We’re all virtual collaborators now… but do we know how to be?

Even before the coronavirus, it seemed inevitable that the workplace of the future would be a virtual one. Remote work had been growing in popularity for years. Then a pandemic hit, and the “future of work” became our present reality, seemingly overnight. New research from Gallup shows 62% of employed Americans have worked from home during the crisis and that three-fifths want to stay remote even once it is safe to return to their offices.

Remote work offers flexibility for employees and cost savings and increased productivity for employers—a win-win. Yet, collaborating successfully in the virtual space is harder than it may seem. Amrita V. Subramanian, an executive coach and University of Pennsylvania professor who specializes in the nuances of virtual collaboration, says, “Sometimes it happens that in crises, the most pertinent question is also the most irrelevant. How can we go virtual? That’s easy. The hard one is: How do we be? Because virtual reality is like being on another planet.”

Subramanian has more than 25 years of experience managing and consulting in complex global environments and facilitating post-disruptive growth for individuals and organizations. She teaches the Penn LPS Online course ORGC 2010: Virtual Collaboration, which introduces students to key concepts from the social sciences to understand organizational culture. The course gives students tools to navigate and lead in our increasingly complex world.

“When we collaborate virtually, we are collaborating across time and space with human beings from multiple cultures and paradigms,” says Subramanian. Though the course draws on abstract, philosophical theories about how humans connect and interact, the ideas don’t feel theoretical at all because students apply them immediately in class, she notes. “We test, observe, and play with all of the ideas we learn as a group in real time.”

Make the implicit explicit

If you want to improve your virtual collaboration skills, Subramanian says, heed the words of Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Much of what we think we “know for sure,” our unconscious way of navigating reality, is not effective in the virtual world. Subramanian says this means we need to “make the implicit explicit,” be deliberate, and focus on designing processes to support the outcomes we want. There should be a process for new teammates to get to know each other and share their personal stories, work preferences, and anticipated needs. Organizations should also have a process to help virtual collaboration “newbies” get comfortable with the experience, especially since only two of the five generations in the workforce grew up with the internet (Millennials and Gen Z).

The way we facilitate meetings online requires a deliberate process as well. Otherwise, the most assertive personalities will end up dominating the conversation, whether consciously or not. If your goal is for everyone on the virtual team to contribute their best ideas, remember to convey deliberately, through words and actions, that all teammates’ voices are valued equally and that it is safe to speak candidly. In the early stages of the collaboration, set clear ground rules for meetings regarding air time, punctuality, consideration, and etiquette. Inviting each team member to share their vision of success for the project at hand enhances engagement and acountability, as does co-creating meeting agendas collectively. Subramanian also recommends creating space for teammates to express how valuable and productive they found the meeting.

Humanize the virtual

“We need to humanize the virtual. That’s my war cry,” Subramanian says. “At this point, everything about being human has to be reinforced three times more than how you would when you’re communicating with someone in person and can sense their warmth, shake their hand, buy them a coffee, share a spontaneous joke.” In virtual collaboration, we need to continually make micro-decisions to express kindness. Why is this important? Because kindness “immediately mutes the orchestra of fears in our heads,” says Subramanian. “It allows teammates to listen better and give each other the value of their presence and intelligence.”

Subramanian says leaders especially should practice increased kindness virtually. “Leaders are teachers at the enterprise level. When they model genuine care, it creates courage in the system and gives employees permission to dare more and innovate more,” she says. While virtual reality requires us to show kindness more deliberately, we are hard-wired to mirror kindness instinctively, even virtually, through a process called neural mimicry. “We constantly regulate with each other’s emotions unconsciously, even through a screen,” Subramanian says. She explores this topic in the course and references the work of her mentor and celebrated colleague, Wharton professor Dr. Sigal Barsade, who studies “emotional contagion,” how moods transfer amongst people in a group. Barsade has written about how this phenomenon can be harnessed to positively impact work group dynamics and performance.

Take responsibility for how your message lands

The most common fear people have around virtual collaboration is miscommunication—and for good reason! We exchange many nonverbal and contextual cues in face-to-face conversations that get lost in virtual communication. As a result, it can sometimes feel as if the words you are writing and the words other people are writing back are two different conversations. To overcome these barriers to communication, Subramanian says, “take responsibility for your echo.” If you send an email or have a conversation and you are not sure if your message was interpreted as desired, consider following up to share your intent and ask if it was successful.

