Inspired by lots of pieces that I’ve read since the COVID-19 lock down happened, I wanted to share AWA’s experience in working from home. Formed nearly 28 years ago, AWA has always operated a “virtual” model. From the early days operating solely from the UK, our directors and associates were spread across the UK – coming together when we needed to, either for team meetings or when working together on client assignments.

In recent times, our community has grown to a global virtual team of 50 people. Thanks to the joys of technology, we can connect and work together across time zones and geographical boundaries, but you might reasonably ask, how cohesive is this team really? How can you be “close” when you aren’t together?

The truth is that we do get together, and we value that time enormously – and make the most of it. As a busy organisation however, bringing that many people together is a logistical challenge. Clients come first, and so finding a few days when we can focus on team building and bonding is difficult. A lot of our decisions have been based on our working away research,

The UK team met regularly last year, but even then, not everyone was able to attend the event in person. Plus we had our overseas associates and partners joining in via video link, which let’s face it, is never the best experience (the people ‘in the room’ can get caught up in their discussion and those on the video link often feel like outsiders, however hard you try. But, as the saying goes, it’s better than nothing and we need to make do when working from home.

Let’s get the team together!

Towards the end of 2019, our Managing Director and Founder, Andrew Mawson, said he really wanted to bring everyone to London for a few days of socialising, training and knowledge sharing. The “Knowledge Festival” idea was born. A few tense days of scouring diaries resulted in the end of March being chosen for everyone from North America, South America, Canada, India, the Far East, Europe and the UK to meet up in London. We booked flights. We arranged accommodation. We planned the content. Everyone was looking forward to meeting those they had only seen via web cams – and those they hadn’t engaged with at all because they are relatively new.

What a fabulous opportunity to build on the values we hold most dear – community, trust, cohesion, sharing knowledge and co-creating new stuff!

As the date grew closer, we worried that it wasn’t going to happen and then of course every country started locking down, so it became impossible.

So as everyone else started working from home – we continued to do so because that was “business as usual” for us – but we were potentially going to be robbed of an important event.

We’ll do it anyway!

Once we resigned ourselves to the inevitable, we figured that as everyone already had the time blocked out in their calendars, we would carry on and run everything virtually. It would be different, but we saw it as a challenge to see how much cohesion, trust, sharing and fun we could have virtually. Could we bring our people together, help them get to know each other better, do some virtual / remote team building and create an atmosphere where they could relax, be themselves and have fun?

Why being cohesive is so important

At AWA, we know through our research into the productivity of knowledge workers (carried out in partnership with the Center for Evidence Based Management – CEBMa) that social cohesion is strongly correlated with the performance of teams, as is trust. If we know each other as people, know what each other knows, care about each other and look out for each other, then we are more likely to trust each other and work productively together. And vice versa – if someone has demonstrated that they can be trusted not to let you down, your trust in them will encourage you to get to know them better, and so on.

That said, the desire for cohesion is not simply about productivity and performance (although of course as a business that is extremely important). The other important factor is that our team is comfortable enough to share their knowledge and skills with other members of the team, for the good of all and for AWA. Being social is an important aspect of working well at home.

For example, if I am working on a project and I need some advice from other members of the community who have perhaps been in the same situation before – I want to be able to reach out and ask for input, even though the other people aren’t involved in my project. There is, on the surface, nothing “in it” for them – so why should they spend their time helping me? That is what we see in so many organisations that are organised in silos and where people are focused solely on silo targets and objectives.

In AWA, fortunately, we don’t have silos and our community, through years of demonstrating and role modelling our culture to everyone in the group, knows that whatever they contribute will be paid back by others at some point. We are a generous community and you’re probably thinking we sound a bit too good to be true! And hey, we aren’t perfect by any means, but we do try hard to live by these principles, particularly as we see in so many organisations the missed opportunities to share knowledge which would benefit the business.

The AWA Knowledge Festival

It was clear that we couldn’t run four full days of activities as we had planned for the London event. People would be joining from different time zones so we would miss many of them for good chunks of the day. We knew that sustaining concentration, staring at a screen (even if you’re interested and involved) would be too much over that amount of time. So here is what we did, and what we learned:

1. People go out of their way.
We held sessions on Monday through Thursday afternoons (UK time) and provided a half hour break to provide time to move/refresh/refuel. This nicely captured all but one of our time zones (Australia) through some of the team getting up really early or spending their evening with us (in one case fitting it around an online yoga class!).

