It’s not the Tech. It’s the People.

I freelanced for three years at a corporation. For the equivalent of five days a month I would go into the office and the studio. I attended some face to face meetings; I had conversations mainly face to face; I even went out for drinks after work every now and then.

That’s my first scenario. Bear with me.

Here’s my second one. I also freelanced in the sixth form department of a school. For over five years, I went in and delivered a couple of lessons face to face. During the last two years I was quite active in the drama department. I hang out with other teachers in the staff-room, I was involved in auditioning students and attended staff meetings.

Scenario number three:

For just about a year, I freelanced for a company the equivalent of one day a week. I worked from my co-working space, away from my colleagues, doing most of the work on Saturdays. I also attended short meetings during the week and stayed in touch with others through our collaboration tools a few times a week. Out of the 12 people I worked amongst (I say “amongst” because my work was quite self-sufficient), I only ever met four of them in person.

I met the company owner, Jurgen, once, after I’d been working for him for eight months. I met Sergey once, just before I joined the company, I met Jen a couple of times, (again, eight months after having worked with her for a while) and, ok, I actually hang out with Lisette in person.. mmm… four times? Although I do podcast with her every other week also, which is quite an intense experience, albeit at a distance.

Even though I never met the rest of the company in person, I’d regularly meet everyone else over video. When I couldn’t make the meetings, I sometimes caught up on them by watching the recordings. These were meetings worth watching, including problem-solving, strategic discussions and quite a bit of talk about working together.

Ready for a quiz?

So, when I left one of those organisations, I was so happy I actually started jumping when I gave in my last piece of work. I’d got on very well with those around me, but no-one really said good-bye to me when I left. My pass was just disactivated.

When I left another of these organisations, someone did say thank you publicly in a meeting, but only when they realised my name was not on the list of people who were being given an official farewell. And I did shed some tears that day, but only the whole end-of-academic-year celebration reminded me of my own time at school, and I got very sentimental. (Oooops, for those of you who like quizzes or guessing, I gave that one away…)

When I left a third organisation, I had an exit interview. I got asked what I’d enjoyed, what I thought might need changing at the company and what I’d learned during my time there. Someone turned up to my exit interview just to give me some hugs. Someone else turned up because she thought everyone was invited to the exit interview. The third person at the meeting was there because I had asked for them to be there, as I had worked quite closely with them. The person organising the meeting took notes furiously throughout our chat.

Later that day, four of us had coffee.  My three colleagues just turned up to make sure I had a proper farewell and to give me my parting gift. And not just any gift. They had liaised with my husband to find out what I would appreciate most. (In case you’re trying to guess, books, I am addicted to buying books.) For the last five minutes of that meeting, I had tears in my eyes and I began to wonder whether I had made the right decision in leaving these people I’d grown to love.

Now, which of these three organisations was the virtual company?
Which one was the one where we never saw each other’s body language (apart from our faces and hands?)
Which one was the one where we didn’t bump into each other in the corridor or the water-cooler?
Which one was the one where we never brainstormed in the same space together?
Which one was the one where most of our communication took place over video and over chat?

Yes, the last scenario, of course.

I was a freelancer at all three organisations. I was just as present and engaged in all three.

But in one, Happy Melly One, our conversations counted. Whether we were being all informal about it or problem-solving work issues, we made the effort to make sure we were clear in our communication.

At the risk of feeling distant, we shared our values, we shared what mattered to us and we made sure that if something wasn’t working for us, we tried to do something about it.

This was not a great company to work for in spite of it being virtual. It’s a great company to work for because recruitment is done by the people working there, because the owner, Jurgen, is incredibly transparent about how he makes his decisions. It’s a great company to work for because people care and are given the space to innovate when they want to. It’s not a perfect company, but show me one that is.

I just wanted to share this with you because when I say that working in a virtual team can be just as wonderful as working with people sharing the same physical space,  I hear SO often things like, “Ah, but it will never be the same as face to face”.

This often puzzles me because, for one, not all face to face experiences are the same anyway. Besides, it’s not the face to face element that makes for a great experience, it’s the people taking part in it that make it great.



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