At the WAIC I co-presented a symposium with four other people from three other countries: France, Denmark and Holland. We also originally had a sixth partner from Greece, but the economic situation there meant he had to drop out – another story. In preparing for our presentation across time and country borders, I learnt something about the realities of virtual team working!
The original face-to-face meeting
The six of us originally met up in Manchester after the European AI network meeting when Cora (Dutch) pulled us together with an idea of developing a submission for WAIC. As usual at the end of an intense two days I was exhausted. I was flattered to be invited to join the group, and happy just to flop down somewhere with a coffee. I just kept saying yes and so found I had agreed to working together over the internet to get this proposal together. I agreed because with the group I felt warm, included, valued. I didn’t know any of the others particularly well but well enough to feel confident in the group to produce something.
So off we all went our separate ways. I think we had three internet meetings. None went smoothly and I felt bad about each one. The first I arrived late, partly because of the time difference and partly because it was in the evening and I resented having to be at my computer at 8pm at night. Of course when I found the others all there I felt bad.
The second one was better and I felt I redeemed myself a bit by volunteering to do some stuff. The last one was awful. No one could get the technology to work and so my evening was ticking by and I was hungry for my dinner. I think it was 30-45 minutes before we were all in contact. Then I got completely distracted as it seemed I hadn’t done something I had been asked when I was sure I had done everything I had promised. This meant I was searching through past papers and records to justify myself rather than listening. I did not spend these internet meetings in a particularly appreciative frame -it was hard work staying even near an appreciative place. They didn’t make me feel good about myself. Eventually we agreed that we would meet on the first evening of the conference to finalise things.
The value of glances
So we gathered. Immediately it felt good to be together. The process continued to be fraught with stress and under pressure yet it still felt good as a process. I was thinking about what made the difference between how it felt face to face and how it felt over the internet.
Two key things I noticed
1) face to face we could touch each other. It is amazing how much we use causal touch to reinforce, soften, apologise, support etc.
2) We could exchange glances with other people as someone was talking – checking out we are still OK, sharing something, catching their eye to communicate something.
In other words, as the words worked to sort out our session, finalise details, raise questions etc. Our non-verbals worked to connect, to transmit and create positive affect about and for each other, to sort out and resolve minor mis-alignments.
I am often asked about virtual team working and don’t usually have a very helpful answer. This experience has made it clear to me the high relational value of face-to-face interactions. I know they can’t always be arranged and they are expensive, but internet contact is no substitute. No doubt it can be done better than we did it, but it can not offer the richness of the relational communication of face-to-face interaction.
The difference showed up, for me, in my mood, level of engagement, feelings towards the group, ability to be patient, helpful etc.