Supporting virtual teams: The move from the traditional workspace to a flexible one

Pilar Orti is on a mission to bring the workplace into the 21st century. She is director of Virtual Not Distant, a website which aims to help teams move from the traditional workspace to a more flexible one by offering support for managers of virtual teams through training and coaching. Pilar says virtual teams include those with just a few members working remotely.

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“We help teams transition to a more flexible approach,” says Pilar. “If one person is working remotely the whole team should be set up for remote working.”

Key to that transition is unpicking established working methods and communicating openly about how people work and how they relate to technology. “Everyone has a different relationship with technology. If people can vocalise and share how they work then that can help,” says Pilar.

That includes, for instance, how they feel about responding to or sending emails at night. “People usually don’t discuss these things,” she says. She is not in favour of evening email bans, but says it is useful to talk about expectations.

Someone may prefer to email late at night; while others might resent evening emails and feel that means they have to respond.

If part of the virtual working involves using collaborative platforms, it is important, says Pilar, to have open conversations about how the technology will work and how different people will respond to it.

Moving away from email to collaborative platforms can be difficult so you have to get everyone on board from the beginning. But it will only work if everyone sees that there is added value to doing so.

Transitions to virtual teams

Pilar’s background is in face to face training and facilitating team-away days, but she started becoming interested in working in a more mobile, less office-based work in 2010, partly because she wanted to visit her parents in Madrid more often.

In 2013 she began working freelance delivering accredited Management and Leadership qualifications online and growing the webinar programme. That led to her interest in virtual teams.

“The transition to virtual teams fascinates me,” she says. “Moving to different ways of connecting and being with each other is interesting. In an office there’s a buzz, there’s social time and meetings.

If the team is dispersed how do you create that team identity? These are things we don’t often talk about, about how changing the way we work changes how we perceive ourselves.”

Pilar, who has worked as a voiceover in London and whose proudest achievement is being the voice of Xuli in the BBC’s CBeebies’ GoJetters animation series, works freelance as part of a virtual team.

Its members are based around the world. They have regular meetings which are around half an hour long. That includes a regular social meeting where they just have the kind of general conversations that people have in offices.

Sometimes only a couple of people turn up; sometimes there are none as the meetings are options. “We are trying to find out what works in the virtual space. The ideas can change our work practices and the hierarchies we are used to, and not just in the virtual world,” says Pilar.

She adds that working virtually can forge stronger personal relationships between workers. Virtual teams tend to be more informal by their nature, she says.

Virtual Not Distant has a blog and for over a year has been hosting a regular series of podcasts, 21st Century Work Life, which are on itunes. They are interviews with remote working experts and cover issues ranging from whether virtual teams can scale and how technology is enabling more jobs to how to shift mindsets. It’s another way of advocating for a change in the way we work and opens up the discussion to more people who may be considering moving to a virtual model.

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