The rapidly changing COVID-19 situation has meant businesses across the world have had to quickly adapt to their whole workforce working from home. Just a few short weeks ago, many would have said this was impossible.
As the first ever virtual public affairs agency, we were set up to support and encourage flexible and remote working. So in many ways, this way of working is business as usual for us. But while the business model has many benefits, leading a virtual team can be challenging.
In this blog post, our Founder and Managing Director, Jo Field, shares her top tips and advice to help leaders who are leading a virtual team for the first time....
Why I started a virtual PR agency
I became the leader of a virtual public affairs agency after leaving the traditional corporate environment to set up a consultancy. I wanted to put flexible and agile working at the heart of the business model because research shows flexible working is key to attracting and retaining women. I also believe most people value the opportunity to work flexibly.
I didn’t see the need for a formal office and decided to scale the business by taking on a team of trusted freelancers and associates, who are experts in their field. This enables us to pull together the right mix of skills and expertise, tailored to suit each of our clients’ needs. The team work remotely and responsively at times to suit them, from locations as far afield as Scotland and Canada.
I know that not everyone likes or wants to work from home and many businesses have not been set up to do so, until now. Today we have the technology and infrastructure to be able to talk to clients and colleagues from wherever we are located, at any time of the day. So there really is no reason why we shouldn’t be working remotely.
Top tips for leading virtual teams
In this unprecedented situation, as companies make the rapid adjustment to their whole workforce having to work from home, I think back to three and half years ago when I set up a virtual business. Here are some of the things I wish I’d known at the start and also some of the top tips I’ve picked up along the way.
- Video calls. I couldn’t imagine running my business without video calls. I rely heavily on being able to communicate regularly with my team via video call. In the current circumstances, I have at least one call a day with my team, and I’m also communicating with customers in this way much more than I used to, so there’s no need to miss out on important meetings. I recommend video calls rather than traditional phone calls as you don’t get the face to face interaction with a phone call; video adds the human element and makes sure the message doesn’t get lost or misinterpreted. Once you get used to it, it’s pretty much the same as being in a meeting room chatting in person.
- Collaboration tools. I recommend all virtual teams work from a collaboration system. We use MS Teams, but there are plenty of others on the market. Everything we work on is stored in Teams in real-time, so we can all access the current version of every single document, spreadsheet and file. We also assign tasks and chat via Teams. This is also how we run our video calls.
- Giving feedback. It can sometimes be tempting to fire things back and forth over email in a way that you would never do if you were face to face in an office. This can make your feedback appear blunt or lead to misinterpretation, mistakes or misunderstandings. It’s important to make the time to pick up the phone and give feedback in person, or better still chat via video call.
- Messaging apps. As my team grew, I found it helpful to start a WhatsApp group so we could keep in touch. If there’s a piece of information I want to communicate with the whole group, it’s so much easier to do it via WhatsApp. We often share good news and anecdotes via the chat, such as client wins, work anniversaries or new starts. I find it really helps to boost morale among the group and gives us all a sense of belonging to a community.
- Training a junior member of staff. I took on my first junior team member on a 3-month internship in my second year of business. To be honest it was a bit of a learning curve for us all while we worked out how to train a junior team member virtually. It was around this time that I opened up our first office premises at WeWork in London, and I’ve found this to be really beneficial in terms of training, although I often give training and support remotely too. Video calls and online document sharing in Teams have enabled the team to successfully support each other from afar, even when they have never actually met in person. When we’re working from different locations, we have regular video calls so we can catch up on workload and I can explain and run through whatever is needed. It works very well and my intern has now become my first permanent member of staff!
- Social events. Social events are a great part of belonging to any organisation, but because we’re based over quite a large geographical area, it can sometimes be difficult for us all to meet up for social events. That said, whenever our members based further afield are in town, we do make a point of meeting up as it’s really important for the team members to get to know one another in person. As a response to the current situation and to alleviate social isolation, we’ve introduced a virtual ‘happy hour’ where we meet up via video call for a quick drink after work on Fridays. It’s proving very popular and I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before!
Last year I teamed up with a group of virtual public relations agency owners and we founded the PRCA’s Virtual Agency sector group. We’re disrupting the traditional PR agency model and enabling the public relations industry to retain the expertise of senior professionals, often women, who reject traditional agency culture. The business model champions remote and flexible working, and I know we would all be happy to offer help and advice about leading virtual teams to anyone who needs it.
This current situation with Covid-19 won’t last forever. Hopefully before too long we’ll all return to some kind of normality where we once again have the flexibility to work between homes and offices. The one positive thing we can take from this is that a large number of organisations can and will survive with all team members working remotely. I hope this will mean many more businesses will give their employees more flexibility to work remotely in future. This brings benefits in terms of work-life balance and also environmental benefits from reducing people's need to travel.