I’m starting some work next week with an American colleague. We’ve collaborated for some time online, through emails and over the phone, but funnily enough, when the time came for us to start working on a real project, the very first thought on both our minds was to jump on a plane and share a beer. Sometimes, you just need to meet face to face, to know that you can rely on each other in the good times, and to know that you’re going to watch out for each other when things get tough.
It’s an odd thing, trying to quantify trust and collaboration, but there is no doubt in my qualitative view, that it’s inherently stronger when based on a foundation of actual time spent together. Previously I’ve written about how collaborations that are based upon at least three physical encounters are stronger than those based on none, or fewer. There’s still something in us that values the chance to look each other in the eye and share some experiences.
With increasing amounts of work done virtually, in online spaces and using collaborative tools and techniques, the chance to actually meet face to face is becoming increasingly rare. It’s been two years now since i ran my first totally virtualised project, where i met nobody face to face, and it went very well indeed, but i still feel, at an emotional level, that the bonds forged were weaker, somehow more transient.
With current financial pressures meaning that travel is progressively harder to support, and an increased reliance on collaboration through the keyboard, issues of trust and shared experiences are more relevant now than ever. Do we need to be considering how to enhance the online spaces to make the experience feel more like ‘reality’, or is my worldview simply outdated, and do we need to adjust our expectations and activities accordingly? Has the time of the coffee house meeting passed?
Online encounters tend to be, by their nature, shorter and more focussed. There tends to be less effort spent on the social bonding that is second nature to us in real life. Instead, it tends to be ‘straight down to business’. Not always, but often. If you doubt this, wait till you’re next on a conference call and try out some small talk. It’s hard work! Long silences tend to reign as people are unsure who you are asking about the weather. People will quite happily sit in silence waiting for everyone to arrive, rather than chatting. Contrast this with a meeting i went to in Newcastle, where, when conversation was stilted, i started talking about their landmark new bridge, around which there was great civic pride. It may have been off topic, but we had an energised conversation for twenty minutes about things which were important to them. Pride, culture, recognition, things that forged a stronger foundation than simply what was on the agenda.
These are significant issues and questions that we face, in our own businesses and in wider contexts. Both as people designing learning or people consuming it. What’s the difference in doing a distance learning degree as opposed to a campus based one? Having done both, i can say that they both had their benefits and downsides. But they were totally different experiences. Maybe it’s safe to say that in my twenties, the campus based one was ideal but in my thirties, with a whole different social and work scene around me, the distance learning experience suited me. I made friends in both, i was creative and productive in both, but they were totally different experiences.
As we ask more of learners and designers to collaborate and engage in online spaces, understanding the dynamics, the opportunities, the limiting factors and the challenges that this environment produces is essential.