Becoming a Web Warrior: A Journey Toward Remote Work and Virtual Meetings

Editor’s Note: I’m very excited to introduce you to Joan Davis, Business Systems Consultant from Philadelphia (on her way to Maine).  Joan has been exploring the ins and outs of virtual meetings and facilitation as part of her transition to a more remote area of the country. I’m excited to join her on this journey and learn from her experiences. Whether we work in an office or consult remotely from our homes, virtual meetings are becoming increasingly commonplace. Knowing how to effectively manage virtual meetings will become increasingly important over the course of our business analysis careers.

 

 

An overpowering need to experience a different kind of life is extracting my family from our current home base in the city of Philadelphia, PA, and moving us to a remote spot mid-way up the coast of Maine. I soon came to realize that my Philadelphia network of insurance and systems professionals would be left behind. Maine’s state-wide population of 1.3 million (smaller than Philadelphia’s BTW) is spread across a vast 30862 square miles. There’s slim chance of finding commutable work near my new home, and a state-wide search on Monster.com last year for “Business Analyst” positions yielded a whopping 3 openings. And so my “zero-commute” campaign began:   

How can I reinvent myself to continue as a VIRTUAL business systems consultant?

I’d prefer to be a web warrior than a road warrior and I’m determined to learn how!

Step 1: Find the tools to facilitate virtual meetings

I targeted my research around potential applications for my skill-set:

  • As a project leader, I conduct regular focus groups to promote dialogue among stakeholders. In today’s economy, internet and telephone conferencing have become mainstream tools for communication and collaboration, and their effective use can yield significant value in terms of desirable business outcomes and cost savings.
  • Business modeling is an area of expertise for me, diagramming the interaction of organizations, processes, and data in a series of workshops.  Web conferencing software enables sharing a diagramming application for real-time model development, with a distributed group collaborating over the phone and watching the diagrams evolve on their local computer screen.
  • In my early days as a computer programmer I gravitated to Joint Application Design (JAD) and prototyping methods. I’m investigating the potential to use of virtual facilitation skills in Agile/SCRUM distributed development. Agile is particularly difficult to pull off with team members in different locations, but there’s new  hope with team-building techniques for distributed projects and on-line tools and games specific to the Agile world.

Step 2: Learn about best practices for working virtually

“Learn / Observe / Do” – my mantra for the last  6 months – yielded knowledge of best practices in virtual collaboration and more importantly, an international network of colleagues engaged in a similar quest. Lastly, I discovered my strengths in the field, and where I need to focus development attention.

  • Learn: I sought out public educational offerings from Masters in the field of Facilitation who are training techniques in phone and web-based collaboration. In these virtual classes students used teleconference tools and Group Decision Support Systems for concurrent text brainstorming, breakout sessions, and voting to instantly rank, prioritize, rate, etc.  Augmented with didactic learning from books, blogs, and whitepapers, I soon had a sense of how virtual collaboration tools along with attention to workshop design bring success to distributed forums.
  • Observe: I chose to monitor free webinar offerings, making observations on key characteristics that engage or hinder involvement.  Over the course of my investigation I attended 35 webinars.  Most were of an information sharing nature, conducted over web conferencing software, a presenter speaking to slides and responding to a few write-in questions at the end.  This absence of interaction with the audience predominated, but a handful of presenters experimented with techniques to engage the participants.  This observation process yielded a robust harvest of tips & techniques, do’s & don’t’s for producing successful virtual workshops.
  • Do: I started my experiential learning by putting on my IT hat and signed up for free evaluation copies of various collaborative software products, with features for sharing a desktop, web-based whiteboard, drawing tools, text brainstorming, and telephone breakout sessions. I also reached out to new contacts from the training classes and blog postings, seeking opportunities to volunteer on their projects, designing and moderating interactive workshops over the phone and internet. It’s this pro bono work that is producing the greatest value. My clients share their collaborative technology with me, providing further access to training and a tool to test various interaction designs. As I demonstrate the value I bring to a virtual collaboration project, these new contacts are becoming new references. 

