Virtual meetings bring out strange behaviours in all of us– behaviours that we wouldn’t tolerate in person. My first ever exposure of a conference call was back in the early part of last decade whilst working for a global broker in London– and I wasn’t even on the conference call. I had a meeting with a senior executive, and as I stepped into his office, I noticed he had his headset on. Seeing the hesitation on my face, he waved at me to sit down at the desk. He pressed a few buttons to mute the call, apologized, and said it could carry on without him. We had our meeting whilst his conference call carried on – his colleagues unaware that he wasn’t present on the call.
Fast-forward to today and virtual meetings are a common feature of many of our lives. Many of us use Skype and Face Time to stay connected to family, and corporate versions of video conferencing for work. But the expectations and experiences really haven’t improved from that global broker example.
When I was a consultant in a past life, I’d spent much of my time either on the road, or working from a home office. As a result, I spent countless hours on conference calls covering the full remit of vendor briefings, product demos, team meetings, sales pitches (mine and others) and research interviews.
My experience is mostly horrid.
The calls had poor line quality, distracted colleagues multitasked in the background, dogs barked, children cried, and there were late comings and goings of attendees that wouldn’t be tolerated in in-person meetings.
Own up who hasn’t answered email whilst on a conference call? If you think this isn’t you, I challenge you to watch this marvelous parody and not recognize yourself in at least one character.
When I first moved to the UK in 2000, I was hired by a US firm who wanted someone willing to work remotely. In their interview process, British people based in London were unwilling to let go of coming into an office. As a South African, it somehow didn’t bother me. I was hired because of that flexibility.
One of the gifts of Covid-19 is to challenge our attachment to current way of working – travelling, and meeting face to face. Virtual meetings will become more common.
I believe that it’s possible to improve our experiences of virtual team meetings. Much like mobile phones required a revision of social norms, a handful of clear new ground rules can add productivity, fun and effectiveness back into these types of meetings.
We should acknowledge that remote working can be a lonely business and that many of the opportunities for colleagues to share information, learn and trust each other are removed. With a shift in perspective, conference calls can go someway to creating connections and collaboration enabled by exchanges at the coffee cooler.
Here are our five tips for to improve virtual team meetings:
1. Don’t tolerate bystanders – meeting are not spectator sports. Encourage everyone to contribute It’s about dialog over monolog. As chair, call on people by name often to encourage people to be present. This requires smaller groups of people on a call – a welcome unintended consequence.
2. Allow for personal and professional sharing as part of the check-in process. Patrick Lencioni’s seminal work on dysfunctional teams points to trust being the foundation of healthy teams. One of the ways of developing trust is to share and continue to share the personal. This happens organically when staff work in the same physical space, and requires more intention on part of the leader to ensure it happens for remote teams.
3. Discourage multi-tasking. It’s something we’ve all done – I know someone who’s mowed the lawn whilst on a call. I own up to having painted my toenails. Multi-tasking means it’s not possible to be present to what is going on the call. Discourage the practice. Call each other out on it.
4. Discourage muting. It’s a neat feature of conference calls and one that allows folk to check out mentally whilst claiming to be on-line (or mow lawns). I’ve been on calls where muting was necessary as the person dialing in was in a café/taxi/airport lounge. That’s a form of multi-tasking that should be discouraged. Muting also creates an uncomfortable silence when in response to a joke, only one person is heard laughing when there are in-fact several people on the call.
5. Insist people are in a quiet place for the virtual call. I’ve been on calls where people are in airport lounges or even driving. They are often distracted, and bring with them a lot of background noise. Going virtual doesn’t mean you can call in from anywhere. Set some ground rules on what the team wants’ to allow.
These ground rules require changes in behavior. We’ve all developed our way of dealing with these types of calls. It will take staff time to adjust and to know there is a new way of doing things. Give people time to adjust.
If we are to find any gift in the current pandemic, let’s make virtual team meetings really work for us.