Acting Naturally in a Virtual Office

By Heather Cameron

On Thursday, May 28, 2020, the CPR Institute hosted the second in its series of presentations on conflict in closed spaces entitled “Positive Culture in the Virtual Workspace.” The webinar was led by James Traeger, Director, and Carolyn Norgate, Principal Consultant, of Mayvin, a U.K.-based management consulting firm focusing on organizational development and design.

Mayvin has been operating as a “virtual” organization since long before the COVID-19 outbreak forced so many businesses to move online, the principals explained in the CPR-sponsored webinar. James and Carolyn, however, said they prefer to think of it as “remote,” rather than “virtual” working because the interpersonal connections built and maintained are still very much real.

Started in 2010 on the heels of the financial crisis, Mayvin works with organizations to help foster development and by increasing leadership’s understanding of the interests, motives, concerns, and inspiration driving their people.

The increased emphasis on flexible and virtual working James said he noticed when he co-founded the firm has only become more critical now as so many organizations have had to quickly adjust to a completely remote way of doing business.

This new environment, he said, requires a laser-like focus on business needs and the relationships required to deliver results.

Carolyn kicked off the substance of the webinar by leading participants in a process called “structured reflection.” She directed participants to reflect on what brought them to the session, to write down their thoughts, and even to reflect on different questions that may occur to them in the moment.

After a quiet minute or so, she instructed everyone to put their notes aside and look out the nearest window, focusing on what was drawing their attention, bringing their thoughts back to what they were seeing any time they started to wander.

Next, everyone was to draw a line under their notes and write down whatever they were now thinking about. Finally, participants were directed to look out the window one more time for a “grateful minute,” noting what they appreciated about the scene before them.

Carolyn explained that this exercise in shifting focus is a strategy Mayvin uses with clients to help them “slow down to go faster.” The idea is that by taking quality time to reflect, the individual may be able to problem-solve using different, more artful ways of thinking.

Conscious reflection, she said, can also play a vital role in developing a healthy, productive culture in a purely virtual organization by making space for innovation and interpersonal connection.

At its founding, the presenters explained, Mayvin was set up as an experiment aimed at shifting the mindset that an office is needed to have a real organization–an idea proving more relevant now than ever. As many are now realizing while isolating, social-distancing, and working remotely, the lack of a physical office can lead to unanticipated practical concerns: For example, how do you use technology to effectively stand in for water cooler chat, five-minute conversations over a coffee break, impromptu one-on-one check-ins, and all the other interpersonal interactions that create the “relational glue” required for an effective organization?

One practical solution Carolyn and James offered was the use of what they call a “noticing channel” on Slack or Microsoft Teams–a line of communication between employees completely separate from work-related discussions and emails that functions like a virtual form of casual conversation around the water cooler.

Mayvin also uses a random channel where employees have posted photos of at-home projects, family members, and even photos of themselves as teenagers. The idea is to maintain the type of non-work-related interpersonal connections that happen organically in an office even while everyone is working remotely.

The key take-aways, they said, for successfully navigating the shift to online and remote work include treating it as an experiment and remembering it’s all about mindset. Hold the tech lightly, they said: Remain nimble when determining what works and what doesn’t, always aiming to stay focused on what is working.

Where possible, they advised, use tools people are already comfortable with, helping them apply those familiar tools to new scenarios. Give people time and support to work through the change curve, making space for employees to air their fears and concerns and work through their feelings.

James likened it to choreography or setting a stage in theater. He encouraged the use of gallery view in video conferences so everyone occupies the same amount of space.

In smaller meetings, he suggested asking that everyone unmute themselves to allow for more natural interactions. Use the type of structured reflection Carolyn led the group through to shift mindset between meetings.

Create the glue that allows virtual workspaces to work well, they said, remembering that there’s more room for misunderstandings in virtual spaces. Preventing misunderstandings helps prevent disputes and enable purpose.

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The author, a second-year law student at Fordham University’s School of Law in New York, is a Summer 2020 CPR Institute intern.

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