Worth a Thousand Words: Connecting Virtual Teams Through Imagery and Metaphor

Using images and metaphors can work wonders to break the ice, create a shared sense of purpose and cultivate an environment of real collaboration. But when a team is confined to connecting only through virtual means, the use of visuals as a springboard for meaningful discussion is typically limited. Not because it has to be – but because it takes a lot of thought to figure out how to use imagery when people work miles apart.

This issue of Communiqué, co- written with Penny Pullan of Making Projects Work, explores how visual concepts can be used to break the ice and connect people in ways that words alone cannot do. Although these tips were written with remote teams in mind, many can be modified for teams where members work face to face as well.

Build a picture map of the team for all to see.

Grab an image of the state, country, continent or world where people are based. Insert time zones as needed. Then paste photos of all participants in the appropriate locations. (Ask people to send photos to you or post them in a shared repository.) If you’re using a web meeting tool, post this document for downloading. If not, attach the image to your meeting request so all can easily access it as they dial in.

Try opening intros.

Consider using an asynchronous web meeting tool to post introductions prior to a conference call. This saves time on the call and allows people time to consider what they want to share. Try posting questions that evoke an image that will be illuminating for the team. Examples: Describe your favorite object in your work area and explain why. Tell us what’s outside your closest window. Invite members to read the responses before the call so they have time to learn something about each other in advance. On the call, you can have a briefer check-in and reflect on the significance of what each person revealed.

Set the stage with a meeting map.

Anchor your meeting with an agreed-upon purpose, agenda and process. Sound obvious? Many teams gloss over this important step, inevitably leading to longer, less focused meetings. For virtual teams whose members don’t have benefit of a poster or flipchart, try sending a meeting start-up template in advance, and fill in the blanks as a team. If you’re short on time, you might send out a completed template subject to revision. You can create your own or use prepared graphical templates.

Create a pictorial team charter.

When meeting face to face, many of us find pictures or posters a powerful way to create a shared context. Elicit from team members what images are evoked when they think of the team, the work it’s doing, the benefits it will deliver to the organization, etc. Create a graphical representation of those images, either in electronic or paper form or both, and make available to all team members. If the goal of the team can be summarized with a single metaphor or image, create a team logo and use in slides, memos, T-shirts, etc. to create a sense of team identity-especially important for virtual teams who don’t have many tangible ways of feeling connected.

Create a shared view of the present and the future.

Try a web meeting tool to help quickly capture images and adjectives that people have in mind when asking where the organization or team is today versus where it needs to go tomorrow. For example, you might pose questions such as: Imagine our group as an animal (or a country), what would we be today? How does this compare to the one we will be six months from now? Once people have entered their responses, invite everyone to view the entire list. Ask for a few volunteers to discuss their responses, and discuss the implications for your team.

Use metaphors to get everyone moving in the same direction.

Pick one that’s appropriate for this team and its journey, such as white-water rafting or climbing Mount Everest. Consider locations and cultures of team members as you choose the best metaphor. Find relevant photos or other images to post during the conversation to evoke the same sense of place for everyone. Get team members talking about what each must do to prepare for this adventure together, what help they need from others, the inherent risks and how to mitigate, etc. Capture responses as part of the meeting output, either online off to the side. “Translate” these responses into real- life implications for your team.

Painting pictures with words from the first-person perspective.
Encourage team members to use highly descriptive language, especially when you’re limited to an audio connection only. For example, you might ask: “Imagine you are a typical customer calling our help line. How are you feeling as you dial? Why?” By painting a vivid picture, with each team member imagining s/he is the focal point, you’ll cull out more vivid and authentic responses far more quickly than if you asked: “Describe the typical customer experience when calling your help desk.”

Choose images carefully.

When you’re working with team members who have different native languages, using visual communications is more efficient and effective than using words alone. Tread carefully, however. Make sure that the use of a particular image, whether literal or proverbial, is appropriate and understandable for all team members. Consider the national and business culture, generation, location and other factors. For example, using an American sports analogy will be confusing and distracting for almost any non- American. Or using mountain-climbing as a team metaphor may be inappropriate for those who hail from flat countries.

Use the power of images for instant recall.

After meetings, especially virtual ones, it can be difficult to remember what happened! Use a mind map (check out this mind map we’ve created of this article as an example) or some other way to visualize the key points. Better still, draw up the mind map during the meeting with input from all and share it over the web.

Keep people focused on a task at hand.

Even if you’re not showing a picture, think about ways you can keep participants visually focused while you have them on the call. At the very least, post a team picture on your shared meeting space, as well as an agenda. Think about where and how meeting notes and ideas should be captured in real-time. As you construct each meeting agenda, consider how you can keep people visually focused in ways that encourage active engagement from everyone.

When thoughtfully chosen and carefully used, images (whether figurative or literal) can help launch a new virtual team or mobilize one that’s derailed faster than words alone. The trick is to think about how we can apply some of the tools and techniques that work well in face-to-face sessions to engage virtual teams and deepen their understanding of each other and the work they’ll be doing together.

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