Developing department working practices in a large distributed team
Working in a distributed team for an extended period of time can be tough on team members. In this case study, Amy Sampson from Falmouth University explains how a suite of online tools such as Office 365 helped to keep the team connected.
Author: Amy Sampson
1.What exactly was the shift in culture and/or organisational practice that you wish to highlight?
I work as a head of department for a large Digital Learning team. At the start of the pandemic we were a team of eleven who already had some experience of distributed working. Many of my team were new to their roles and I understood that going into a period of prolonged home working I needed to put measures in place that would allow my team to feel connected to the department and each other, while also improving our planning processes to cut down on excessive online meetings. During the pandemic our department increased to include 23 team members therefore it was important that any new approaches could scale.
The practice I’d like to highlight is ways of working as a distributed team which promote connection, effective collaboration, wellbeing and a sense of belonging.
We were already using Agile approaches for project management, which allows for periods of reflection and planning on a fortnightly cycle. This combined with regular structured formal and informal sessions, some with optional attendance, means there are always at least two points in the day that people can check in with others in the team.
Adding in activities and using tools that promote real-time collaboration, especially MURAL and Office 365, means we can come together as a team to complete work, fostering a sense of purpose by working on shared goals.
Mentoring, regular one-to-ones and optional social activities helps promote contact time with team members. Providing points to check in, share progress and work together has meant there is real department cohesion. Daily morning stand-ups allow the team to come together for individual updates and provides a space to work through any questions that requires wider input. As part of the types of work we undertake there is a requirement to work in sub teams, which rotates, this provides another opportunity to work collectively in smaller groups as part of day to day working practice.
The feedback on our department approach has been overwhelmingly positive from my team, although we’ve since adapted certain activities and sessions, the fact that all members have fed back they feel connected to each other and the team despite not seeing each other in person can be counted as a real success for our approach to working which I’m keen to share.
2. What did ‘working well’ look like?
“Despite working remotely since March 2020, I still feel a real sense of connection with the team, even with those who I had not met in person. I think working in sprints provides clarity and really aids productivity whilst remote working. I know…that any team member is only a quick call away for advice or just a quick catch up, so I never feel isolated working this way.”
Working well combines the right level of structure with the balance of flexibility. It’s a difficult line to walk and trust in your team is essential. Our team has a strong sense of department ways of working and these are followed by all which is critical for transparency and connection of the department.
Key meetings are regular and their outcomes clear. These sessions, in conjunction with our transparent project management process means the team is well aware of what the priorities and how this feeds into wider department goals.
We’ve had some challenges where the format of a particular session might not have worked as well over time, or our processes need adapting to suit new requirements. Being flexible in approach and seeing ways of working as something that evolves over time is essential, it’s important to regularly take the time to reflect and adapt departmental working to suit the needs of the team.
3. How could this practice be spread?
“The way we have worked (from home) in DL over the past 18 months has felt like a seamless transition from on-campus working and has, if anything, made for a more comfortable and effective working environment. Given the nature of the work we focus on and the way in which the team has grown over this period, working from home has fostered an environment where I’m able to focus much more easily on the work I’m doing. Scheduling regular in-person meet-ups and online ‘socials’ has helped us to keep a sociable feel to working at a distance.”
Fostering the right amount of social activity and making these activities and social interactions natural and beneficial has required careful consideration. As a manager it was important for the team to take ownership of some of these social sessions and has included interactive workshops on sound recording, poetry recitals, and live gardening walk throughs in allotments.
In person sessions have been happening occasionally, but again here it’s been increasingly important that there is value to having these in person. Sessions in person have been focused and usually involved planning or reflective discussion. This practice can be spread to other teams and feedback from new starters over the last two years has indicated that our team is the most organised department they have been part of. Distinct expectations are set, ways of working consistent and there is a clear department aim in the work we undertake. But this is not without a sense of team belonging or lack consideration to wellbeing. Putting a lot of investment into these principles creates a culture that people are proud of and enjoy working with. I’m hopeful that sharing these experiences can mean a better working environment in similar teams, starting with initially looking at working practices.
If there was one aspect to recommend to others is to have reliable digital tools in place that support the desired ways of working, especially for communication and project management.
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