My Spanish colleague, a highly experienced international facilitator, made some fascinating comments about her work supervising executive coaches on an online platform (live sessions). I felt it was worthwhile to share those thoughts in this blog.
She talked about how people can feel lost in a live online setting (a virtual classroom), because 1.) the environment is so different and 2.) a different set of ground rules apply. She used the metaphor of the astronaut: when she facilitates a group in a live online session she ‘feels like an astronaut walking in space’.
From working with many groups in live online sessions, we know that it is entirely possible to create so-called ‘virtual closeness’ (Hildebrandt et al. 2014) in a ‘virtual’ group or team. This is the sense of intimacy that makes group members forget they may be thousands of miles away from each other and enables them to engage in complex group tasks just as effectively as F2F groups or teams.
Image from Linguaschools
However, that ‘virtual closeness’ does not happen automatically. Building it requires a set of ground rules or etiquette that my Spanish colleague compares to learning a new language. As we all know, as a beginner in a new language, we can feel lost, like the astronaut experiencing weightlessness. We can also feel humble, and humility may be a particularly unpleasant space to be in for those who are used to being the ‘expert’ or have a big ego. We sometimes see people like this resisting the new language, reluctant to adopt the virtual etiquette and sticking to the notion that F2F contact (the familiar language) is superior to ‘virtual’ communication. They tend to persist in using the ‘old language’ of F2F communication in groups. This mostly happens on an unconscious level.
4 Things that people need to unlearn to be better able to build meaningful relationships in virtual space?
- The notion that F2F is always superior to remote collaboration: give it a try, trust the process!
- Do away with the classic etiquette of muting oneself in virtual sessions, blocking the opportunity for spontaneous, human communication
- Change the habit of arriving just in time for a meeting: in virtual space some time is needed to settle in and make sure that technology is doing its job properly. A bad audio connection of 1 person has a negative impact on the whole group and its task
- Move away from the focus on task only: make an effort to actively contribute to the social climate in the group, which means responding to questions and taking co-responsibility for a good atmosphere.
Intellectually, this is not challenging, but for those who are used to being the ‘expert’ or dominant player in a group, it takes a bit of humility to step back, learn these few words of the new ‘language’ and experiment with it.
More on virtual etiquette and building virtual etiquette in Nomadic IBP’s live online training sessions. Join us for a free demo every month, click here.
Fredrik Fogelberg is a chartered Organisational Psychologist specializing in leadership development and team facilitation in international organizations. He has over 30 years of international experience in the corporate world and as a consultant.