When we raced to learn how to use Teams/Zoom/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 on-line, with the same assumptions about meeting format as when they were in-person. 

Now that we have some experience of virtual communication, it’s an opportunity to re-invent 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:

Some of the problems……and solutions

  • Online meetings are more intense – we have to concentrate harder, the cognitive demands are greater, we get more tired.  We need to make them shorter and less frequent.
  • There’s less opportunity for side conversations and for bridge-building chats – everyone hears everything and it feels more formal.  You might need to make a special effort to schedule some one-to-one conversations – or go into break-out groups or use the chat function.
  • 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 extraverted people who tend to think as they speak and want to talk things out immediately rather than wait their turn.  Encourage them to use the chat function instead.     
  • You can’t do MBWA (managing by wandering around) from home – you need to find other ways of virtually bumping into people and having water cooler chats.  Try a daily “Tea at three” session with your team.
  • Some people don’t have their camera on – this makes rapport and collaboration harder.  Set some ground rules and expectations around tech etiquette

Some of the opportunities……

  • Have 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. 
  • Build personal relationships with your team members by having one-to-one chats with them, so you can find out what support they need. 
  • 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.
  • It’s easy to schedule comfort breaks into online meetings and less likely that people will get waylaid and won’t come back after the break.  And physically moving around aids concentration.   
  • Many office workers eat lunch at their desks while working – working from home may mean you can eat outside or with your partner and have a real break from work. 
  • The chat function enables people to communicate without disrupting the meeting (especially useful for extraverts).  The chat or whiteboard function is also a quick way to capture thoughts and ideas – faster than writing it on a real whiteboard.
  • It’s easy to share documents and slides and you can edit them as you present.

Try out some of these tips and you may find that virtual meetings result in better outcomes than in-person ones!