Virtual meetings bring out strange behaviors in us– behaviors that we wouldn’t tolerate in person. My first ever exposure to a conference call was back in the early part of last decade while working for a global broker – and I wasn’t even on the 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 while his conference call carried on – his colleagues unaware that he wasn’t even on the call. Needless to say, I was more than a little perturbed.
Fast-forward to 2014 and virtual meetings are a common feature of many of our lives. Disappointingly, however, the expectations and experiences we have for them really haven’t improved from that global broker example.
For the last 8 years, I’ve spent much of my time either on the road, or working from a home office. As a result of this work setup, I’ve 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 have poor line quality, distracted colleagues multitasking in the background, barking dogs or crying children, and the late comings and goings of staff that wouldn’t be tolerated in in-person meetings. Own up who hasn’t answered email while on a conference call?
Who doesn’t recognize themselves in at least one of the characters in the marvelous video parody linked below?
However we feel about them, virtual meetings are here to stay. Improvements in technology and more notably the drive for increased remote working and telecommuting mean that more of this will happen. One senior insurance executive shared with me that his company was consolidating London premises and would have City office space with less desk space than staff. It was the intention to have staff work remotely to reduce corporate overhead.
The one type of remote meeting still within the control of the senior executive is that of the team meeting. 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 and effectiveness back into these types of meetings.
We need to 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 some way towards creating connections and collaboration enabled by exchanges at the coffee cooler.
Here are four tips for to improve virtual team meetings:
- 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.
- 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.
- Discourage multi-tasking. It’s something we’ve all done – I know someone who’s mowed the lawn while on a call. The broker story is an extreme example. Multi-tasking means it’s not possible to be present to what is going on the call. Discourage the practice.
- Discourage muting. It’s a neat feature of conference calls and one that allows folk to check out mentally while 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.
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.
The trends of remote working indicate that there will be more virtual team meetings in our future. Virtual meetings with supplier and partner are more difficult to influence but the humble team meeting is ripe for a new version. As a senior leader, it’s within your purview to make a difference. Let’s make virtual team meetings work for us.