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:
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!