Why we should take virtual meetings seriously

My colleague Alice tells me how, in a recent high profile virtual meeting with a new client – the CEO and Board members from a global company – she was pitching a training proposal. All seemed to be going to plan, until she was suddenly met with what felt like a stunned silence from the client team in attendance.

This team had hardly been restrained in their earlier responses, so Alice was about to ask if there was a problem with her audio connection, when the silence was suddenly broken by an outburst of loud laughter from the entire customer group.

She was about to do a rapid rethink of her pitch, when she felt a tap on her shoulder, and saw that her 92 year old grandmother was standing there behind her chair clutching a cup of tea and a biscuit, in full view of the computer webcam.

‘Thought you might like a snack, love’ said Granny. ‘Keep you going while you’re chatting away to all these important business types.’ She did a big smile and disappeared, clearly unaware that she (and Alice) were both fully visible and the entire conversation audible to the client team.

If an important, high-level virtual meeting is unexpectedly interrupted, there are a number of available responses:

o   Act as though nothing has happened, and carry on regardless.

o   Apologise and explain that the unintended interruption (as if it were some kind of technical error) will not occur again.  

o   Or do exactly what Alice did, accept the biscuits graciously, and explain that one of the things she particularly enjoys about virtual meetings is the flexibility and informality they can offer, often resulting in a more friendly, sociable and productive working environment.

In short, Alice embraced the unique benefits of virtual meetings, events that build trust and enhance virtual relationships which are considered just as important as the task at hand. 

By reminding people that they were in a meeting with other human beings, even though each individual was staring at a computer screen, she modelled the confidence and playful invitation to engage and have fun, virtually.

The ‘happy ending’ to this story is that the Board selected Alice’s company for the assignment. While it is debatable that the sudden appearance of her grandmother single-handedly swung the Board’s decision, what it undoubtedly did achieve was to emphasize the ‘human factor’ through a virtual connection; the absence of which may ultimately lead to a dull and extremely disengaging experience for all participants.

But hang on (you may be saying) – surely any meeting – virtual or face to face – needs to focus on its agenda, and achieving agreed outcomes? It can’t just be an opportunity to chat and socialise, can it?

However, there is plenty of evidence that the impact of many a virtual meeting suffers when it either takes itself too seriously – by ignoring opportunities for imaginative exploration, creativity, spontaneity and sociable interaction – or not seriously enough, by allowing participants to act detached and passive, as if it hardly mattered if they were there, showing limited consideration for the social niceties which would most definitely apply if they were meeting face to face.

Nomadic IBP’s MD Fredrik Fogelberg repeatedly emphasizes the high importance of ‘virtual hygiene’ and ‘virtual etiquette’ in online meetings.

The first – virtual hygiene – covers the basic rules of set-up and delivery, including such obvious points as finding a private space to work uninterrupted, putting a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on your office door and, if you are working via webcam, making sure you have an uncluttered ‘professional’ background behind you, ideally unencumbered by relatives bringing tea, even with the kindest of intentions.

The second element – virtual etiquette – refers to the set of principles or working approach that you, as Chair or facilitator, bring to the meeting to create engagement and enable productive collaboration. 

Fogelberg speaks about the crucial need to establish trust and create a welcoming, friendly and sociable rapport from the very outset of any virtual meeting, whether it is with a long-established team whose members know each other well, or with strangers who have never met before, face to face or virtually.

Trust, is of course an abstract concept at the best of times but in virtual space it might usefully be characterized not only as the feeling that we can rely on others, but also as an openness and willingness to engage with, understand and support individuals who may be quite different in personality preference, cultural background and communication style from ourselves.

Trust of this kind does not happen overnight, and it relies on a spirit of inclusion, and, as Fogelberg highlights, a sociable atmosphere where ideas can be shared without judgement and quick-fire conversations can be generated to air new ideas and possibilities. 

Appropriate virtual etiquette might include a brief ‘Check In’ time at the start of any virtual meeting, where participants take it in turns to share their mood, and perhaps a personal insight or achievement.

It might also highlight the importance of focus, turning off distractions such as muting mobile phones and giving full attention to whatever is taking place on the computer screen ahead, and of enabling spontaneous, free-flowing and inclusive conversation where people do not need to ask permission to speak, but may ‘chip in’ freely to share their thoughts.

Establishing that virtual meetings can play a serious and important role in business means that people will treat them with respect and contribute fully. 

However, to achieve the energetic, inclusive and engaging atmosphere which makes any meeting productive, it is perhaps best that we also see them as an opportunity for playfulness, experimentation, and exploring possibilities openly and without constraint.

In conclusion, and to borrow the words of a recent training participant ‘virtual meetings are not just a second best to face to face ones – they’re a great opportunity to engage in some productive, serious fun!’

Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring in more depth how to achieve the ‘serious fun’ or productive playfulness that the best meetings across distance can offer us.

Read more about the Nomadic IBP training on leading virtual meetings course. 

© Jude Tavanyar, November 2018

Next week: Introducing the VELVET model for effective, enjoyable virtual communication.

Image source: www.freepik.com

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