What can we learn from going virtual?

by Philip Boxer

Digitalization is changing the competitive demands on every organization across all sectors, at different speeds and in different ways. The covid-19 pandemic is accelerating these changes, driving each organization towards becoming more knowledge-based, so that it finds itself having to compete more by aligning its behaviors dynamically to the differing situations of its clients and by synchronizing its own behaviors with others’ behaviors within the client’s context-of-use. Think wrapping continuing support around the evolving situation of a client.

Something of the enormity of this shift can be grasped in terms my work not being organized primarily around the task boundaries of what I am doing as a provider in terms of my primary task. Rather the work must be organized within the client’s system-of-meaning in terms of the primary risk from leaving too large a gap in relation to what the client wants. Whatever I and others do must be translated and transposed into the client’s context. Think what it takes to perform standup comedy.

This translation and transposition are endemic in the virtual world, in which meaning is endlessly emancipated from our own ways of organizing it. Having to work within others’ organizations of meaning leads us to being between two sides of a dilemma that both need holding, both ‘here’ and ‘over there’.  The virtual world entangles different ways of organizing meaning such that there are always multiple version of the ‘truth’. Think processes for agreeing where to direct investment within a city to impact on the greatest need.

A LinkedIn blog asks: “can group relations work actually be undertaken virtually”? Its five questions can be re-framed in terms of this dilemma arising from the impact of digitalization, leading organizations towards having to hold both sides. The question of whether group relations work can be undertaken virtually thus becomes a question of what innovations are needed in group relations work that will enable us to learn how to hold both sides.


Q1. What happens to ‘the task’ and the capacity to find and hold the task – made more complex without bodies in the room and unidimensional head photos on a screen? Made more challenging to persist with by virtue of the distractions available when working virtually. How are the initial agreements stimulated and supported virtually?

A group relations event is designed to explore transferential and counter-transferential effects arising between people as they emerge in group dynamics.  The event as a whole, however, depends on its participants taking up a transference to the work of the event per se as a work in which all the participants are engaged. Thinking of ‘a work’ in this way is like the way an artist creates ‘a work’, each work revealing to her a bit more of what her work is. When a group relations event goes virtual, what is the work to which the participants have a transference when it can’t be to studying the in-the-room interactions of the group per se? To make sense of this, we need to understand what constitutes a transference to the work:

transference to the personversustransference to the work

In a transference to the person, it is as if the other knows what it is that the individual wants, while in a transference to the work, it is as if the work knows what it is that the individual wants…

Q2. What about ‘time’ as connectivity issues plague beginnings, middles and endings of each GR element – and at every moment in between? Connectivity strength varies across the globe and at various times of the day and night; timezone issues might make for a complex weave of differing biorhythms for members – my morning, your evening? And what about digital security?

The various task systems created by a group relations event have their own bounded timespans of discretion within which participants make the choices implicit in their behaviors. The absence of boundedness created by virtual processes demands of participants that they choose the scope of the complexity that they are attending to, their interactions with each other taking place within these differing spans of complexity. Here we are moving from being dominated by the chronos of clock time to the kairos of what is constitutive of moments that have moment:


The timespan of discretion of a task system is defined by its beginning, middle and end, while its span of complexity is defined by the scope of the networked collaboration needed to to produce a desired outcome…

Q3. Since the ‘territory’ is no longer ‘our’ physical space, how do we contend as consultants with being in the ‘territory’ of the membership – their living rooms, offices, bedrooms?

The territory of a group relations event establishes the boundaries that limit the ways in which participants may be present. Going virtual means that no such boundaries are established while participants’ different ways of organizing meaning are made more apparent.  The resultant experience of edges is in terms of the contexts from which participants speak within their places and local times:


A boundary is marked physically in time and space, while an edge arises wherever there is an experienced need to translate and transpose between different ways of organizing meaning…

Q4. How does ‘authority’ work in the virtual environment? Can useful explorations of transference arise in making sense of what’s really going on?

With transference to the person, questioning the relation to authority involves questioning the relationship to the person. In contrast, transference to the work involves questioning the effects that appear to be being called for in a situation and what then might be necessary to giving rise to those effects. This changes where a participant looks in understanding what is really going on from the other per se to the situation:


Authority questions what participants are being obedient to, while performativity questions the relation between ways of organizing meaning and their effects…

Q5. If these boundaries are fundamental for ‘containment’ – how are we to anticipate, manage and make use of the anxieties that arise and are necessary for deep learning? Surely these virtual anxieties will have a different quality?

The ‘containment’ of a group relations event is derived from the way it holds its boundaries, limiting what participants must deal with. It is also derived from the ways of organizing meaning that emerge within its boundaries in the way participants make sense of what is going on. Going virtual emancipates both the ways of holding and also the ways of containing. Here ‘holding’, as the way in which horizontal complexity is limited, is distinguished from ‘containing’ as the way of organizing meaning. This challenges participants to focus less on how they are working with their anxiety and to focus more on possible innovations in the way they use the organization: 

defenses against anxietyversusdefenses against innovation

Defenses against anxiety defend from what is going on below the surface of a participant’s consciousness, while defenses against innovation defend the way a participant uses an organization to support some aspect of their identification.


Putting all five dilemmas together, placing Group Relations Work on one side and ‘Going Virtual’ on the other, we can see something of what holding both sides might involve:

 Group Relations Work Going Virtual
Q1transference to the personvstransference to the work
Q5defenses against anxietyvsdefenses against innovation

The question, then, of whether group relations work can be undertaken virtually is a questioning of the limits to ‘containing’ as a conflation of holding and containing. Whatever is needed of an event that goes virtual, its design will need to involve holding in such a way as to emancipate containing. Think Open Source Event.

5 Replies to “What can we learn from going virtual?”

  1. Philip, thank you for helping us think through the dilemmas involved in exploring what is possible in virtual group relations work. May I include this blog as one among several resources that I, on behalf of the AKRI Board, share with the AKRI community? We will be hosting a virtual community meeting this Saturday to “imagine possibilities for what Group Relations can become in a post-Covid world.”

    1. Michael, thank you for your response. Please do share with the AKRI community. I very much look forward to whatever conversation emerges.

  2. Thank you, Philip, for this very helpful article. I was wondering how you think this also relates to our virtual work with our clients? I find it challenging not to be in the room with my clients but I also feel an intensified urge to be more focused on the outcome and how my clients implement new insights to create change – in lign with what you write. So I think there might be a strong accelerator for real change in the way you understand virtuality and I would like to explore this further.

    1. I agree with you. A key challenge here is to be working with a ‘transference to the work’ as distinct from a ‘transference to a person’…

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