Training Magazine: Experience Design and Virtual Teamwork

| By TMA World

From: Virtual Team Leader

To: Virtual Team Members

Subject: Kickoff Meeting

I’m really looking forward to our working together on this important project.  Please let me know your availability ASAP for a teleconference on either July 17, 18 or 19.  Thanks. VTL.

You can imagine the life of this team – a stream of one-to-one or one-to-many e-mails punctuated with teleconferences. It is the product of a purely functional mindset, and usually adequate for short-term, relatively low-risk virtual projects.  When the stakes are higher and the duration extended, something more than a purely functional mindset is needed.  An experiential mindset should be adopted; a mindset that takes seriously the ‘design’ of the team experience.

Experience design is a field that has developed over the last decade or so and is centered on creating quality experiences for customers, users, audiences, employees – anyone in fact who interacts with a brand, a product, service, an event or even an environment – physical or digital.  

When we enter into a virtual world – like an online game, website, or e-learning program – we are aware of the designer’s ‘hand’ in shaping the logic, interactivity, duration, and intensity of the experience.  In this virtual habitat, we have some control in defining the experience and outcome, but the environment is largely pre-defined.  

When we come together as a virtual team, we are entering into a digital space that is undefined and unstructured.  The team leader and members co-create the experience (for better or worse), usually without conscious awareness that they are creating an ‘experience’ – one that will influence their productivity and sustainability.     

What if we approached virtual teamwork from an experience design perspective?  I am not an experience designer, but let me offer some thoughts.  

The quality of a customer’s experience is defined by the quality of the physical and digital touch-points she has with brands, products, and services.  The customer’s journey can be thought of as a ‘touchline’ along which are specific touch-points such as website search, selection, purchasing, delivery, and after-sales service.  

What makes a successful virtual team experience is the quality of the team touch-points (TTPs) along its own touchline.  

Along this touchline will be TTPs that shape the virtual team’s experience.  For example, during the Forming stage there are likely to be initial formal communications between leader and team, member introduction meetings, and project and task definition meetings.  During the Performing stage, there will be regular check-in and update meetings.  This is not to imply that all touch-points for team members will be formal; there will also be informal, spontaneous touch-points.  The TTPs are not necessarily Person-to-Person, but also, for example, Person-with-Technology, Person-with-Content, and Person-with-Process.   

How should we define a successful virtual team experience?  It will be one in which the overall quality of the TTPs bridges distance to help generate valuable working relationships and outstanding results.  The overall team experience is one which members would be happy to repeat because they found it productive and (dare I say it) enjoyable!  

What indicators would point to the quality of the TTPs?  It would depend on the context and team, of course, but four possibilities are: 

  • Compelling: Grabs my attention and keeps my interest
  • Meaningful: Helps me feel part of something bigger than me
  • Inclusive: Helps me feel comfortable being part of the team
  • Desirability: Keeps me wanting to come back

Not all of these indicators would be present at each touch-point, but they would be well represented on the team’s touchline.

There are two types of ‘smarts’ to create these touch-points: Technology Smarts and Social Smarts:

Technology Smarts

Important to the virtual team experience is the technology used, when it is used, and for what purpose.  Technologies shape the patterns of interaction (formal and informal) in time and space.  The experience using a synchronous technology like a videoconference is very different from the experience of an asynchronous technology like e-mail or threaded discussion.  There are, of course, varied experiences when using different types of types of the same technology.  Teleconferencing and webconferencing are both synchronous technologies, but one (teleconferencing) is a relatively lean and restricted experience (audio only) while the other (webconferencing) is a richer (often integrating live video, graphics, animation, text, and chat).  One technology isn’t right and another wrong; they serve different purposes and generate different experiences for the team.  The teleconference kickoff meeting (see e-mail invite above) is likely to be a dismal affair in which some participants are bored and multitasking.  Why not create a webconference for the introductory meeting in which participants can see each other, and engage in interactive exercises around the team’s goals and objectives?   

Social Smarts

Technology smarts are vital to a great virtual team experience, but count for very little without the ‘human touch’ that brings meaning and emotional connection to the team experience.  If virtual team members can agree and act on a few simple (but profound) experience-enhancing ‘rules for relating’, the challenges of working across distances can be minimized.  What might these rules for relating look like? 

  • Be present
  • Be supportive
  • Be respectful 

I could write hundreds of these, but that wouldn’t be helpful.  The rules need to be simple, but well-defined.  They should also be supported with examples of how such rules would play out in the real-virtual world.  The more numerous and complex the rules are, the less likelihood they will be able to facilitate a successful virtual experience.

Is it possible to get great results without a great team experience?  Yes . . . probably, although the results are likely to have been generated by a few outstanding individuals who never want to work with those other team members again!

When was the last virtual team experience you had after which you said, “Wow.  Give me more of that!”  If we think in terms of ‘team experience’ as well as operational reporting relationships, project plans, and work flows, we stand a chance of moving work to a new and far better place.


Terence Brake

Director, Learning & Innovation, TMA World

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