Another potential for miscommunication stems from our innate social hypocrisy as humans to judge ourselves based on our intentions but others based on their actions. This tendency can be a pitfall for virtual teams in particular because virtual communication is more ambiguous, and in the face of ambiguity people default to their own interpretations of reality. Subramanian says the best antidote for these types of misunderstandings is to practice greater empathy and patience with your colleagues. It can be helpful to discuss empathy as a team value and to make the implicit explicit by asking your teammates to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Managing virtual fatigue

“It’s a disenfranchised concept in our society to grieve for the loss of reality,” Subramanian says. Organizations want to be “nimble” and embrace digitization as quickly as possible, but there is an emotional tax to remote work. Our homes are our sanctuaries. With online work, our sanctuaries have become backdrops for videoconference calls. “There is no separation between work and home life, no time to decompress and switch roles; there is no letting up, and it is exhausting for many people,” Subramanian says. There is also a sense of dislocation that comes from not being able to vet reality with our senses as we would in the physical world. As a society, we may not yet have the language to articulate and explain our virtual fatigue fully. Still, Subramanian says we need to acknowledge that we are experiencing it or it will only deepen.

If left unchecked, virtual fatigue leads to defensiveness, conflicts, desensitization to other people’s emotions, and “passive resistance,” Subramanian says. “Paralysis, apathy, indifference, lack of results, lack of accountability—all the usual villains that threaten an organization’s well-being—they all come from passive resistance. If we fail to humanize the struggle, then you’re going to meet passive resistance to that on which salaries, identities, families depend. It is a massive series of consequences where cause and effect are not obvious,” Subramanian says. As with the other virtual collaboration challenges addressed above, kindness and empathy are critical for nipping passive resistance in the bud.

How to build trust virtually

The essential factor for virtual collaboration is trust, Subramanian says. In her former career as Vice President of Global Strategic Talent Development at HSBC, she often relied on weak cell phone connections to communicate with colleagues across time zones. “I learned early on that they had to trust my voice, even if it was coming at the most ungodly hour because I’m in London and they are in San Francisco.” In virtual work, where we are not able to use our full toolkit for interpreting reality, we rely heavily on our innermost sense of trust, and trust has to be earned.

Students who have taken Subramanian’s Virtual Collaboration course at Penn LPS Online say the course could almost be called How to Build Trust Virtually. One such student, Ahmad Alothman, a senior manager at a leading Islamic bank, says he was struck by Subramanian’s ability to establish a culture of trust in the group so quickly. “From the first two minutes of class, I was fully engaged,” he says. And although he attended the virtual class from Kuwait, he says, “It felt like we were all on campus together in one room. Suddenly I was surrounded by strangers who it felt like I had known for a long time.” Ahmad says he surprised himself with how vulnerable he allowed himself to be with the class, and that it taught him the hidden power of virtual interaction.

Another student from the course, Rosie DeFilippo, a project manager, had a similar experience. “At its core, this class is about human connection—how do you do it, and in an inclusive way? It was humbling to be trusted with people’s stories. It’s something I had never experienced before in that way. I found the space so valuable and the class so insightful; it was a community that I wanted to be part of. I called in from Scotland on vacation one week because I didn’t want to miss class.”

Both Ahmad and Rosie say they use insights from the Virtual Collaboration class daily, and that the wisdom and skills they cultivated have been powerful offline as well. Ahmad reflects, “My colleagues can sense the skills I have developed, and I feel more confident in virtual communication. I also take time to notice and observe before I react, and it has made me more relaxed.” Ahmad says he applies his new virtual collaboration skills in all aspects of his life, and especially enjoys sharing the concepts with friends and family, translating them into simple language for his children. “When you have knowledge to share with people, that strengthens relationships,” he says. Rosie describes the impact of the course similarly. “I think it comes back to awareness,” she says. “In the past, I would often bulldoze my opinions through, but now I’m more conscious of the environment that I’m in. I’m more conscious of what it feels like to be seen and to see others. All of that now comes into play with how I show up—and strive to show up—every day, in the workplace and life.”

You can enroll in ORGC 2010: Virtual Collaboration as an individual course without committing to the entire Certificate in Organizational Anthropology, enjoying the flexibility and expertise offered by Penn LPS Online to suit your schedule and interests.

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