Collaborating in the virtual space: observations from practice

Annual UK business travel for 2014 was estimated at 31 billion euros. As it becomes increasingly common for working groups and teams to be geographically dispersed, this figure is likely to rise.

What if we could create virtual working spaces that actually… work!

If we can make virtual working attractive, productive, efficient, compelling, enjoyable and, above all, a highly regarded alternative to face-to-face meetings, then organisations could save on travel time and costs and we could all benefit from reduced carbon emissions.

If you delight in the early morning scrum at Heathrow or relish the opportunity to pay eye-watering train fares (£371 for a London-Glasgow open return travelling before 09:00), then thinking about working virtually probably isn’t important for you. If, on the other hand, you have better things to do with your time and money, then read on.

I recently conducted focus group discussions with experienced virtual action learning practitioners from the UK, US, and Canada. (The full article will be published later this year). The purpose of the discussions was to find out what practitioners are learning about working virtually, what really works well, and what difficulties arise. In the article I also draw on personal experience of working virtually with clients from twenty-five countries. While our discussions centred on virtual action learning, the skills developed when working virtually are readily transferable and could give organisations a strong competitive advantage.

One of the key factors for successful virtual working is how to set the whole thing up. One practitioner said  “80% of success happens before the first meeting.”  What’s more, one of the main obstacles to effective virtual working is that prospective participants almost always assume that working virtually is second-rate – “we only do it because we can’t get together”.  So, addressing this assumption early on and positioning virtual working as a different way of working rather than a second-rate way of working, is vitally important.

Some of the other success factors include the depth of experience of the facilitator and the technology you use. An experienced facilitator will carefully hold the virtual space and support participants in making the switch from face-to-face to virtual, and from visual to verbal cues where voice-only is used. As for technology, it seems that simplest is best. There is less distraction where there is no visual information and there are advantages to this. For example, power issues that might come with age, gender, or ethnicity are not so apparent and people can feel freer to express their views. The technology exists of course to allow participants to see each other. But experience shows that a digital head-and-shoulders image does not offer a real-person experience and by trying to re-create the face-to-face meeting we are simply emphasising a deficit rather than leveraging the potential benefits.

Whilst virtual working may not suit all groups and situations, used in the right context, it can save time, money, and reduce carbon footprint. It can also bring a breadth and depth to working groups and teams and has greater potential to gather together international colleagues offering extraordinarily diverse backgrounds, experiences, knowledge, and perspectives. Success in the virtual space, however, doesn’t happen by chance. There can be significant obstacles and it is wise to fully appreciate the key factors for success before dialling in.

If you would like to discuss working virtually please contact If you want to know more about ALA’s virtual action learning programmes click here









2 thoughts on “Collaborating in the virtual space: observations from practice”

  1. Great post, John – fully agree with your points and can’t wait to read the full report of your research when it’s out.

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