When we raced to learn how to use Teams, Zoom or Google Meet as a substitute for face-to-face meetings with our colleagues, we didn’t have time to think about what might be the best way to communicate in the virtual world. We simply transferred our meetings from in-person to online, with the same assumptions about meeting format.
Now that we have some experience of virtual communication, it’s an opportunity to reinvent how we do our meetings online. What works in the real world doesn’t always transfer to the virtual. And in the virtual world there may be possibilities for communication that don’t exist in the real world.
Personality also has an impact on how we behave and how effective we are in online meetings compared with in-person. As a consultant, I get to work with a lot of different people in different settings and these are some of my observations:
-- Online meetings are more intense. We have to concentrate harder, the cognitive demands are greater and therefore we get more tired.
-- There’s less opportunity for side conversations and for bridge-building chats – everyone hears everything and it feels more formal. Similarly, you can’t do MBWA (managing by wandering around) from home, because you can’t bump into people in the corridor or by the water cooler.
-- Everyone faces you (unlike in a real meeting) so you notice people’s reactions immediately - who is looking interested or bored, who is doing something else - but you may interpret their reactions incorrectly and there is little opportunity to check this out.
-- You take it in turns to talk. This is good for more introverted people, who naturally assume that you take turns in conversation and like to think first before they speak. But it doesn’t work so well for more extroverted people who tend to think as they speak and want to talk things out immediately rather than wait their turn.
-- Some people don’t have their camera on – this makes rapport and collaboration harder.
Fortunately, there are ways of mitigating these problems, and even some opportunities that aren’t available when everyone’s in the office.
The first thing to do is have shorter and fewer meetings. After all, going to meetings is not your work – you do most of your work outside the meetings. Challenge yourself to find other ways to discuss, decide and communicate, without calling meetings. You might need to make a special effort to schedule some one-to-one conversations to build personal relationships with your team members and find out what support they need.
Inside meetings themselves, make sure everyone has their video on to help with rapport, and make use of the chat function, which enables people to communicate without disrupting the meeting (especially useful for extroverts). The chat or whiteboard is also a quick way to capture thoughts and ideas – faster than writing it on a real whiteboard.
In general, collaborative tools (like Mural) can work better virtually than in person – it’s easier to see what others have written on their post-its, easier to group common themes and easier to build on other people’s ideas. You can easily share documents and slides and edit them while presenting.
To take the edge off and to encourage virtual water-cooler moments, try a daily “tea at three” session with your team, and schedule comfort breaks into online meetings - physically moving around aids concentration. And remember that because many office workers eat lunch at their desks, working from home may mean you can eat outside or with your partner and have a real break from work.
If you try out these tips and set the ground rules and expectations around tech etiquette, you may find that virtual meetings result in better outcomes than in-person ones.
Catherine Stothart is a leadership coach and author of How to Get on with Anyone: Gain the Confidence and Charisma to Communicate with any Personality Type (Pearson £12.99)
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