Virtual reality: truths about the world of virtual work

I’m crouched down, in a weird seated-squat position. I have earphones dangling from ears and my iPhone is to my right, on the floor. I’m looking at a GoToMeeting screen as a chat unfolds in our weekly team all-hands meeting.

An hour later, I’m stretched on my back across two bean bags. Again white earphone buds plug my ears and three accents, from three different countries chime in my ear, as our team meets to talk about an enterprise plan we’re building for one of our partners. It is the GoToMeeting icon I look at for this hour.

Two hours later, I’m sitting cross-legged on my kitchen counter, watching an egg boil for my lunch. I have my microphone on mute. I am a silent listener to a meeting about a new partner who wants us to work very differently. I listen to the team raise concerns, risks, ideas. I am part of a solution being built inside a virtual meeting.

Twenty minutes later and I am again plugging my earphones in. This time, I am listening to a recording of our ops team’s locker room session. I have never attended one of these sessions in person, but we have promoted one of our senior deployment consultants to a managerial position and he is making really progressive changes within the team. He wants me to be aware of these things. And here, as I pace my living room, I am witness to a meeting that happened hours earlier, which I couldn’t attend because I was in another time zone, fast asleep. It makes me happy to hear the laughter of the team, the snarky comments. I can see some eye rolls happening across the distance.

Myself and Tracey, my co-founder, established our company with one clear agreement between us both: she wanted to stay in her little town in the winelands of the South African Cape; I wanted to travel, and more importantly we wanted to be able to hire the best talent from anywhere in the world. We also wanted to enable our team to work from anywhere in the world. It is important to me that someone can walk out of the ocean, after a morning surf, and be able to take a team meeting from the back of their Land Rover. It is equally important that if someone wants to be part of a co-working space inside their own community that they have the opportunity to do that. If a crazy good serial entrepreneur wants to work with us but he wants to raise his daughter in the Italian countryside, then he should absolutely be able to do that.

Tools like Telegram, Teamwork, Wrike, Xero, Wunderlist, Zapier, IFTT, Evernote, Google for Business, Skype, GoToMeeting, Slack, Pivotal Tracker, to name just a few have made this possible for us.

But make no mistake: building this type of company culture is hard. Harder than Tracey and I imagined it would be. The concept of a virtual team is a great one: many individuals are highly attracted to it but the reality of what it takes to make a virtual team work is an entirely different reality: sort of like the core exercises my trainer shows me during early morning training: they look deceptively easy until my abdominals need to do three sets of 20 reps each. It burns and it takes many rounds of practice to actually do the set correctly.

I would go so far as to say this has been the area in our company where we have made the most mistakes and learned the hardest lessons. It has taken us about 18 months of iterating how we hire and who we hire to find a semi-sweetspot. I still don’t believe we have it quite right.

Some of the hard realities that come with building, and being part of a virtual team, include:

It demands superior communication skills

During times of uncertainty, crisis, or risk management, one needs to communicate more regularly because body language cannot be observed. During times of celebration and achievement, a joint language that transcends distance, that is the equivalent of a smile or a high-five, needs to be developed and jointly shared in. During everyday activity, exact, precise needs and requirements need to be communicated with clarity. People who like to work alone, away from others and people who do not like to communicate about what they are doing, simply have no place in a virtual team: they will be a major cause of its eventual breakdown.

It needs a high degree of self-awareness

In a virtual environment, one’s personal energy can be felt more strongly. A silence on a virtual call is harder to withstand than a natural silence in an in-person meeting. An awareness of the vibe one transmits and being willing to adapt that, whilst being accepting of vibes that are different to yours is important.

It requires self-reflection and continual learning

As a team, it is important to take time to reflect on the joint overall performance: we have Monday and Friday check-ins where we do reviews of the week to ensure we are consistently iterating towards a better version of ourselves. This is critical because each person is effectively inside their own little silo, and a collective virtual gathering has to happen to create mindshare.

It takes responsibility

Lines blur on who does what inside teams who occupy space together. This is not the case inside virtual teams: individuals need to fully own every single line they write, every word they utter, every action they take. They need to not only own it, but they need to communicate its impact, its outcome and the support required. Very many of these elements are things taken for granted within in-person teams.

It desires humanness

One needs to be oneself, fully. The quirk. The awkward. The funny. The hidden. All of it. The more of the human comes to the party, the better the party is. Simple. Harder to do than most imagine.

It craves a tolerance for ambiguity

Spaces change. Systems change. Processes change. One new person on the team changes the entire communication dynamic. A tolerance, a welcoming even of the unknown is something a good virtual team member should desire and want.

It depends upon global thinking

Foreign accents are welcomed. Cultural differences are celebrated. A curiosity about the world and all its weird wonderment is a necessity. One simply cannot be boxed into your own little known world.

With a team of 25 people scattered across Europe, Africa and the US, my mornings are a blur of back to back online meetings. I am generally to be found doing some weird pose in my gym pants, and around lunch time, I exchange sweaty attire for a sandwich and a more civilised hairstyle. I sometimes take another online GoToMeeting call in the back of an Uber, or while I walk to the office, where I spend my afternoon working away as most of my team laughs and plays with the people they love before bedtime.

What other hard truths have you noticed in your virtual work? Let us know in the comments below.

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About the author

Claire Burge is an entrepreneur, speaker and CEO at This is Productivity, Claire is passionate about human acceleration and workplace transformation, and fascinated by the intersection between systems and human behaviour. She works with a diverse range of clients in the corporate and technology sector, and along with her team, is focused on redefining the future of work in the following areas: humans, technology and space. More blog posts by Claire Burge ››
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