One of the effects of Covid19 is the necessity to collaborate virtually more frequently than ever before. Even those who were already working “remote” before the pandemic usually had the opportunity to periodically travel or commute in order to have the occasional face-to-face meeting. It was not uncommon to hear people say things like “we must meet face to face at least once in a while, because of the relationship; it is important to create and maintain a solid base of trust and mutual understanding.”
The limitations imposed by Covid19 are now challenging our belief that we need to be together in a physical space, as we are all learning to make better use of “distant collaboration”. Yet is it not always easy. Many feel that it is really hard.
Based on my experience of training leaders over a decade and with additional inputs from more than a hundred coaching and training conversations that I conducted with business executives across various countries and sectors during the last four months, these are the most frequent concerns that most leaders share, when we talk about having to move team meetings from face-to-face to virtual:
- How do we make sure that people feel engaged and stay focused in a virtual meeting?
- How do we make sure that all participants are open and contribute at their best?
- How do we make sure that we reach an aligned conclusion, so that everybody is clear on next steps and feels accountable?
These concerns are fully legitimate. Because of Covid19, many just “stumbled” into the need to shift from f2f to virtual from one day to another, without time to think, learn and prepare for the shift.
But why are virtual meetings more challenging? Surely we need to engage people, ensure broad and open contribution and drive aligned conclusions also in normal (physical) meetings. So why have these three key questions become so much more pressing when we are in a virtual space? What makes us more doubtful and insecure when not physically together?
The short and probably surprising answer that I suggest is: because of our limiting beliefs. It is always tough to change habits and we naturally resist. We have always met in person, so it just “feels right” to do so. Instinctively, we resist believing that any other alternatives can be “as good”.
I did a bit of a research to find back what was publicly said about virtual meetings in the recent past before Covid19. What were the pros and cons arguments? What were the concerns? What was the advice?
In most publications, I noticed a phenomenon called “self-fulfilling prophecy”. We believed it easier and better to meet in person, we thus expected virtual meetings to be less effective, so we either avoided them or made no effort to improve them and then – surprise, surprise – our expectations were confirmed! Virtual meetings were no so effective; in person meetings were always clearly better! Conclusion: we must preferentially have in person meetings!
Take this article as an example: “10 Reasons Why F2F Meetings Are More Important Than You Think” which was published on Inc.com in August 2018. The listed 10 reasons – similarly to what shared in most other publications on the subject – amount to the fact that it feels more natural (reasons 2, 3 and 5) and it is less technically complicated (reasons 4, 7, 8 and 9) to meet and work in person; also, we are not skilled at being personal at a distance (reasons 2 and 6).
These concerns about virtual meetings are all valid and legitimate, yet we are perfectly able to overcome those issues if we want to. We just need to realise that it takes a little effort and some learning. We cannot expect to run a virtual meeting the same way and using the same skills as f2f meetings.
What we need, in order to make our Virtual Meetings at least as productive as in person meetings, is a transformational approach: we need to “hack our beliefs”.
The first “hack” is about shaking away the fear of technology: we usually know what it takes and how to prepare to get a f2f meeting to run smoothly (e.g. check beamers and lights, share agenda, set a smooth flow of interventions, etc.); we are still learning what it takes and how to prepare for virtual meetings, but it is similar: we need to test the platform, share intention, expectations and agenda, have coffee breaks and a stimulating flow, etc. We need a proper set-up in order to keep people engaged and focused.
The second “hack” is about shaking the belief that we can only have open relationships in person; if we are used to feel more at ease in person, we may need extra encouragement to relax and contribute virtually; we need to develop new “Emotional Intelligence Antennas” (e.g. detect changes in voice and speaking rhythm) as well as learning the skills to “notice and name”, ask open questions, invite and value insights, in order to help create trust, open the dialogue and make sure that everyone feels encouraged and expected to give their best.
The third “hack” is about shaking the belief that agreements made in person are “more valid”: even if we do not shake hands, hugs or celebrate together at the pub, we can still create good routines to make the virtual meetings a valuable point of reference, e.g. by keeping the aligned intention on screen in all subsequent meetings, utilizing technology to et up reminders and celebrating virtually; we can learn to maintain focus on creating shared ownership and mutual accountability in a new framework.
Laura Lozza (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MD and Senior Executive Leadership Consultant, Grooa AS www.grooa.com
Published June 18, 2020