From my days as a consultant to now managing a virtual startup team, I have managed virtual teams at both national and international levels. One of the more nuanced challenges I learned to deal with was creating and working to the “invisible clock.”
In a physical office setting we quickly learn to mark the passage of time not just by the clock on the wall but also by events that happen every day. There is the moment when a regular meeting starts or ends. There is the moment when someone usually stops by your desk to talk. There is the moment when you walk to a window and take a look at the street below. All these moments signal to us the passage of time through a workday. They become ingrained in our subconscious and we subtly plan our work and activities around this learned cadence, i.e., this invisible clock.
When teams move to virtual environments they, at best, lose this invisible clock or, at worst, find that the invisible clock in their new environment (at home, for example) clashes with their work cadence. As a manager, it’s important to reestablish the required cadence virtually. For example, I spoke recently with a scientist whose team closed their lab last week and is now working from home. In their physical space, the cadence of the lab (meetings, experiments, equipment checks, etc.) was clearly understood and, more importantly, felt throughout the day. My advice to him was to create a virtual cadence with four components:
• Start-of-day huddle from 8:45-9:00 to sync on the day’s goals and actions
• End-of-day huddle from 4:45-5:00 to assess work completed sync on any work needed before morning
• “Office hours” from 1-2pm each day where he joins Webex and stays on Webex for 1 hour (even if no one stops by)
• “Ping” each team member at least once per day just to say hello (either at set times or when it fits their daily schedule)
The office hours element of the cadence is very important. First of all, it resets the team back into “work mode” after lunch, which does not happen easily at home. Second, it lets the team members plan their day around the time window when they can talk to their boss without a meeting invite having to be sent. Indeed, I started doing office hours when my team told me they hesitated to set up meetings formally because they were concerned “I was too busy.” I was busy but not so much that I did not want to be contact at any time.
There are more advanced things you can do in a hybrid physical/virtual environment. For example, I had a “robot” I could log into and use to move around the office when I was remote. Also, I had TVs with zoom located next to tables where my team gathered (so not just in conference rooms) to bring me close to where they were.
For a 100% virtual model, thinking about your invisible clock back in the office or lab and how to replace it with a virtual one is a small but effective way to give your team a sense of progress throughout the work day. Indeed, you may find that the increased rigor of opening and closing each day as a team is something you keep once you go back to your physical environment. Most importantly, creating your invisible clock will provide you and your team with the unifying feeling of a shared experience for as long as you inhabit different physical spaces.