Upgrowth: Learning in Virtual Teams

To coincide with National Learning at Work Week, I’d like to focus on the U of VIRTUAL: Upgrowth. We also have articles on VisibilityIdentityResults, Trust and Appreciation.

Yes, I admit that it was difficult to find another word for the VIRTUAL model to fit the letter U, but providing the opportunities for people to learn at work is something that often gets lost in the middle of other daily priorities. My spell checker doesn't recognise the word UPGROWTH, but when I look for synonyms in Thesaurus, I'm presented with all these choices, so I'm sure I'm using the right word.


When I saw that National Learning at Work Week was taking place, my immediate thought was: surely, we need to be learning all the time at work – ok, not ALL the time, but regularly. But anything that raises awareness of the learning opportunities there are (or should be) in the workplace gets my vote.


Learning? Isn’t that what you do at school?


Learning does not only happen in a formal environment. Learning means improving your knowledge and skills (hopefully learning for the better, not for worse…) and this can be done in a variety of ways.


Learning can happen through informal conversations, through formal feedback sessions, through formal or informal coaching, through team projects, by surfing online, by watching videos, by taking part in online discussions and forums… The list has always been endless and now with technology, it’s only increasing.

Good leadership involves getting the best out of people and good management involves ensuring your team doesn’t stand still. In order to do that, people need to be willing to continuously reassess their work practices and to adapt to new circumstances: they need to be ready and willing to learn.

In a virtual team, it’s even easier to forget about making the space for our team members and ourselves to learn. In a similar way to how we need to be deliberate with our communication, we need to consciously embed learning opportunities in our team process.


So how do we do this?


The easiest thing is to start with ourselves. To role model those behaviours that signal that we think it’s ok, or in fact, that we see as essential to learn at work. One of the things we can do is ask for feedback. The key for asking for feedback is to be as specific as when you are giving it. Asking for feedback on a report is a good first step, but what would you like me to check? Your structure? Your overall message? Your grammar?

(For more on Asking for Feedback see the HBR article How To Get the Feedback You Need)

Of course there are other ways of showing that we take our development seriously. Sharing new information or knowledge you’ve come across is an obvious way of doing so. Sharing learning insights you’ve had when tackling a new task, project or client are also ways of not just signaling that it’s important to learn on the job, but also of helping team members learn with you.


Schedule Team Learning Sessions

What better way of strengthening your team and aligning team members than learning together? Committing to sharing one thing you’ve learned a month with the rest of the team is not just a great way of sharing your development, but it also makes you pay attention to everything you are learning every day.

Organising regularly these kind of informal (but structured) sessions is a great way of encouraging informal interactions between team members while showing that you value (and expect) their growth.


Have An Online Space to Share

In a similar way to sharing in real time, having a dedicated space for people to share new discoveries or new information is a great way of encouraging informal communication.

When first set up, these discussions might take a while to kick off, so it’s important that you or someone in your team is dedicated to animating them, in the way that you would animate an online forum. Posting links to articles and videos is a way of getting the conversation going.

You can use online and mobile RSS tools like Flipboard to share articles or create a hashtag to alert your team members to interesting articles.


Embrace the 20% Time Mentality

It’s been a while since I’ve come across a reference to Google’s 20% time. The idea of allowing employees to spend some of their time working on their own projects was made popular by Google when the company started taking over the internet world.

As a way of innovating, it’s great because, let’s face it, what projects do you think employees are more likely to push for and obsessively commit to: those that they’ve been allocated or those they have come up with themselves?

But aside from helping people innovate, this work-pleasure time encourages learning. When you work on something that interests you, you are happy to go out of your way to learn how to improve your skills or your product/hobby, etc.


Know What To Do With Mistakes

Maybe this should have been number 1. Because with learning comes making mistakes. Not always, but often. We get things wrong, we revert to old habits, one step forwards leads to two steps back… We try something new and in the process of mastering it, we make a mistake that impacts every one else.

How do we deal with this? As tempting as it may be to get frustrated, to scowl (in capital letters, we’re talking virtual) or to spit out “Make sure it never happens again”, first think about why a mistake was made.


Carelessness? Then yes, go ahead, hit CAPS LOCK.


Is the mistake being communicated promptly? Is advice or help being sought? Is the team member trying to make things better, fast?

Then take a breath, think through your words, put it into perspective and turn the mistake into a learning opportunity.

Easier said than done, but we should always try.

UPGROWTH is the U model in VIRTUAL, NOT DISTANT a new online course for managers and leaders of virtual teams.