A majority of companies have prohibited all but "business-critical" travel in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and countless high-profile events (Google Cloud Next, Aruba Networks' Atmosphere'20 Las Vegas) have been shifted from in-person to virtual gatherings. Training programs, conferences, conventions and meetings are being cancelled left and right. Many employees (and indeed, entire organizations) are working from home. The trouble is, many organizations have no existing structure or processes for remote collaboration.
While nothing can quite replace the unique benefits of face-to-face gatherings, virtual events — if thoughtfully done — can accomplish surprisingly powerful results. Here are suggestions for making that shift.
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When meeting face-to-face is not an option, encourage managers and employees to ask themselves how else they can accomplish the same business goals. The initial response — and many times the correct response — will be: "There is simply no substitute for face-to-face interaction."
Various business units and departments need to ask themselves which objectives cannot be met without face-to-face meetings, and why not. Challenge assumptions and push boundaries. Brainstorm alternatives and test them with others outside of the group. For example, your initial assumption may be that the project team needs to work face-to-face at least once a month to iron out differences and create shared solutions. But by examining this a bit more closely, it may become clear that by diligently following a new process for reporting issues via a shared portal, chat thread or email, and by brainstorming solutions via weekly facilitated conference calls, your team can forego the monthly meetings in favor of quarterly meetings.
Or perhaps your new management team has just been appointed, and your new goals and success metrics have just been outlined. You are heavily dependent on each other if the team is to succeed, and you have little time in which to accomplish your goals. Team members come from several different locations and disciplines. Most of you have never met. You need to meet face-to-face to get to know each other and to begin to build trust. In this case, you may be right: Meeting face-to-face will be essential to helping this new team to coalesce quickly. However, logistics or rules established by your organization or industry may require that you meet virtually until you, your organization and/or the relevant authorities deem that it's relatively safe to travel without concern.
Explore Face-to-Face Alternatives
If you conclude that face-to-face meetings are just not possible right now, the viable options will depend on many variables — such as the desired outcomes, how high the stakes are, the perceptions and predispositions of the participants, familiarity participants have with each other, geographic locations and cultural differences.
Consider these options to augment your in-person events or to replace them altogether when necessary:
Virtual meetings, with deliberate planning and excellent facilitation. If your group must rely more heavily than before on virtual forms of communications, make sure the meetings are thoughtfully planned. Questions to answer in the planning of virtual meetings include:
- What are the objectives? (e.g., decision-making, issue reporting, information exchange, etc.)
- Who should participate in regular meetings, if not everyone?
- Can someone participate "half-way?" For example, is it acceptable for members to read and send email during the call, or take other calls if they come in? If so, under what circumstances?
- If different national cultures are involved, have you established standards around the use of English (e.g., avoid use of idioms and local slang), the need for translation time or the desire to keep responses concise and brief?
- What time and for how long should you schedule the virtual meeting? Are the times equally convenient (or inconvenient) for all participants? Can you consider shifting the time every other week or every month, to accommodate all equally?
- Who decides what the agenda topics will be? How are topics communicated? By whom? Who has input?
- What preparation is required to ensure that participants make the best use of meeting time? Who makes sure that everyone knows what she or he must do to prepare? What if some people come prepared and others don't?
- Who facilitates the call? What are the principles regarding staying on track?
- Does someone capture decisions reached, minutes, etc.? If so, who? Do you rotate this responsibility?
- What additional mechanisms will the team use to share ideas, provide input and so forth between meetings (e.g., an asynchronous team portal, group chats, IMs, email, etc.)?
- Has someone secured audio and video links and passcodes, and given needed permissions, to everyone in advance? Do you have sufficient bandwidth, ports, etc. to accommodate everyone?
Videoconferencing, especially for times when witnessing nonverbal communication will contribute to the groups' overall objectives:
- Repeat the checklist above, plus the following.
- Do all participants have reasonable access to videoconferencing technology from wherever they are?
- Have you created an agenda and allocated the appropriate time to meet your objectives, while making the best use of this technology? (For example, it probably makes sense to have people review any relevant material in advance, and then use the videoconference time to hash out issues, air differences or brainstorm solutions, vs. using the time to simply present material.)
- If presentations are to be made, how? For example, will they be sent in advance for discussion during a meeting? Or will they be presented on-camera or viewed by each participant via laptop? This will affect the planning and design of the presentation as well as the agenda.
- Does the technology allow for smooth, steady communication, or does time need to be built in for long pauses between speakers?
- Can you avoid scheduling videoconferences around meals? The sight and sound of people drinking and chewing can be distracting, at best.
- Who's responsible for booking the systems and conference room if needed?
Email, which can help foster and sustain open communication, if used judiciously. Questions to answer might include:
- Who's on the "to" list, and who gets cc'd? Under what circumstances? What are the implications? (For example, those on the "to" list need to provide a response; those who are cc'd do not.)
- Should you assign a convention that connotes a relative sense of urgency? (Example: A 'U' in the subject line indicates urgent, an 'A' indicates some sort of action is required and an 'I' signifies "FYI only.")
- Have you agreed on a standard for turnaround time? In what cases? Do some people in the group need a faster turnaround time than others? (For example, do your colleagues in Asia need a quicker response so that they can get the answer they need by the next day?)
- Do you have standards regarding brevity, accuracy and clarity? (This is especially important when the group includes non-native English speakers.)
- Have you agreed when email is or is not appropriate? (Example: Don't use email publicly to "call out" each other on mistakes or problems. If you must, confine the distribution list to as few people as possible.)
- Are there any constraints in the size of attachments you can send? If so, have you designated an app that can be the repository for shared documents, such as a Google Drive or Dropbox?
For any virtual platform that relies on real-time interaction:
- Does everyone have equal access to the technology? If so, do they know how to access and use it?
- Have you agreed on principles regarding timing, agenda flow, facilitation of questions and answers, ownership of minutes and other key elements?
- Will you communicate both verbally and by typing into a shared workspace?
- Has everyone received any review material far in advance of the session, so participants can queue up whatever they need in advance?
Web-based meeting apps, plus audio/video (whether you're using one app or multiple apps simultaneously) can be a powerful way to share information, coordinate discussions and make group decisions. To what extent technology such as this can be used productively depends on a number of variables. Among them, consider the number and role of participants, company culture, access to and comfort in using technology, degree of proper preparation and overall effectiveness of the groups' ability to collaborate. The previous checklists are easier to apply to some groups than others.
Given the restrictions on face-to-face business events right now, this is a good time for organizations to rethink how, why and when they meet, both for now and in the longer term. Organizations need to be clear as to what objectives really mandate the need for face-to-face meetings, and which can be met through alternative methods. Principles and guidelines regarding "business-critical" travel will help managers apply rules and policies consistently across the company.
While face-to-face interaction will always be the preferred choice for creating new relationships and repairing those that have become fragile, other options — if used thoughtfully and with careful planning — can be surprisingly effective in achieving a wide range of objectives.
Nancy Settle-Murphy is president of meeting facilitation company Guided Insights. A renowned expert in the fields of virtual leadership, remote collaboration and navigating cross-cultural differences, she is the author of Leading Effective Virtual Teams. She has more than two decades of experience in facilitating and training global teams, with clients including Kronos, TripAdvisor, the National Park Service, IBM, Chevron, Biogen, Partners Healthcare and the National Institute for Children's Healthcare Quality. She will be co-presenting a webcast on "Welcoming the Virtual Attendee" on April 8, 2020 at 2 p.m. EDT. Register here.