Step 3: Practice being virtual and gain confidence!

My portfolio now includes many verbal and text-based collaboration techniques that help to engage and move virtual workshop attendees through a process. Success in virtual forums is similar to face-to-face experiences; bring people together for a purpose, keep them focused, and lead deliberation and consensus-building in creative ways. The technology options continue to evolve and having an IT background will continue to be an asset. Lastly, I’ve successfully applied my business modeling skills to support virtual forum design, diagramming stakeholder relationships for context & goals, key roles & system interactions, and process flow to storyboard forum activities and analyzing webinar infrastructure needs.

The challenges center on engaging a group who cannot be in the same room, and the absence of visual cues. Being able to practice moderating virtual verbal brainstorming, break-out sessions, and large group discussion is an important next step.

I’m honored to be able to share my journey with Bridging the Gap. As I continue to explore these ideas, I’ll be back to post lessons learned on topics such as meeting formats, planning, and group processes.

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Comments

  1. Anne, there are many many tools now available and the question of which ones work easily to help us provide a great and effective environment depends entirely on what kinds of virtual meetings you need to have. What kinds of things do you need to do with your clients, colleagues, suppliers at a distance?

  2. Hi, I am inspired by your article and the effort you have put into testing out what works and what doesn’t. I want to ask, based on your experience, which tools stuck out for you as providing a great and effective environment to make running virtual meetings effective and easy?

    • Hi Anne, I’m so glad the article held meaning for you, and really appreciate that you took the time to write.
      I’d have to say that most of the things that make a virtual meeting “effective and easy” have to do with preparation, having the right attendees, a plan for listening and deciding, and making sure there’s room for all the voices in the room. The tools are support media that map to your plan. You’ll read about a few of my favorites in some of my other articles here at BTG, but I will call out the ability to have an audio breakout as my #1 mechanism for engaging a larger group of participants – say more than 7 people. By posing problems for small groups to solve you get everyone to interact, and the pairing up creates an environment for building trust, and Trust is absolutely critical for that great and effective environment you’re seeking.

      .
      Greetings Meri – it’s great to hear your voice here.

      Meri is one of the leading virtual explorers I met on this learning adventure who generously share their knowledge and growing pains. Having just returned from my first romp on snowshoes, I couldn’t agree more with her comment about virtual workers keeping up the connection to life around us

  3. Hi Chin. As you point out, working virtually requires simultaneous discipline and flexibility, whether you are your own boss or not. When dealing with global communications, additional consideration must also be given to differences in technology access, culture, and time zones.
    Chin and Meri highlight the need to adapt and adopt the new technologies for on-line communication, making room in your busy schedule to meet self-study commitments. As I settle in to my new, rather remote corner of the world I feel encouraged by this very global sharing of virtual journeys. Whether we’re in Ashland or Malaysia the need for Business Analysts to better utilize virtual tools and methods is apparent.

  4. Hi Joan , I left my 9-5 job some years back and just sold off a training provider business that requires my physical presence to do my job.

    My experience with online communication was when I was doing my distance learning Masters degree in Training a HRM – It was years back – we were using email as a communication too and on top of that we did Email Conferencing –

    It was quite fun as the professors were struggling with email technology then ..well it was quite an experience for us . We did meet face to face once every 6 months during the duration of the course which was 2 1/2 years long.

    I have tried my hands on online tutoring once for accountancy students – the mode of communication was based email technology then. Well my experience was not that impressive as I had only four students located in various parts of the world.

    We never had face to face meeting – the response to my emails was low as there were accountancy students who had to juggle between work and study. I guess they only did their studies at the last minute – that explained why there was low response to our e mail communications months before the examinations.

    My next encounter with technology as a communication tool was when we tried to market Training / Seminars via Streaming Video . People were slow to embrace such technology as in my country, Malaysia , broadband was only at its infancy development then.

    Now that the braodband utilization has caught up , I reckon Streaming Video has become slightly more popular. . In this light , I observed that the Koreans and the Japanese have embraced technology in their learning much earlier than us in Malaysia.

