No matter your profession, location or role, chances are that much of your interaction with others right now is virtual. You’re still expected to deliver similar outcomes, in an environment of continuing uncertainty, but without the physical proximity that we all took for granted not so long ago.

This is a challenge I understand well. Up to half of my consulting company’s work has been international for some 15 years now, and much of our impact has been delivered virtually. Not only that, but the work itself, is focused on getting people to collaborate and align around shared goals; something that’s probably high on your agenda, and perceived by many as a huge virtual challenge.

The aim of this blog, then, is to share some of the insights and learning we have acquired along the way – all of which have come in very handy over the past few months!

There is almost nothing that you can do in person, that you can’t do virtually

The prevailing narrative on virtual interaction isn’t very helpful. Many managers believe that it’s harder to make decisions, more difficult to connect and build trust, and that it’s much easier for people to hide. Of course, we all mourn the loss of physical proximity and spontaneity, but the downsides of virtual interaction are exaggerated. In fact, my colleagues and I have learned that there is almost nothing that you can do in person, that you can’t do virtually. This is especially true where there are existing relationships in place. We’ve learned that:

  • Virtual meetings are not ineffective because they’re virtual, but because they often lack clear intent, methodical preparation and expected standards of behavior. In other words, exactly the same issues that plague face-to-face meetings.
  • The key to high levels of meeting engagement has little to do with whether people are physically together in a room; it has to do with whether people really care about the agenda. Just reflect on how many times you’ve been physically present, but mentally absent.
  • Paradoxically, it can be even easier to build trust and connection in virtual one-on-one interactions than face-to-face. For all intents and purposes, you’re three feet apart and looking directly into each other’s eyes. You’re also less rushed, often in a more relaxed environment, and sitting comfortably in sweatpants!
  • Virtual meetings allow for more frequent and targeted interactions over a prolonged period of time, rather than the dreaded ‘three day offsite’, where lots of effort, travel and good intent rarely translate into real changes back in the workplace.
  • With effective use of technology, virtual meetings can actually create greater levels of authenticity and honesty than face-to-face meetings, where people can feel fearful or reluctant to raise issues openly. One example is the use of the chat function to surface sensitive issues to the meeting leader, in real time, enabling them to address what might otherwise go unspoken.

6 key principles for virtual team meetings

If you want to turn your virtual meetings into real results, the following principles can help.

  1. Have shorter and more frequent sessions, rather than meetings that are infrequent and go for days on end. A shorter, regular cadence of interaction encourages team members to integrate shared priorities, adopt helpful habits, and be far more responsive to changes in your environment.
  2. Go narrow and deep on one or two key topics only. Long, face-to-face meetings encourage us to stack the agenda with too many topics, too many problems and too many decisions. The outcome is often that we feel we’ve run a marathon at sprint pace. Virtual interactions can help us establish new meeting protocols, where we judge our success by the depth of discussion and quality of decisions, rather than the number of topics we skim across.
  3. Use affiliation mechanisms at the start of virtual meetings to encourage care, connection and openness. One thing that can happen very naturally in face-to-face meetings is chit-chat and personal conversations. In virtual meetings, we need to be more deliberate, so ask participants to check in, share something personal or engage in an icebreaker.
  4. Employ the ‘build, refine, finalise’ approach when you’re trying to develop content together. As a rule, most teams do too little preparation before this kind of meeting, attempt too much during it, and then have a significant challenge to create consensus and commitment after it. You can use the “limitations” of virtual meetings to your advantage by gathering all relevant inputs in advance and circulating prework (build); using the meeting to hone the content together (refine), then charging the decision maker – or a working group – to finalise the content on behalf of the team afterward (finalise).
  5. Start with the problem, then design a series of interventions, including meetings, back from that. When you do this, you will often find that the meetings themselves are much less important than what happens in between. Ultimately, a meeting is just one moment in a multi-step process to solve a problem or realize an opportunity.
  6. Use virtual meeting software (such as Miro or Mural) to mimic whiteboarding, post it notes, brainstorming, voting, and the like. You can use virtual rooms to create breakout groups, and document sharing (like Google Docs) so team members can see content in development. We have also found that the use of a second screen enables documents to be shared without losing the visual impact of seeing each other. With modern technology, there’s almost nothing you can’t do remotely that you used to do in person.

I hope this blog encourages you to embrace virtual meetings with renewed vigor, and helps you to leverage their advantages toward your goals.

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about PETER

For two decades, Dr. Peter Fuda has been a Sherpa to leaders, teams and organizations across the globe. He’s coached more than 200 CEOs to measurably higher levels of performance. His consulting company has delivered some 50 cases of business transformation and more than 1,000 cases of leadership transformation, at a success rate of greater than 90%.

Find out more about Peter

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