“Left Out Alert”: A Virtual Team Member Reflects on Her Experience

circle-o.gifby Gwen Armbruster
The CCA dMBA promotes the opportunity for those of us (ME!) who do not live in the Bay Area to participate in their new business program. And I accepted admission into this program knowing that I would not be relocating to the Bay Area from my current physical location in Baltimore, MD. As a result, I had the pleasure of being a “virtual” team member on various projects throughout the semester. [NOTE: While I am not the only person in the dMBA program who is a commuter, all persons I worked with this semester were physically located in the Bay Area.]

We all know that consistent communication is quite a challenge, period. And then there is the test of communicating while working in groups. Next, add to the mix that one group member is “virtual” and this task becomes even more complicated. I had to accept there would be occasions when I would feel “left out” of the group due to physical distance. This inherent disconnect made it important to utilize technologically advanced communication tools, such as Backpack and Skype, to help maintain effective communication within my team(s). While these software programs have definitely made it easier to participate interactively with group meetings and have also helped me directly be involved in all aspects of the creative process, I must admit that face-to-face meetings would be my preference. I am a firm believer that team creativity works best in collaborative, in-person interaction, rather than through virtual meetings.
Personal interaction informs all the senses. When this form of communication is removed from the creative process, it makes interpreting meaning and context difficult. I am a visual learner and so it has been difficult for me to understand my group’s intentions and processes utilizing only verbal and written communication.
I want to stress that I do not fault my group(s) members in the least for my occasional feeling of disconnect. (I LOVE YOU GUYS!!) They have always made an amazing effort to keep me informed; understanding the challenges I face by living so far away. In addition, my group(s) have been more than understanding with regards to their own frustrations related to having to coordinate with a remote member, i.e. time zones and work schedules. Yet I must again stress that regardless of how tolerant and accommodating a project group may be in a particular situation, the benefits of working remotely do not outweigh the difficulties.
In all honesty, there were times when I did not want to meet with my groups(s). I got tired of having to stay up until all hours of the morning to accommodate their schedules. I became frustrated by our lack of decision-making, despite multiple efforts at consensus and numerous 12-hour long meetings. And I will admit, with guilt, that I chose (on occasion) to bow out early on group Skype calls. The advantage to working remotely: one can retreat quite easily from the group. The disadvantage: one can retreat quite easily from the group.
Self-preservation – making sure that my needs were being met first – became a higher priority on my list of important “to-dos” than group conflict resolution. Yet if I had I been physically present for these meetings, I doubt I would have been able to act so selfishly. In person, I would have had to face the problem head-on; I would not have had the option to selectively ignore group discord. The irony is that in I am not one who tries to escape communication problems; instead, I am the one who normally initiates the difficult conversation. However, when you live 3,000 miles away, it sometimes is just easier to let go of the situation and see where the journey leads.
Yes, we are pioneers in the dMBA, and in the world of business and design education, yet I question if one really can be productively creative in separation? A major challenge for anyone who chooses to – or is forced to – work alone is maintaining a connection with others. In the absence of interpersonal interaction, communication becomes misinformed. In situations of physical detachment, how does one materialize resolutions when basic communication – a forum of idea exchange – has all but vanished?

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.

2 responses

  1. Gwen,
    sounds quite exciting. I recently had drinks with Mariam Ghani and she asked about you. Keep up all the good work and spirit!! You are very talented and just follow your passion!!!

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