In an earlier blog, I identified 5 problems with online meetings. What can you do to put the life back into that sometime blessing, sometime curse of the modern world, virtual meetings?
Accept the less-than-perfect nature of virtual meetings. Don’t try to make virtual meetings into something they’re not, or try to make them carry freight they can’t. Do the less important things via virtual meetings whenever possible. Save the emotional stuff for face-to-face meetings, because it's emotions and attitudes that are conveyed mostly via body language.
Have regular face-to-face meetings to reinvigorate the team. If you're kicking off something important, or celebrating a big win, or you have significant issues, bite the meeting bullet and bring everyone together. Trying to solve disagreements or rev people up via a digital phone line is pure folly. Our emotional investment in a phone call is simply less than in a face-to-face meeting, and the lack of visual and tonal information makes it much harder to get key messages across.
Never go longer than 10 minutes without some kind of break. Recent evidence suggests that attention spans may be about 10 minutes. Our attention spans are certainly no longer on a phone, so plan your meeting in 10-minute segments and take breaks in between. The breaks will allow people to re-engage. You can either stop the meeting entirely or just urge everyone to get up and stretch. People don’t need a long break, just a chance for a quick change of pace.
Get regular group input. What most people do during long phone meetings is put the phone on mute and take care of other chores while half-listening. You can keep the group involved by going around the phones asking for input. In a face-to-face meeting, you're able to tell how people are doing by monitoring their body language. In a virtual meeting, you need to stop regularly to take everyone's temperature. And I do mean everyone. Go right around the list, asking each locale or person for input.
Identify your emotions verbally. Lacking visual cues, we have a very hard time reading other people's feelings, so make yours clear verbally and train other people on the call to do the same. Say, "I'm excited about everything we’re accomplishing!" Or, "Bob, I’m concerned that you don’t seem confident in the 3Q numbers. How are you really feeling about them?" You've got to put back in what the phone lines are removing.
Use video to bring the group together. Face-to-face meetings allow a group to share emotions easily. That keeps them together and feeling connected.
That's much harder to do in a virtual meeting. So do the small talk — but make it video small talk. Get the group to send each other 30-second or 1-minute clips of what they're up to or what the weather's like where they are. Something personal really adds a sense of connection back to the group. Put some of that money you're saving on travel to good technological use.
Virtual meetings may never replace the need for humans to exchange emotional and unconscious non-verbal information through face-to-face exchanges, but they can make do for all but the most important purposes.
What is Virtual Trust?
Finally, though, I wonder if something basic is changing about the way we form relationships. Will the next generations be able to invest in online connections the same way that everyone now invests in “real” face-to-face relationships?
Think for a moment about the nature of trust in the virtual world. It’s much more fragile, though perhaps easier to establish initially. But the big difference comes when something threatens the trust.
In face-to-face relationships where there is trust, one party may do something to screw up, causing friction, anger, and even a bit of mistrust to creep in. But if the connection is strong enough, the issue will get thrashed out, the perpetrator will apologize, and trust will be restored. Indeed, once restored, the trust may be stronger than ever.
How different it is in the virtual world! Once trust is threatened, it’s instantly broken, and it’s virtually impossible to re-establish it. People simply move on. Since trust was more fragile in the first place, it shatters with very little provocation.
If most of your relationships are virtual, the fragility of those relationships may make you less able to get through the bumps and shocks that every (face-to-face) relationship naturally endures. If you take the pattern of commitment from the virtual world, your understanding of the meaning of relationship will be attenuated and weak.
Today, we still need the closeness of face-to-face relationships to be fully human. But how will we act in 2030?