Building a (remote) culture of safety

Is the constant treadmill of remote video calls wearing you down? Are you feeling the distance from your colleagues? Well, how does a team visit to the pub sound? Or a quick chat over a coffee? No? sounds like you might need a well-being break. Learn how a team at BT has created a healthy, sustainable culture of remote working that works hard for them.

Robin Wong
7 min readMar 29, 2021
Photo by Alesia Kazantceva on Unsplash

This week I had a fascinating chat with one of my colleagues at BT and heard how his team have created something brilliant. Something that showcases the power of empathy, creativity and smart use of technology.

They have created a virtual office — of such magnificent splendour — that I have to say I’m a little jealous. In fact, it’s a virtual office that would put most real office spaces to shame.

Phyroze Mohamed

Phyroze Mohamed, who works as a Technology Leader serving a group of teams at BT has packed this vibrant and spacious virtual office with dozens of private offices and board rooms, a coffee shop, a pub, a series of well-being spaces and even an auditorium for all the regular events and hackathons that people take part in.

Rather than spend time on a gruelling series of back-to-back meetings, constantly context-switching, teams now work together in always-on virtual-offices. Conversation flows naturally. Distractions are minimised. Work hums along.

Culture comes first in this part of BT and it shows — they consistently get some of the highest colleague engagement scores and they’re delivering value to their customers consistently.

So what’s their secret?

They’re thriving because they have understood the importance of a culture of safety and they’ve worked hard to create a working environment that supports everyone in the team.

This has really helped them make the most of the technology they have to create a series of spaces where they feel a strong sense of physical, emotional and psychological safety. By focusing on their own needs and those of their colleagues, they’ve tweaked and adapted these virtual environments to give themselves the time and space they need to think, collaborate and innovate.

In this post, I’ll explain why it was so important for Phyroze to create this kind of virtual office, take you on a guided tour of the various spaces within it and what people use them for and hopefully prompt you to think about how you can make virtual working work harder for you.

The absence of engagement

Whether you’re an extrovert or are, like me, naturally more introverted, feeling engaged is critical to everyone’s mental well-being and their ability to think and collaborate effectively.

[Note: what I’m about to share is deeply personal for Phyroze and so I made sure to check in with him that he was happy for me to share the following]

At the start of our chat, Phyroze shared his personal motivations for ensuring that the people he served felt engaged and valued. He himself had suffered from depression in the recent past. At his lowest point, he started to have suicidal thoughts.

At that point, he read something that helped him make sense of these feelings, something that helped him get through this difficult time. It was Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections.

Johann Hari

The book spoke to him of how one’s sense of disconnection — from status, nature, a secure and hopeful future, from meaningful work, from others or meaningful value — could lead one to depression.

It was the words he needed to hear and it led him to focus more on himself and his own needs. He began to practice meditation and recognise his own feelings. Rather than letting those feelings pile up, he was able to deal with them in a more mindful way.

After helping himself to get through this and get a greater sense of engagement, he swore that he needed to change things for good. Not just for himself but for everyone he worked with. Nobody was going to suffer needlessly on his watch.

So as any Agile leader worth their salt would do, he worked with his fellow leadership team to think about what was and wasn’t working for the wider team and they bounced around a series of ideas about how they could make things better. And so, the virtual office was born.

The idea was simple. Create a virtual space that was easy to find, with a series of video chat rooms each team or group of collaborators could jump straight into and use without the hassle of having to set up a session.

Each squad got its own office, a board room and a bunch of breakout rooms they could use. Something they wouldn’t have easy and unfettered access to in their real office.

A central hub for the Virtual Office

At first, people loved it and quite quickly, more rooms were added.

But something wasn’t right. Teams were wanting to use the rooms, but people kept crashing their diaries until they were in back-to-back meetings again and this meant that many of the rooms lay dormant. Unused and of little value.

The teams brought it up in a retrospective.

“We’d love to use the virtual office more, but we’re constantly stuck in meetings, we never have time to talk about and do the work!”

Creating deeper engagement

To address this, Phyroze challenged them about what they actually needed all those meetings for. What value were they really adding towards their goals?

Instead, he encouraged everyone — down to the last person — to commit to working together in their teams in their virtual offices every Tuesday morning. No other meetings were allowed, requested or accepted.

This was the turning point.

People were not just able to- but encouraged to just sit together on a Microsoft Teams call and do their work, just like in a normal office.

Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

They were free at any moment to “reach out” and call out to a colleague to ask a question. Share a thought. Bounce an idea around.

It caught on like wildfire.

Even though they didn’t have to, people started joining their virtual offices on days other than Tuesdays. When conversations got too noisy and disturbed people’s concentration, they didn’t take it “offline” but decided instead to jump into one of the virtual boardrooms or breakout rooms to discuss things straight away. Momentum and flow were maintained.

Probably the best Virtual Office in the world?

Then they went further.

They added a virtual coffee shop called “Coffee Corner” where they were able to grab a table and have a chat.

Coffee Corner

“Fancy a coffee and a catch-up? I’ll meet you at Table 4 in five!”

They added a virtual pub — “The Phone and Dongle” where they had virtual events, drinks, music nights and charity fundraisers.

The “Phone and Dongle” Virtual Pub

They even added a well-being area, where anyone who wanted to, could practice guided meditation and the wider team could check in on each other as they worked through the lockdown.

Well-being Studio

For many people in the wider team, even if they didn’t take full advantage of all the facilities of the Virtual Office, all the team ceremonies were conducted there, all the Leadership team actively participated and role modelled the behaviours they wanted to see from others.

Just knowing it was there made people feel better.

Measurable Engagement

I was keen to see if there was a measurable difference this was making and there was clearly evidence of this.

I looked through the results of a regular engagement survey and not only did this group of people have the highest rate of engagement with the survey, but the levels of engagement in terms of their overall colleague satisfaction scores were the highest as well.

I often see low levels of engagement with surveys and low satisfaction scores where a team doesn’t feel like anyone is listening to their feedback and nothing changes.

That clearly was not the case here.

Leaders were listening and taking positive actions. Driving positive change.

A little empathy goes a long way

By understanding and working continuously to meet the needs of colleagues, Phyroze and his leadership team have succeeded in something very few have during the lockdown.

Under incredibly challenging conditions — a dramatic shift to remote working and a monotonous pattern of hour-long video chats that many have found hard to adjust to — they have met the challenge of creating a sustainable culture of safety and engagement.

Team members feel like a part of something safe and secure. Something that helps them do their best work and strike a balance they can control.

I hope this example helps you to think about how you work with your team, how you can create your own culture of safety and how you can make technology work harder for you.

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Robin Wong

I help people turn ideas into human- and humanity-centric ventures. Global Head of Service Design at BT.