Value of Virtual: Can virtual be as valuable as face-to-face?

23 09 2010

Phil Anderson, Ashridge faculty, has had to try and follow Sarah Outen’s marvellous account of her ventures across the Indian ocean and managing a virtual team in a life-and-death situation.

This is a session with moving around and people actually have to do things…

In four groups, the participants have to nominate an architect and, to simulate the problems of virtual teams, the architect stands behind a metaboard and has to describe an abstract picture while the other members of the team have to draw it.

An interesting observation is how difficult it is to hear the architect of your team when you have other sin the room also trying to do the same thing. A metaphor for the noise in the office that means that when you’re trying to sit through a WebEx session, it is sometimes too tempting to do some emails and read other websites while listening to the speaker.

One big learning I’ve got from the group nearest to me doing this exercise is how you all need to know what the right word you need is? Is it a trapesium or a squashy rectangle thingie? You know what you mean. Your team know what they think you mean. But do they know what you mean? Because they think they know what you mean, you might not realise for a long time that you actually mean something completely different.

The groups have now discussed what they did well and what they could have done better.

Do people need to discuss, before working together virtually, how they should work together?

There are some protocols and exercises that can really help everyone create the right culture to efficiently use a virtual communication (such as a WebEx session or a tele-conference), and avoid them reading emails while on the phone, and so on.

The take-aways for working and learning virtually:
Logitstics
1. everyone should use headsets that cover both ears – connected to a landline, not a mobile
2. work in a closed office
3. if you have glass walls to the office, try and turn your back to reduce distractions
4. work from home if possible, so long as the kids aren’t there!
5. avoid any other phone in the room you are in, avoid a laptop or computer (those pesky emails will beg for answering)
6. A must: everybod hsould be working on the phone (use the same channel of communication) even if two people happen to be in the same office on the day of the session. Working with a mixture of people, face-to-face and others virtually distort the communication!
7. No driving while in an Audio Action Learning session!

Getting ready for the work
1. establish some time buffer (15 minutes?) before the session to help focus your thoughts and remember what you needed to work on
2. establish some time buffer (20-30 minutes?) after the session to reflect and settle after the virtual meeting before moving on to the next meeting. Avoid having very important meetings directly after the session.

The process in the Audio Action Learning session
1. Focus the exercise – use up to 8 minutes to focus and concentrate on the issue at hand, regardless of the time-zone the attendees are in.
2. Working on people issues (as in face-to-face Action Learning)
3. Review after each round (also reviewing how the work goes virtually and what we learn from it)
4. Breaks in between rounds – e.g. 15 minutes
5. Completion exercise – a ‘virtual hand-shake’ or a ‘virtual kiss’ to say goodbye properly. The ritual is useful – it stops people feeling they’ve just been hung-up on!

Communication processes between sessions
1. Send reminder emails
2. Send teleconference details etc.

Ground rules
1. Confidentiality! What goes on in the virtual space, stays in the virtual space!
2. Joining late – if people join more than 10 minutes late, you may want to decide that it is too late as they will disrupt the flow and have missed the important issues.

Key Lessons / Learnings from remote team working exercise
1. Different skills – you can’t communicate with people in the same way virtually as in face-to-face…so you need to explain things differently – use different skills to get your point over.
2. Having the right attitude is very important – if people want to make it work, then you can usually find a way to make it work and focus on the task and on the relationship. Be positive!
3. Pay attention to what is filling in the blanks – when we cannot physically see, our mind fills the blanks. Context and culture fill in the blanks. Don’t assume everyone has understood you the way they would if you were in the same room.
4. Slow down to go faster – visual information travels faster than audio (light is speedier than sound!) – which also means that dysfunctional dynamics are amplified in the virtual space.
5. Spell it out and pause! – when working remotely, the need to be even more precise and explicit and giving time for questions is important. If people are working in a second language – think again.
6. Relax and make it normal for all – if you’re running a virtual session, you need to help them feel that it is usual and natural. Higher concentration is needed than face-to-face, so it’s important that people feel comfortable saying when they don’t understand something or were distracted.

At the end, the attendees wondered if they could catch up with each other four weeks after the event to discuss the issues raised today.
We’ll be interested to see if that actually works for all!

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Value of Virtual: Sarah Outen – ‘A Virtual Lifeline – rowing solo across the Indian Ocean’

23 09 2010

Sarah Outen is a young woman who decided, while studying at Oxford, that she wanted to row, solo, across an ocean. She decided to row from Perth (Australia) to Mauritius (Africa) – that’s from east to west (usefully she has shown a map of her route).

The only way she was able to do this was by using new technology to stay in touch with her family and team. Her weatherman, Ricardo, for example, was in Portugal.

She also explains how she fed her energy requirements… 500 bars of chocolate! And she still lost 20 kg in weight… so a diet worth following for anyone who has time to row the atlantic.

