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How online learning supports virtual working

8th March 2017 | Eileen Arney

Eileen Arney on the importance of learning to work in virtual environments

Learning for Organizational Development (9780749477448)Working in virtual environments is pretty much the norm in many areas of business, whether because we are working at home (or on the train or in a coffee bar), or because we work in a geographically dispersed organisation. Or perhaps we are working with clients too distant to visit face to face. Quite often we are dealing with all these things and this means that we have to develop our skills in working in virtual groups and teams, communicating and building relationships in a virtual world with colleagues and clients who we may never meet face.

It is quite odd that workplace learning hasn’t quite caught up yet with the way we do business. This is in spite of the obvious benefits of learning in a virtual world - for example access to learning is a lot easier if all you need is an internet connection and a portable device. More important still are the skills you can learn from studying in online environments – the skills of working in virtual study groups and  teams, accessing information in digital databases and communicating in writing and online – and these are important skills which can transfer easily to a virtual workplace.

This matters because working in virtual environments is not easy. Managing virtual groups and teams, as many managers do can be challenging and is not always done well, with obvious consequences for business success. Yet experience of studying (or tutoring) in an online world can lead to important learning about how to build effective working relationships and support effective communication among those who will rarely, if ever, meet each other. This learning might include the importance of investing time in giving members of the group or team a chance to really get to know each other at an early stage. If they can be brought together face to face early in their relationship this can be immensely helpful, but a synchronous online group meeting can work too, as long as plenty of time is allowed for introductions which allow participants to feel that they really know something about each other and understand who they are working with and what they can expect from each other.

There can be valuable learning too about how to communicate in virtual environments. For example, even when video is available it can be hard to read facial expressions and body language and effective communication depends on participants understanding that they cannot rely on understanding or being understood through these non-verbal signs. For example the flow of conversation can be hampered when individuals cannot see that others wish to speak, so there can be unintended over talking and talking at too much length, not recognising that others are not listening. While experience of studying in a virtual world will not make these problems disappear, it certainly can help to develop an awareness of how to deal with them a lot more effectively.

About the Author: Eileen Arney is Director of Masters Programmes at The Open University Business School and previously led the development of its online MSc in HRM. She has held senior civil servant posts including Assistant Director of National Police Training and has designed and delivered leadership programmes for senior managers in the UK and overseas and worked as an executive coach. Her research interests lie in workplace learning and learning in virtual environments. She has published articles on learning and development and is co-author of Managing people: A practical guide for front-line managers.

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