    My observation is that one needs to be “self-directed-learner’ to use such technology . It is a powerful tool for learning and for business.

    Now come the video and web conferencing tool we can use for practically in our daily lives and in business. Since stopping my work that requires my physical presence , I had to to adjust my working habits .

    First I need a space in my house for my “office” . Second I need to be very disciplined and stick to my work schedule . Third, I have to juggle with international time differences be it attending conference calls or building rapport with existing and potential customers.

    I feel lonely working in my ” virtual office” at times . so I just visit the local coffee shop to unwind before resuming work . Honestly, working Virtually is kind of like – nine to five job – if we stick to the work schedule .

    But I have lots of flexibility – I can skip half a day and compensate by working in the evening – I can bring my laptop and go out of town and still be able to do the work . I am beginning to enjoy this kind of work environment.

    • Hi Chin, What a great story. It seems that many of us are working more and more virtually. It’s happened to me almost by accident, but I now am working about 95% from my home office, with just about a visit or two to a client office each month. It is liberating and potentially lonely at the same time. My husband also works at home so there is companionship. I wish I could keep 9 to 5 though…the work from home scenario supports a 7 to 7 so darn well….I try to compensate by taking liberal breaks throughout the day, to exercise, lunch, read outside, etc.

      • I have a local friend here in Ashland, Laura, who calls our 7 to 7 lifestyle “The New Full-Time.” It makes me laugh every time he says this and, at the same time, he’s put a label on something important. Our “work day” can – and must – now punctuated by exercise, social meals, reading outside, or whatever else allows us to keep our connection to the natural and social rhythms around us. Virtual meetings give us great freedom and save enormous amounts of time – and we must use these gains in the service of our whole human health and happiness.

      • Hi Meri, “The New Full-Time”….love it! I really do enjoy the flexibility I have in my work day. And you point out the key challenge, which is creating a punctuated workday instead of an isolated/focused one that just lasts longer. This is a work in progress for me, no doubt about it!

  5. Joan, I love reading your account here of your preparation process for going virtual/going remote with your career. I made this transition, myself, 3.5 years ago – moving from Austin, TX (a fast-paced technology and innovation hub) to Southern Oregon. I’m living in a town of 20,000 now with a very expensive airport about 25 miles away. So, the stakes got a LOT higher as soon as I arrived in Ashland. I’ve been researching and testing virtual meeting tools of all kinds for a wide variety of tool-makers and started sharing some of what I’m learning on my blogs about 2 years ago now. http://virtualmeetingcoach.com. I’m always happy to hear when another high-level consultant has taken “the plunge” into remote work and look forward to learning more with and from you as you make your physical transition to Maine.

    And, any of the rest of you listening in on this conversation, please feel free to join in the conversation on my blog, too: http://virtualmeetingcoach.com. I’ve started running some small group coaching programs to help experienced trainers, coaches, and consultants make a speedy and effective translation of some of their face-to-face mastery into virtual meetings. If you’re ready to learn-by-doing (not by reading), we’re starting up new cohorts once a quarter at http://virtualmeetingstartup.com.

  6. Joan Davis says

    Hi Sue, it’s nice to hear from you. Your comment got me thinking about where to take this conversation next.

    I was wondering which of these topics appeal to the community here at Bridging the Gap:
    * for the project leader: stakeholder focus groups and team-building techniques for distributed projects
    * for the business modeler: real-time model development
    * for meeting facilitators: techniques to engage participants
    * for Agile teams: Agile/SCRUM development in a distributed environment

    What else is important for Virtual Business Analysts to explore?

  7. Sue Hawkins says

    Thanks for sharing Joan. I envy your commitment to re-invention, you have been thorough in your analysis of the virtual world. I look forward to finding out more about the virtual facilitator’s and analyst’s space.