The first lesson she learnt from this massive task was, as the leader of the team, she should have asked everyone how they felt. She assumed everyone was as enthusiastic and positive as she was at the start…but in retrospect that might not have been the case.

The technology helped in the first instance by having a GPS tracking beacon that allowed Sarah and her mum at home and Ricardo in Australia and other supporters around the globe to track her and see, unfortunately, that due to currents and wind directions, she spent 10 days rowing in an enormous circle.

Positive thinking helped here… she decided that that was not a failure, but a ‘warm up lap’.

The second attempt, one week later, was more successful…and still an odd challenge given that Sarah was frightened of deep water and didn’t want to have to swim under the boat to scrape the barnacles of the bottom. She made friends with some local fish though, which she ended up speaking to as the great technology of the satellite phone proved too expensive to use often.

Second question to ask her team: how do we measure progress?

After spending 40 days to reach what should have taken a week, since she kept getting blown back towards Australia and spent eight hours a day trying to stay still, Sarah heard Ricardo suggesting she rowed forty miles due west where the weather was better. However, she was unable to row closer to Mauritius and unable to row closer to the better weather. So, how do you measure progress?

She decided it was progress if she got to the end of another day.

Lesson two: set reaslistic goals when working with virtual teams and accept that what might seem simple to you might be near impossible for the person on the other side of the world.

The third question she asked herself was: how do you keep people motivated in virtual teams?

“If you have lemons, make lemonade!”

Look for the albatrosses that might illuminate your day…look for the good when everything is bad…look for

Two storms colliding and Sarah had to try and row 20 hours a day to get out of the centre of it.

Imagine waves as tall as the Ashridge steeple.
Imagine wanting to stay in your cabin all the time and hide from the storm, which is big and scary and throws you around.

Would you want to go out and row and be in the storm that is big and scary and throws you around?

Individual choices…Sarah went out to try and do something…and while nipping back in the cabin for a moment, Sarah’s boat got capsized.

She floated in the salt water, trying to hold her breath, desperately hoping that the boat woiuld right itself as it was supposed to.

The boat did turn the right way up again. Life ain’t so bad after all, even if she was hanging off the side of the boat by her lifeline with huge waves crashing over her.

Eventually, she got through to Ricardo who thought – on her capsizing – that it would probably have refreshed her!

All told she spent over four months rowing in a long doodle of a route that did its utmost to avoid any straight lines – what can you do with the wind? But Sarah managed – against the odds – to close to Mauritius and began to talk to her team and a Mauritian friend to try and arrange the arrival.

She needed a pilot to guide her over the reef for the final stretch.

The pilot only had a rubber dingy that was not allowed to go past the reef.

There was no plan B.

Unfortunately, Sarah was rowing through large waves that meant the support boat couldn’t find her. The boat capsized twice more over the reef…and Sarah decided she needed to get inside the cabin. As she was entering, another wave came, half-flooded the cabin and capsized the boat again.

Not a good place to be.

Sarah made a MayDay call, but only got silence. She tried the satellite phone. No answer. She used flares. She saw three flshes that said ‘help is coming’ – but was it three flashes or was it a tree swaying infront of a street lamp on shore?

The helicopter finally got her off the boat, and she finally met Ricardo…who – communication problems apart – had helped her across the ocean and whom she trusted completely.

Final message? Sarah gives some take-aways…

Lessons from the Ocean

  • Defined goals and secondaries
  • Clear systems and contingencies
  • Progress and praise and follow up
  • Know thyself, know thy team
  • Strong leadership
  • Attitude
  • Energy
  • Trust, respect, value

The positive attitude is essential. If the team is not on the same page, they won’t get to the end of the book. Sarah is planning to row around the world, but is choosing a team only of people who are positive that the project can be achieved.

Finally, communication is essential – say what you mean and mean what you say.

You can follow Sarah at: www.sarahouten.co.uk or on Twitter @sarahouten





Value of Virtual: Barbara Harvey on ‘Overcoming the Challenges of Leading Global Teams’

23 09 2010

Unfortunately I missed the first part of Barbara’s session, but Phil Anderson, a colleague who will speak later today, has passed me some notes which follow.

Barbara Harvey is a Senior Executive at Accenture where she is the global lead for industry and survey research.

During the Q&A session, someone asked about finding a work-life balance. According to Barbara, “it depends”. She says her days are not divided into ‘work’ and ‘life’ but a combination of both. If it’s a lovely day, she might go for a nice walk in the woods but then be working at 10pm at night because she has to have a conference call with colleagues in San Francisco.

On a personal basis, isn’t this the way forward for all knowledge workers? Once organisations overcome the issues of trust, which they should with knowledge anyway, surely people work best when they are ready to do the work, and not when the company, or society, says that you must write a report between 9am and 5pm.