Those in the core time zone (UK/Europe) also prioritised being involved wherever they could. There was some inevitable coming and going as many people had client meetings to attend online, but when they could, they came back when they were done. All this time was voluntary – people weren’t TOLD they had to participate. They did so because they wanted to get something out of being involved – and right at the start we had them make a list of what they wanted to cover during the week.

2. Find out how everyone is.
We started the week with a check-in. These are difficult and scary times – we had some members off with the virus and others returning from having been sick. We needed time to hear their stories and to see how everyone else was feeling – which developed some welcome group empathy. This word cloud sums up the themes of how people were feeling. These activities helped set the mood for the event – yes these are challenging times, but there are also opportunities.

Figure 1 Word cloud created in MeetingSift – a great engagement tool for face to face and remote brainstorming, polling and evaluating

3. Let people know you understand.
It is obvious that this is a strange time. Working at home is not like it was before, for many people. Some now have children around who need supervision or home schooling; some are sharing their space with a partner who is also working at home; some have pets who demand attention or always bark excitedly at the mailman during a call; some are worried about loved ones who are sick; some are missing their clients and the human contact that goes with those types of engagements; and many simply feel they can’t operate at 100% with all the mental distractions.

We wanted to acknowledge that it’s ok if your child comes in and interrupts you – we understand. It’s ok if you have brain fog and can’t think straight – we’ll wait until you can. If you are overwhelmed and have to revert to your native tongue to sort out your thoughts, we’ll use Google translate! If you were late joining because you ran out of food and it took longer than you expected to get some essentials because of the trolley queue – we’ll recap for you when you join. And so on. Take the pressure off. Be kind. Be understanding. Know that everyone is doing the best they can.

4. You CAN build cohesion virtually.
At the beginning of the week, there were many associates who didn’t know each other at all. Either they were new / in a different geographical area than most others / had been working on completely different projects etc. We built a simple “Who do you know?” matrix and encouraged people to fill it in – showing who they know well, who they have met / worked with, but didn’t feel they know WELL, and those they didn’t know at all.

We also provided a map showing where everyone is based and provided an “AWA Family” guide which summarises each person’s experience, skills and preferences as well as some fun facts about them. All these resources prompted people to think, to be curious, to identify colleagues they’d like to meet and get to know, and overtly gave them permission to do so. Sometimes people need permission and it can help overcome awkwardness too.

We found that over the week, through group Zoom discussions (large and small), and an informal, relaxed, “video and mic on” approach, people started to get to know more people. For some, it was a start (which they can now continue), for others the opportunity to deepen existing relationships.

The (now) ubiquitous Zoom screen grab – the first 25 thumbnails that give you a wall of lovely people to look at while you’re talking!

5. It’s good to learn together.
Our work-focused sessions allowed people to “learn by doing”, encouraged people to share knowledge to help others come up to speed, and to ask plenty of questions. All of this relates to our research that tells us that sharing information in an open and generous way is really important. We need to be able to trust the information and skills of our colleagues.

From our research about working apart (also done with CEBMa) we also know that building strong relationships and a sense of “workership” (we don’t have hierarchy in AWA) are essential for sustaining strong, virtual teams. Through the process, people found out more about what their colleagues know (they worked in small groups).  We don’t tell people – we share what we think would be helpful and let them figure out the best ways of using that knowledge. We ask for their feedback to help keep our tools developing and responsive to new experiences.

6. It’s ok to have fun.
In addition to the more “serious” content, we also took time to destress – to have fun together by playing a group game on our phones. We broke into small groups (Zoom breakout rooms) and played with just a handful of people. I can honestly say I hadn’t laughed so much for ages. Zoom has come under fire recently regarding various security concerns, so it’s wise to pay attention to your settings to ensure you do all you can to stop nefarious people gate-crashing your event or trying to make off with data they shouldn’t have. There are other ways to create breakouts of course – people could simply call each other on Skype, Teams, Hangouts, Jitsi or whatever you’re using.

What the breakout does is simulate that sense of having a more intimate experience with a few people. I’m sure all my colleagues will remember the people they laughed with while playing the game. All great social cohesion!

To round off the week, we had a virtual happy hour. Everyone donned hats and got a drink to hand – and because of the timing, some had alcohol, some had coffee, others had cocoa! But it worked and we celebrated Andrew’s birthday as well.

Everything we did during this virtual Festival was designed and guided by our belief in the “Six Factors” and “Agile Workforce” research findings. If you can design events where people live / experience the factors rather than being taught about them, then they are far more likely to take away a lasting and meaningful understanding of what’s important for them and for their clients.