. Now, don’t get me wrong, home working is nothing new to me, and I know it’s not to many of us, whatever sector you work in. What is different, is this is now my modus operandi, and the hours and times I can spend sat here at my dining room table (well let’s say my desk), are limited.

Why? Well this blog isn’t one to share the medical conditions I have, so I won’t bore you with details. However, for context, I will say, I now have physical limitations. These affect me on a daily basis and are exacerbated at times and so occasionally make me totally housebound. These limitations, have meant that over the last year and a half I have adapted my daily life and wake up each morning to determine what I can do (it’s not what I can’t do). Even though these limitations, are frustrating and have changed my life around, I haven’t wanted to give up on contributing to society.  So I have developed ways of virtual working, to work part-time when I can, on volunteer and short-term contract work.

This blog is an attempt to share what I have learnt and the benefits.  It may be of use to people who may be thinking of changing the way they work due to circumstance, or to a business/organisation trying to understand how to incorporate virtual working into everyday practice and ultimately attract a diverse workforce. My overall message is this, the good news is virtual working is working. This isn’t headline news, but it is something I am finding to be a great way to work, especially in light of the work I am undertaking. Let me explain. I am developing a UK network in the museum sector, which focuses on understanding the training provision landscape. This has involved engaging stakeholders throughout the UK and consulting with networks and organisations. The phone, Skype, email, Googledocs, and Facebook, have enabled me to have fruitful conversations and develop a UK project: to map UK training provision.

Through virtual working I have: ·

  • Built relationships and created a Steering Group and a Critical Friends group·
  • Built trust with a variety of stakeholders: museum development, national, regional, university museums, Strategic Service Organisations and membership organisations·
  • Collaborated with Steering Group members and with a designated Working Group.

A knowledge management contract for Sparknow and volunteering at Islington Heritage has taught me lessons which are useful tips for people looking at becoming a virtual worker.  If you are reading this from an organisational perspective, I hope the following gives an insight in to what to think about when setting up virtual working opportunities.

Here are a few things to consider when you change to virtual working: ·

  • Flexibility
    Ensure that flexibility is from both sides. Advocate the benefits of virtual working, and how you can both work together to be more efficient. Being flexible in planning meetings that could be virtual, or less of them, can help projects be more focused.  This can reduce the strain placed on our transport infrastructure and our energy/carbon consumption and benefit the environment too.·
  • Know your limits
    Be transparent about your limits. I know this is difficult, but you don’t need to go into details. Explaining what you can do and not focusing on what you can’t, helps the other side see what can and is achieved. This helps to forward plan and build in the means to cope with those days when you might not be able to work. It enables realistic deadlines to be set and to be met!·
  • Be clear about expectations
    Be clear about your expectations.  What do you want to get out of the working relationship? What are the expectations of the organisation? It’s best to have these conversations, which may be difficult and can leave you feeling vulnerable, in the first instance. In my case this has certainly helped build mutual trust. My expectations are to contribute to a working world, to be a respected part of a project and my limitations acknowledged, but not seen as a detriment.·
  • Conversations
    Stay in contact with key colleagues (touch base once a week), especially with those that you may report to. A phone or Skype call, email or Instant Messaging conversation helps work  stay focused and on track. It is a useful way to iron out any concerns from both sides (don’t forget, it takes a while to build up trust, and there may be suspicion on the other side as to whether you are really doing any work because they can’t see you).
    Conversations with stakeholders and other parties are very important, make sure you keep them going. In addition to a call, you may send a report, newsletter or some other knowledge asset to show what’s happening in a project but to also engage them too.·
  • Caveats
    Virtual working does not mean that all physical meetings cease.  There will still be the need for occasional meetings.  However, it is important that you ensure caveats are in place, in case you cannot attend. This helps to not raise expectations on both sides and for you both to plan and work around you not being in physical attendance. Can you Skype in? Can you have a chat about the outcomes of the meeting afterwards and the impact this has on your work?
  • Technology
    Use as much technology as possible, if you can. Keep an eye out for new ways to engage with colleagues. Are there platforms that you can use to share documents, project plans and to have real time conversations? For example, (and to name but a few) Yammer, Skype, Trello, Googledocs, Basecamp, BAND.·
  • Know your strengths
    This is a really important one. Along the way, I have struggled with the adjustments and questioned my abilities. A mentor, Nick Merriman, Director of Manchester Museum, helped me get back on track. He asked me to think of what I could do now, and what strengths did I have and be clear and transparent about my situation. With this advice I was able to sit back, and see my strengths and communicate these to potential commissioners of projects, and collaborators.·
  • Support network
    Develop a support network of peers you respect and trust. This has been invaluable to me. The support group around me, are a sounding board, confidants, and are there for advice and direction. In addition to my mentor (Nick Merriman, Manchester Museum), Katie Childs, Imperial War Museum, John Jackson, Natural History Museum, Ray Barnett, Bristol Culture, Iain Watson, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, Hellen Pethers, Natural History Museum, Cheryl Smith, Islington Heritage and Victoria Ward, Sparknow are part of my support group and I owe many thanks to them for their support this last year and a half.

I have alluded to the benefits of virtual working. Here are a few: ·

  • Efficiency·
  • Saving costs for the organisation and for you too·
  • Quiet environment·
  • No interruptions·
  • Focus·
  • Taking things slow and steady and not rushing into things·
  • Additional mentor input

My office colleagues are now my cats, resident foxes, birds in the garden, radio and carer and partner (who now works from home too). It is so much better, not being around stressed people, air pollution, and experiencing the frustrations of delayed and busy trains. In fact, I now totally enjoy this way of working. So, my advice is, if you are thinking about either developing virtual working models for your organisation, or thinking about it for yourself, it is a good model of working. Face to face meetings with colleagues still happen and are often more productive and focused as they use the time available to the best and if a face to face meeting cannot happen a Skype Video or phone call works just as well.

Let’s start to rid the job descriptions of a 35 hour office based job, let’s think of flexitime, virtual working and less hours and open up the workforce to people for whom virtual working works best.

Here is a short exercise for an organisation wanting to embrace virtual working to diversify the workforce:

Reflection. Observe your teams and your staff in your organisation.  Look around you and ask how many hours are actually worked in the office and how many of these are productive hours in a 35 hour+ week, do your staff really need to be in the office for so many hours? ·

  • Will the answer be a surprise?·
  • Could a virtual worker, who is focused, and efficient be in your workforce and add value?·
  • Could a virtual worker, add to your team, whether that be public facing team or not (are there roles that can support public facing work that don’t need to be office based)? ·
  • Do your job adverts clearly show how flexible you are as an employer to virtual working and flexibility?·
  • Is it time for your organisation to change?

What are you thoughts on virtual working and how it can enable an organisation to diversify its workforce?

Author: Julie Reynolds, Consultant (Culture and Knowledge Management)
August 2017

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