Of course, when you are dealing with clients, you have to meet their timetables, which will often be during traditional office hours. But global clients in different time zones automatically mean that you must be flexible on when you are available to talk to the client…and, according to Barbara, they should also be flexible that you might not be available at 10pm at night.

Barbara also says that on conference calls, the first thing she always asks is when people are able to work… so that you can find common timetables that suit all attendees. 8pm in the evening, for example, is no good for people with young children, but they might be happier to talk at 10pm.

Management and leaders in organisations can take the lead here, according to Barbara, by stating categorically that they will not email you at the weekend or on holiday. Absolutely never. If there is an emergency, the manager can call, but the manager can set the bar by saying that emails will not be sent at the weekend.

Now…Phil’s notes on Barbara’s session…

What are the issues of leading virtual teams?

Getting to know people is harder. How do we start conversations… chat about stuff… kids, hobbies…

Once a year – run a virtual quiz.. all picture driven… people and stuff around the world… do it for a charity… do it in own teams… have about 25 teams competing in this… marketing and others…

Christmas party – allocate a budget.. you have to go out with whoever is in your local team.. and you have to take a picture of something funny which represents your experience…

Teddy bear around the world – sent it on to various people… and record the bear’s journey…

Also look at other festivals as they happen.. it doesn’t work in all cultures…

What about conflict?

IF there’s ever something being exchanged which is NOT good… everyone encouraged to pick up the phone – “unacceptable”…

You cannot send a “grumpy” e-mail at the end of the day… unless you’re willing to get up early in the morning to deal with it and have “the conversation”…

Good way to get ideas… and there are measures / prizes for those who use it…

Office communicator – call everywhere apart from India for free

Technology champions in each region – they’re techies… and they try things out and recommend to others and then help them to make it work…you need ‘champions’ of the technology…

Celebrating success:

Making a real point of celebrating.. trophies, money to go and celebrate…

Innovation and impact prize

Prizes for people development – recognising

Recognising individuals who have spent a lot of time developing themselves… named after a former colleague who passed away but was seen as someone who was effective in developing themselves





Value of Virtual: Leading Global Teams

23 09 2010

Pam Jones, who runs programmes at Ashridge on Leading Virtual Teams and Leading Global Teams, is now asking about how teams are made up? Are they multi-disciplinary? Are they in different cultures? Are they geographically disperse?

And yet, despite the talk of virtual, a very Ashridge exercise to engage the audience is about to begin, with two metre bamboo canes and blind-folds being distributed.

Is this aimed at motivating people that virtual is better? Less chance of getting beaten by the boss?

Alas no, it is about doing a physical exercise together but with some members blind-folded, and therefore experiencing the exercise as if they were virtual attendees.

Interestingly everyone is quick to join in and happy to manoeuvre in the dark.

Feedback once everyone is safely sat down with blindfolds removed and canes safely stored in the corner is:

  • Regular communication and lots of feedback was essential
  • Visualising helped
  • Physical contact made a difference (they were clearly cheating!)
  • Enjoyable and fun
  • Some found it liberating (others did not).

Apparently 50% of all communication is visual…so how do you deal with that with virtual?





Value of Virtual: Context, Background and Learning Dimensions

23 09 2010

The Value of Virtual event today at Ashridge has begun with Tony Sheehan, Learning Services Director, asking the audience how they use virtual tools and techniques to help them ‘work, learn and play’?

One of the issues raised is making all learning in an organisation equal and fair for everyone. However, surely all learning styles restrict people in different ways? Some people prefer to work through things at arm’s length and in their own time, some thrive on the classroom.

Of course one of the issues that is as yet in its infancy is how the classroom can be brought online, with the interaction available in face-to-face learning also beginning to be available over the internet…using video conferencing, virtual worlds and so on.

Vijay Modha, current MBA student at Ashridge has raised the problem there, however, at how verbal communication doesn’t capture everything…as there is so much that is through body language, facial expressions and so on.

Another question raised was if something as simple as email could be considered as ‘virtual’?





Learning matters

13 09 2010

One of the problems organisations increasingly face in a downturn is how to cut costs. The obvious target for many is the Learning and Development budget. In short, companies will invest in staff in the good times, and let them fester in the bad.

This is hardly good business practice at any time, and is unlikely to prepare the organisation for when the downturn ends and business picks up.

One of the problems we face, therefore, is how to improve learning for participants, so that the learning sticks and is more efficient. If a manager can get as much value from a 3 day programme as they can from a 13 day one, the former will always be preferred as there are lower direct costs involved, and the indirect costs of the manager being away from the workplace will also reduce.

Making learning stick is not as easy as it sounds, however. When a manager can choose between the carrot and the stick to get things done, the educator must find a third way. The student needs to be motivated, but that isn’t enough – the learning must reach their brains in ways that will engage the right areas of the brain before evaporating into the ether.