Virtual Team? Here’s How To Change Their Thinking

How people use their bodies to respond to the space around them has a profound influence on the way they think.

You probably already use this knowledge when you plan meetings. If you want focussed attention on detail, you choose a low-ceilinged, windowless meeting room and give them a spreadsheet print-out to pore over. If you want a group to do blue-sky thinking, you take them outdoors to a place with a view – they’ll stand up, look up, and take deep breaths.

1420117003bgx4tThis common-sense approach works because of the way people think. There are effectively two principal modes – closed and open focussed – and we can quite easily recognise how to activate them in co-located meetings.

So, how can you use that knowledge when you manage a virtual team? I’m very excited by the possibilities – particularly now we have such an enormous variety of tools for online connection, communication and collaboration.

The quickest win is in choosing the right technology for the job. If you only use one kind of communication tool, you’re sharply restricting your own room for manoeuvre.

How To Focus Minds

Is e-mail it your default way of communicating with your team? How’s that working out for you?

My guess is that some members of your team will love email (lots of detail, no need for personal real-time interaction) and others will hate it – perhaps for similar reasons.

But beyond that, what can we say about the physical effects of reading and writing email? Typically, it involves sitting forward and looking down. It engages our fovial vision, and probably more of the left brain than the right.

What’s the effect of that? Typically, a predominance of linear, rational thinking which envisages simple cause-effect relationships, is relatively uncomfortable with novel ideas, and focused on tasks and objects rather than on people.

In effect, using email is like meeting in a low-ceilinged, windowless room. It encourages a closed-mind position.

How To Get Things Looking Up

So, how can we create the opposite effect? How can we get people to stand back and look forward/up, so that they engage their peripheral senses and their most creative capacities?

This has been a real challenge for online communication and, I suspect, is the source of the accepted wisdom that face-to-face meetings in rooms full of whiteboards and post-its are best for creative collaboration.

My experience has been that using good-quality video conferencing, where all participants can be seen and heard, certainly helps, especially if everyone’s picture is of equal size and stays in a fixed position during the call.

People easily have a sense of who’s speaking: even though the sound is actually coming from exactly the same place all the time (the computer headphones), our imagination easily shifts the source to being the person whose lips are moving. That helps to activate our spatial thinking… which is probably a blog for another day.

I’m cautious about using online tools such as the chat window – that’s going to pull people forwards towards the screen, and perhaps switch their thinking to the “closed” position.

Call To Confusion

If you enjoy mystery, surprises and unpredictability in your team work, I have a recommendation: use lots of phone-only conference calls. That way, you’ll have no idea whether your team members are in their “open” or “closed” positions.

Most likely, you’ll have a fine mixture. Some will be sitting forward at their desks: highly focussed, itching to make rapid, task-led decisions – particularly if you’ve sent them a point-by-point agenda. Others will be relaxing back in their garden chairs for an exploratory conversation. (Let’s avoid mentioning where else they might be dialling in from!)

The mismatch is likely to lead to a fascinating range of misunderstandings, so you can have fun sorting out the conflicts that arise over the next few weeks 🙂

Is that what you’d like to have happen? If not… why not stand back, look up, and consider a few alternatives?

  • What results have you had from different communications technologies? Please comment below.

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