Last reviewed 30 September 2016

Top tips for creating closeness over distance when leading meetings over distance. Jude Tavanyar describes why it’s important to take virtual meetings seriously, but not so seriously that we forget to enjoy them.

A problem?

A colleague tells me how, in a high profile WebEx meeting with Board members from a global retail company recently, she was pitching a training proposal about running effective virtual meetings, when a shadowy figure unexpectedly appeared behind her. She was on webcam, so the entire senior team were able to witness an old lady (who turned out to be her grandmother) lurking in the background for a minute or two, entirely unnoticed by my colleague. Finally, the granny made her presence known by tapping on the colleague’s shoulder and saying loudly: “I’ve brought you a cup of tea, love. Fancy a biscuit?” There was a short, stunned silence and then the entire senior team burst out laughing.

Or not…

The good news is that the Board chose my colleague’s company for the assignment. It is arguable that her grandmother’s unexpected appearance may even have helped achieve this, given that laughter is often welcome in any kind of meeting, although it probably did not exactly help to create the impression of a slick, professional internationally-successful outfit in the way my colleague intended.

Get it right

However, even this kind of relatively minor embarrassment could have been avoided, had my friend followed the simple, practical preparation points that she was actively promoting to this potential new client.

  • Find a private space to work uninterrupted.

  • Put a sign on the door to let others know they should not disturb you.

  • If you are working through webcam, make sure you have an uncluttered professional background behind you, or at least one unencumbered by relatives bringing tea, even with the kindest of intentions.

These simple, practical points may sound so basic that they are hardly worth bothering with. However, when productive, enjoyable communication with your colleagues and external contacts across distance relies on technology working flawlessly and discreetly to convey the messages you wish to put across, making sure that you have an excellent internet signal and broadband speed (alongside joining the meeting early so you can avoid any last minute technical hold-ups and wearing a headset so that audio interference is clear and sharp for all) — these are preparation factors which take on a critical importance in creating positive outcomes for any remotely held meeting.

Remote together

All of this matters now more than ever because some three million(1) now work remotely from home and companies are increasingly realising the significant benefits to their business in cost savings on office overheads and executive travel costs and time. Increased flexibility of communication, a potentially more diverse talent pool and potentially reduced stress through the more relaxed atmosphere created by being able to join a meeting from home — these are obvious, powerful selling points for remote meetings in the decentralised, geographically-dispersed global economy in which we now operate.

Yet smoothly-operating technology, conscientious practical preparation and set-up are only two of the key elements in running meetings across distance, whether you are talking about a few miles between offices, or across countries and continents.

Fredrik Fogelberg, MD of international virtual coaching and training provider Nomadic IBP, and co-author of a new book on powerful virtual facilitation(2), speaks about the core elements of effective meeting management, of which technological savvy and preparation is indeed one, although perhaps not the most important.

He speaks about the crucial need to establish trust and create a welcoming, friendly and sociable rapport from the very outset of any virtual meeting, whether it is with a long-established team whose members know each other well, or with strangers who have never met before, face-to-face or virtually. Without trust and careful relationship-building over time, Fogelberg considers that any virtual meeting will shortly become dull and unproductive, with disengaged, demotivated, even bored participants.

Trust, is of course an abstract concept at the best of times but in virtual space it might usefully be characterised not only as the feeling that we can rely on others to do what they say, and do it well, but also as an openness and willingness to engage with, understand and support individuals who may be quite different in personality preference, cultural background and communication style from ourselves — and to be open to receiving the same level of engagement from them. Trust of this kind does not happen overnight, and it relies on a spirit of inclusion, and, as Fogelberg highlights, a sociable atmosphere where ideas can be shared without judgment and quick-fire conversations can be generated to air new ideas and possibilities.

Virtual etiquette

So far, so good and the points mentioned here might be applicable also to some types of face-to-face meeting, of course, as would a clear-cut agenda communicated in advance, relevant contributors and a realistic time span with a focused set of emergent action points and roles. However, Fogelberg considers that virtual meetings also need their own etiquette or agreed code of behaviour in order to create maximum comfort and understanding between participants.

He argues that while in a face-to-face meeting, many people might consider it rude to turn up late or leave early without explanation, the very fact of invisibility in virtual space often creates a mood where people feel detached from what is going on, and thus feel free to multitask (whether the additional activities are relevant to the meeting process, or entirely irrelevant), drop out of the conversation, or even wander away from their computers without any compulsion to contribute.

Appropriate virtual etiquette might thus include a brief Check In time at the start of any virtual meeting, where people take it in turns to share their mood, and perhaps a personal insight or achievement. Effective virtual etiquette might also highlight the importance of focus, turning off distractions such as mobile phones and giving full attention to what is taking place on the computer screen ahead.

Spontaneous, free-flowing and inclusive conversation where people do not need to ask permission to speak, but may “chip in” freely — at first consideration this may seem chaotic and potentially disruptive but in fact the opposite is often the case. Numerous participants on Fogelberg’s virtual training programmes emphasise the high value of unstructured dialogue or “messy talk”(3) in cyberspace to generate high energy, free-flowing ideas, considerable enjoyment and engagement.

Fogelberg refers to a memorable comment made by one delighted participant in a virtual team training recently: “I never realised that meeting virtually could be so utterly enjoyable”, and that is perhaps the critical and challenging balance that any virtual meeting leader needs to achieve. Establishing that virtual meetings can play a serious and important role in business, means that people will treat them with respect and contribute fully. However, to achieve the energetic, inclusive and engaging atmosphere which makes any meeting productive, it is perhaps best that we also see them as an opportunity for playfulness, experimentation and exploring possibilities openly and without constraint. In other words, an opportunity, to paraphrase this participant, to engage in some “productive, serious fun”.

References

(1) Office of National Statistics (2016) www.gov.uk

(2) Fogelberg, F., Tavanyar, J., Live Connections: Virtual Facilitation for High Engagement and Powerful Learning

(3) Caulat, G., Creating Trust and Intimacy in the Virtual World (2014) published by Ashridge College of Management