2020 was the year of Zoom and its counterparts – Google Meets, Teams, Skype, etc. Our communication with colleagues and potential clients has shifted to the virtual world, even if they are in a nearby location.
Moving to the virtual meetings makes it harder to express our opinions in multi-participant meetings or follow the speakers and understand what’s being said. Unfortunately, these difficulties are not going anywhere. Even after the Covid pandemic is over, 30%-60% of organizations say they will allow an integrated or hybrid working model: work from home combined with work from the office. Apparently, this is going to be our new work routine (the “new normal”), and we need to adjust to it.
Online meetings have their advantages: they save travel time and costs, usually begin on time, and many report they are more efficient focused, and concise. However, many of these advantages may turn into disadvantages, creating communication difficulties.
The problem with remote meetings
Many participants report difficulties in creating interpersonal connections and “off the record” conversations when it comes to multi-participant meetings. “Some of our best ideas emerge from spontaneous hallway talks”, an executive told me lately, “and we don’t have them anymore.”
What’s missing is the informal communication: the everyday small talk or the casual meeting by the coffee machine. Meetings become highly business-oriented as they include more participants. However, the art of virtual conversation is still unclear: how does one receive (or take) permission to speak?
Another issue is when those accustomed to taking lead of the conversation continue to do so in virtual meetings. People who had difficulties voicing their thoughts in meetings find it harder than ever. A Birgham University research, presented lately at the Davos convention, found that 45% of women in senior positions had difficulties expressing themselves in virtual meetings. 20% stated they were simply ignored.
There is also a lack of Non-verbal communication, which is crucial for establishing mutual trust and connection between people who need to work and make decisions together, sometimes in the face of crisis: eye contact, an exchange of glances. Knowing you are listened to, understanding how your ideas are received.
Time for open discussion decreased, and it is not rare to see companies making strategic decisions without any preliminary discussion. Research by Dr. Miriam Schwarz-Ziv from the Hebrew University has found that communication between shareholders and executives in virtual general meetings has decreased. The sessions are 18% shorter, and the time dedicated to business updates decreased by 40%. The average time for shareholder questions is 14% lower. In these cases, Schwarz-Ziv concludes that the shareholders’ voice is weakened.
The challenge of Hybrid meetings
Added to all of these is the hybrid meeting model, in which a team convenes in a meeting room and others join them virtually from separate locations. These meetings may turn out to be ineffective. What is worrying is that it seems like that is the direction the world is going, with various hybrid models that include work from home. In these meetings, the participants find it hard to follow the conversation and those who join virtually feel like outsiders and are forced to fight for attention.
The volume of online meetings will decrease, but even when we return to our pre-COVID work routines, they will not disappear, and we will experience a mix of physical, virtual, and hybrid meetings.
Tips for effective communication in virtual meetings:
- Plan short meetings or short focused discussions with breaks, so you will not lose the participants’ attention and interest.
- Designate a leader for every discussion. They will be in charge of allocating permission to speak and make sure that anyone who wants to say something will have the opportunity.
- Prepare a clear meeting agenda and agree on a code of conduct.
- Prioritize open discussion in meetings while providing written updates beforehand. Present only the key elements in the meeting and leave time for discussion and decision-making. There are many ways of sharing slides in meetings. Use them wisely.
- Include as many voices as possible:
- Structure time for a round of comments.
- Choose a mechanism for getting permission to speak. Use the chat or reactions as signals, for example.
- Start with small talk to promote communication and trust. Each participant can share how things are going for them, or you initiate other talk-stimulating activities that may seem artificial but do help.
- Avoid hybrid meetings if possible. If there is a need for one, connect in pairs or each from their office. This way, you can reach a better balance and flow. Technology will solve this difficulty in the future.
We already see augmented reality developments that simulate a meeting where everyone feels like they’re in the same room and additional tools aimed to deal with the challenges of the “new normal” of online meetings.