Feeling Distanced

One project I have the pleasure of working on this year is with an action learning team.  A new term for me, action learning is “a process for bringing together a group of people with varied levels of skills and experience to analyze an actual work problem and develop an action plan.”  Essentially, we were given a problem and a deadline and the rest is up to us. With the coaching and support of a great facilitator, three VISTA leaders and myself are looking at how we can encourage VISTA members and leaders to utilize www.vistacampus.org.

We all attended at a multi-day training in Atlanta this past December, but beyond that our contact has been virtual.  Our meetings have been via webinar, which has been an interesting experience.  I’m accustomed to webinars with distinct trainers and agendas, but this is the first time I’ve used that format as part of a long-term collaborative process.  We are using it largely as a forum for a conference call with the added benefit of uploading documents we’ve been working on individually. There is also a virtual whiteboard section, which we use very much like we would a flip chart in a physical meeting space.  We even have a team scribe!  Thank you, Kimberly, for turning our banter into meaningful and bulleted points. I’m not sure how you do it.

At the conclusion of our first meeting, we needed to schedule the next one.  When the original proposed time didn’t work for everyone, a participant asked “can we send out a doodle and go from there?”  In case you’re not aware, www.doodle.com is a fantastic free resource for scheduling. The creator of a poll can propose multiple meeting times and doodle will send an email to each potential participant, keep track of responses, and make a nice little chart of who is available during each time slot. Our facilitator was adamant, however, that we determine the next meeting date before hanging up. Guess what– it took about 30 seconds.

I must admit that I had also considered suggesting doodle in that instance, and it got me thinking about how quick I am to look for the tech-savvy solution even if it may be unnecessarily complicated.  Yes, we would have ended the conference call a minute or two sooner had we gone the doodle route. Overall, though, I imagine the process would have taken at least a couple of days.  The poll would be sent out with a finite number of options; it would take some time for everyone to respond; each person would ideally block off every time they marked as available, making scheduling anything else a headache; whoever created the poll would have to make arbitrary decisions if there was no time good for everyone, and after all that you’d need to try to get everyone to agree via email to the final determined time.  What a mess!  Trust me, I’m not knocking doodle.  I think it’s a great service and works really well for many applications.  It just turns out that in that particular case it would have created a lot more work than the old-fashioned alternative.

I’ve found similar challenges working with Volunteer Maryland support team members and VISTAs.  For the first time, I am working and leading from a distance and I am trying to keep from attempting to virtualize everything I do. Some form of electronic communication and file sharing is an absolute must, but so is cultivating professional relationships with human connections.  While it might only be feasible to disseminate information to thirty people via email, the best days are those when I talk to members face-to-face and see their passion for a cause.  How important is providing raw data and resources versus being emotionally present?  What mix of electronic and personal connection will allow me to be available without being invasive? Striking this balance has been an overarching theme of my VISTA leader experience thus far, and I imagine it will continue far into the future.

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