Virtual collaboration has become popular in the recent years, especially at the workplace, due to immense technological advances. According to a report, in 2011, around 79% of the U.S. workers prefer to work from home and are comfortable holding a job where at least part of the time they work within a virtual workplace. Keeping this in mind, many forward-looking organizations adopt different approaches for efficient group work and best practices of collaboration into virtual settings. But just like face-to-face meetings, meeting in virtual workplace has its advantages and challenges.
In virtual environments, the non-verbal elements are limited. The lack of personal face-to-face communication is a gap that has to be bridged in all types of virtual workplace environments. So, organizations are now facing new challenges to get virtual teams on-board where it is essential to emphasize the interpersonal dynamics of virtual collaboration and establish practices for team building.
Improvisational theatre games are traditionally used as an ice-breaker for theatre actors to feel comfortable with other actors as well as the script of the play. The skills and processes of this technique can be introduced in the beginning or at the end to a team setting a virtual environment to initiate communication and encourage collaboration. This can be an educational tool to develop communication skills, and creative problem-solving and supportive teamwork abilities. The rules of improvisational theatre, or ‘Improv’ as it is often called, are: don’t hesitate, pay attention, never block or negotiate, always add something positive, and don’t be scared of silence. Following these rules, elements of Improv can be successfully transferred from real life settings into virtual team sessions.
An interesting experiment to adapt the elements of Improv for increasing interactivity and communication of a group of learners was conducted by the Berlin School of Economics and Law for Learners who were given internships all across the world.
• A 3D learning environment was created and students meet on a weekly basis for 90 minutes live in the virtual environment in form of avatars, which digitally represented the participant’s body.
• Their new area of work forced them to enter not only geographically but also professionally, interpersonally and intercultural uncharted territory. They were required to report on their work experience and reflect on one topic to the class like dealing with negative people, networking, culture at work, dress code and so on, in a weekly blog post using the learning management system.
• The virtual environment presented a classroom situation with very familiar looking avatars that learners could relate to. In the virtual class each student present their internship in form of a few slides.
• One major part of each virtual session is to practice role play with the students. The students pick one situation they observed or they solve and describe the role play situation, at the end of their presentation. Through the immersion effect role plays work really well in 3D environments, students feel less embarrassed to slip into roles.
• The concentration on the spoken word is one big advantage of role playing with avatars. Students focus on the conversation, build arguments and learn to deal with problematic situations in an assertive way.
• Before launching the virtual session, instructors decided which improv games were suitable for each weekly supervision topic. Technical limitations were taken into consideration. The conditions of the virtual room and the movement limits of the avatar were accounted for. For instance the body of an avatar could walk, run, jump, clap hands, use voice and chat. But more complex expressions cannot be included. For instance, it is impossible to smile, look grumpy, move arms or to take a bow.
• The instructors could include and successfully implement a number of improv games:
The overall learning outcomes of the practice sessions was definitely enriched by the improvisational games. The learners were able to evaluate their own learning experiences during the internship, along with their peers. They were able to understand the value and rules of communication through professional feedback. It was a great place to practice presentation skills to share their learning experiences in a virtual group and environment. Through interesting games, they were also able to hone problem-solving techniques. But the cherry on the cake, was evidently the fun they had while at it! This experiment, while being a totally new concept, was a resounding success.