As an organizational, team and leadership development consultancy, we at Action Learning Associates (ALA) have felt first-hand the effects of the travel bans instituted across many organizations. The recent events have driven us to delve into this deeper. We were feeling the pinch and can’t help but think of all the development opportunities that are slipping away for teams. This situation is driving a new way of working, and that equals learning opportunities for teams and individuals as they stay home and navigate a new remote environment.

As the saying so goes, “necessity is the mother of innovation.” After watching seven engagements from seven different organizations in 40 days fall off the calendar, well, that necessity is here. For a long time, ALA has toyed with the idea of what we call “virtual physical learning.” Personally seeing the limitations to e-Learning we thought:

What if there was something that could span the gap between fully virtual e-Learning and face-to- face engagements?

At the core of ALA and impactful, sustainable learning is the use of experiential learning. Much of what ALA has been doing over the last 20 years is leveraging experiences that highlight the need for communication across geographically distributed teams. This was first driven by globalization and the statistic that people are now more than ever leading teams or projects with groups of people that are simply not working face-to-face.

More and more, we are seeing leaders struggle to be as effective leading remote teams when they lack physical presence.This realization prompted adding experiences in our toolkit to highlight the skills necessary to get results when working remotely such as promoting clear and effective communications, creating and maintaining engagement, sustaining and building company culture, and helping teams collaborate and feel connected. Before explaining how this works, we do want to highlight that while this is one step closer to simply interacting and talking remotely, we recognize that from a behavioral standpoint, nothing replaces the rich environment of a face-to-face engagement. We look forward to when teams can be safely in the presence of one another again.

How it Works

  1. The first step, as always, is to identify the learning objectives. Virtual physical experiences can help with a lot, but not everything. When it comes to the delicate subject of leadership development, there is no substitute for “how it felt” when face-to-face.
  2. With the learning objectives aligned, the next step is that magic formula of objectives + logistics – distractions. The goal here is assure the activity fits the needs, works with the group size, is timed appropriately, and has the dedicated focus of group members to do the exercise they have in hand.
  3. With the criteria met, we set a date, package up the physical material (sanitized of course) and instructions, and send it to each individual who will be participating. A virtual meeting on Zoom, Skype, Blue Jeans, etc. is scheduled, and the virtual experiential experience is set to start.
  4. Once the date arrives, a somewhat scripted introduction and context setting is done to align the purpose and learning objectives and set expectations. This is best done in conjunction with a program stakeholder or sponsor, much like a face-to-face meeting only virtually. Next, the ALA lead facilitator provides specific instructions for the physical event.
  5. This will be a physical problem-solving activity much like you have seen in person. Each individual physically holds a piece of the problem-solving activity (insert top secret Intellectual Property here). Just like other learning initiatives and exercises, the success of the team depends on the ability of team members to perform while working geographically remote. Clear objectives with clear constraints are outlined, and then the team is asked to perform the task.
  6. The results/performance are evaluated, discussed, debriefed and connected back to the real- time objectives for the team. Questions and responses can be live verbally and/or done via electronic response for capture and review later. A series of up to three experiences that build on one another can be leveraged so the team can sequentially practice different skills learned in the first exercise and test improvement or receive feedback throughout the process.

In the end, you have a team that better understands what it takes to get results with one another when working remotely. Better communication, more collaborative work styles, and a company culture that is sustained are some of the many benefits that can be achieved. Meanwhile, the individual team member has captured, via the experience, what worked and did not work and can leverage the information going forward. Plus, no one had to awkwardly see you obsessively wash your hands!