Virtual meetings: Getting to the Point

Photo by Yoann Siloine on Unsplash

The sensory intake you enjoyed (or endured) in conference rooms has vanished. At least for the time being. Now you enter virtual meetings to get business done. Others have written about the adjustment, the fatigue, the limitations. Virtual meeting rooms clearly are a different beast.

Have you noticed the range in people’s comfort level, aptitude and, well, presence? Now that their primary means of face-to-face exchange is a virtual meeting?

The contrast jumped out at me when a colleague confided — during a Zoom call — how much harder it is to facilitate meetings. Can’t read body language. Can’t make eye contact in the same way. Can’t gauge the room.

For me, her sharing was a revelation. Because I had a completely different experience. It felt so much easier.

What are we seeing now?

So I made it a point to watch more closely how people engage online. The new ways they relate with each other, forge connections and get ideas across. The distinction isn’t simply in the words they say. And it’s way too superficial to believe it has anything to do with how our faces are lit (or not) or the decor around us. No. It’s about the very nature of how people relate to others through a technology medium. What does it mean to forge a new relationship — not with a person, but with a technology platform whose value is in real-time verbal and audio communication? When you stop and really look, we’re all in a space that quite literally has a different vibrational frequency. More exacting. Quickening. Less slack.

So, some thrive while others struggle. What’s going on? I think it boils down to three things:

  1. Prior experience with online group work
  2. Surfing idea streams
  3. Letting go of (or at least loosening up around) identity attachments

Pitch your awareness

You either have prior experience or you don’t and you can’t change that. So let’s leave the first element there for now, knowing everyone will gain experience with time and exposure.

If you notice people who are particularly effective in virtual meeting rooms, they’re doing a few things well:

  • tracking and recalling what’s already been said
  • alighting on common themes
  • catching subtitles within critical concepts that could have been overlooked
  • weaving context and revisiting it to keep everyone on the same page

Those are examples of what it can look like to adeptly surf streams of ideas. Contrast that with people who struggle as they:

  • ramble
  • lag
  • lose the thread

Online presence calls for a sharpening of thinking and succinctness. It’s more important than ever to follow the plot. Fast forward a few weeks or months and its easy to image that being unclear, hiding out or slowing the group down may result in being left behind.

It’s not all about you

Here’s something else to notice about people who function well in virtual meetings. They don’t focus on themselves. It’s easier than ever to pick up the scent when someone is self-obsessed, running a private agenda or otherwise distancing from the virtual table.

The topic at hand, the ideas, the possibilities, the thing you’re all there to create … THAT is the place to focus. Effective participants pay attention to the topic, not to how they perceive they are perceived.

Virtual meetings shouldn’t be cold

Lest this sound like a call to become bot-like, that would be a misunderstanding. We are emotional creatures with feelings and experiences, whether in a board room or a Zoom room. Our humanity, our empathy, our desire to look out for one another is an essential part of who we are.

This isn’t a call to sacrifice warmth. Rather, it’s an invitation to recognize that traditional meetings didn’t simply convert into a 2-D format with everything else staying status quo. The very nature of how virtual meetings function — and can function exquisitely — is more different than what immediately meets the eye. The opportunity is to join a stream of thought, guide a stream of thought, that is going somewhere faster, with less friction, than was possible before. The old ways won’t work as well here. They may even hold you back.

What now and how?

A rash of articles published during early weeks of the pandemic describe how to improve virtual meetings. I won’t rehash their content. However, here are ways to hone new and unconventional skills to make online meetings more interesting while you and your team surf the streams and get to the point.

This article originally appeared in LinkedIn on May 19, 2020.