  8. Joan Davis says

    Thanks for your kind words Jenny. How can I feel alone when there are so many in the same boat?
    I’ve had some great “relationship-building” experiences with teleconference break-out sessions. Tools that enable small group work can bring a surprising intimacy to the teleconference experience. Small groups bond during break-out sessions, and the relationship seems to sustain when the larger group reconvenes.

  9. Jenny Nunemacher says

    Hi Joan!

    I’m impressed with your commitment to preparation for your new working environment. I’m sure any potential client will be as well. I would also second the internet connectivity caution. I have at least one friend in Maine (on one of the islands, no less) who struggles with internet. I live in a semi-rural area of Colorado and also have less than ideal internet connectivity. We use microwave, which is more consistent than satellite (in terms of upload-download bandwidth), but is not as fast as DSL or cable. And oddly, it seems to be susceptible to wind or dense precipitation. My backup is to pack up and go to either a hot spot (for non-vocal activities) or the library which has study rooms for when I need more privacy and/or space — and better speeds.

    I don’t fear the social isolation as much because of two things. First, I am a solid introvert and really could spend long amounts of time by myself and be fed socially through text-based interactions. Second, if the first were not sufficient, my husband also works at home and we have the chance to eat breakfast and lunch together and otherwise stay connected as office mates would. And I guess there is a third escape: we live in a small town with a lot of other telecommuting/self-employed types, who often have the flexibility to meet for lunch in town.

    I was just talking today with Laura, actually, about the challenges of building trust and rapport with co-workers that are in a different location. Despite the ability to accomplish a lot of things without direct interaction on a daily basis, I do yearn for that initial get-to-know-you period of working with new people that helps sustain the daily work and relationships.

    I look forward to hearing more of your lessons-learned and tools/techniques. I really enjoy the commute-free life so I want it to work for me and my employer/client.

  10. Joan Davis says

    Hi Doug, thanks for stopping by, and I appreciate your cautionary note. Webcams help a bit with the sense of isolation, but I share the same concern about cabin fever. Being able to establish trust and personal connections early in the forming of a virtual team will be critical in the absence of meeting f2f. My research indicates that virtual teams who can convene in the same space initially will bond and collaborate better virtually. But what do you do when that’s not possible? I suggest facilitating the group’s virtual forums with an eye toward establishing and sustaining those personal relationships so important in teambuilding. Always make time for ice-breakers, warm up with games, create space for networking, and jointly build a communications plan to support each other.
    The fickleness of internet connectivity is a worry (you forgot the scenario with snow piling up on the dish). Sharing materials in advance can help you turn a web conference into a phone conference at the last minute. When the web is a must, my backup plan will be to coordinate with a local college or hotel, leasing their high speed network facilities when mine is disrupted.

  11. Joan:
    I’m quite envious of your pick-up-and-go attitude. Would you happen to have a spare room? It appears you have taken great pains to learn about the environment that you will be working in before you throw yourself into the fold, and your insights are great.

    Working remotely has two additional aspects that I thought I might mention here. I did this a while back before the Internet was the INTERNET, so maybe these are not issues so much anymore. It sounds like you might have all this licked, but I thought I’d offer it up just in case your post motivates a mass rush to the seashore for others.

    One thing is that in working remotely, the psychology of isolation can really mess a person up, even in a fairly urban environment where one sits in front of the computer all day. Face it. We’re humans and thrive on interaction….especially as analysts. There is something about face-to-face, smell-to-smell contact that cannot be replaced. So this might be a consideration over time in which one might want to factor in a little travel or coffee shop meeting to mix it up a little. I worked for a firm that had only remote offices, which was great. The issue came when there was no management of that remote environment and no meetings or tele-conferences. The individuals that I worked with, and myself, began to feel something akin to cabin fever.

    Another thing I found is one tends to forget that the Internet connection is notorious fickle. If there is reliance on the Internet and its connection for livelihood, one might have a backup connection (e.g., satellite for primary, DSL/Cable for other?). My friend has Internet via satellite and every time it rains, becomes windy, a leaf falls near the dish, etc., he is whining about his connection going down.

    Great Post Joan

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