A year after the COVID-19 pandemic, there remains uncertainty about how to move business forward with a clear and vivid path. It is time to take into account what has changed about business and carve a successful path rooted in today’s realities.
Perhaps the most visible change is that meetings – including the high-stakes ones where multi-year deals are closed and future corporate directions are hammered out – are happening through computer screens. The obvious reality is everyone has to figure out how to make the technology work. However, the less obvious yet more important reality is that very few of us have figured out how to work effectively with technology. We still stink at Zoom.
But the business of business – conducting business effectively in a largely virtual environment – is far bigger than finding clever backgrounds and mastering mute buttons. it is about recognizing our shortfalls within the world of virtual communication, both personally and with technology, and addressing them to drive real results. We’ve convinced ourselves and our teams that just because the technology we use links us together both visually and audibly, we know how to conduct business effectively in a virtual environment. That is simply not true, but there is good news: resetting the course for success starts with internalizing and addressing the aspects of communication that will generate great results.
Although the delivery mechanism is different from television, those of us who facilitate virtual meetings are effectively doing the same job we see television news anchors do. In most cases, news anchors are sitting alone in front of a camera and speaking to a large group of people. If that scenario sounds familiar, it is because it is effectively the same thing we are now asked to do several times a day. Obviously, television personalities get paid so much partially because of this innate ability to engage. However, now that we have all accepted virtual meetings as part of our routine, it is incumbent upon all of us to be the most effective form of our business-selves within these parameters.
Setting Expectations, Commanding Presence and Leadership Accountability
With entire families continuing to work within the confines of their homes, we’ve seen countless examples of business leaders and customers showing grace as dogs bark and kids run through the background. It’s not cute anymore; it’s affecting relationships, stemming business objectives, and ultimately stifling results. If we’re going to accept virtual meetings and working remotely as an integral part of business moving forward, then we also must set clear expectations. While grace can and should be granted when necessary, the business objective almost never involves pets or kids.
The more egregious infractions, however, involve employee behaviors during virtual meetings. No matter where they’re logging in from, when they enter a meeting, virtual or otherwise, they’re at work. A lack of care from one team member is infectious and can easily taint the entire group, because, “if Bob isn’t paying attention then why should I?” Employees who show up to a meeting in a t-shirt and baseball cap, or who are obviously not paying attention, are creating an environment that is not taken seriously and actively damaging the business’s integrity and success.
The first order of business may likely be drafting a clear list of guidelines and expectations and communicating them to the company. Once in place, it’s imperative for leaders to hold their teams accountable for adhering to the guidelines and maintaining the utmost professionalism in all forms of meetings. Most leaders agree that virtual communication technologies will be a standard part of their organizations moving forward. Therefore, the establishment of a formal set of norms and accepted practices governing how they are to be used acts as the foundation for what will ultimately become a virtual communication culture.
Digging Deep and Being Honest
Businesses the world over are fraught with commonly recognized but rarely addressed white lies. When it comes to feedback about meetings, the white lie is identical for virtual meetings and in-person meetings, and it looks like this: “Great meeting, Sheila!”
The fact is that most people are bad with both, but because the attendees are either colleagues or customers, everyone is nice and honest feedback is non-existent. Since we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, constituents will default to a complimentary throw-away comment rather than delivering the truth. Sparing the facilitator’s feelings creates a vicious cycle that results in continuous hours of wasted time and energy.
While we obviously shouldn’t set out to hurt anyone’s feelings, constructive criticism is a highly effective means to a positive end that makes us all better. Although feedback such as, “that meeting was a complete waste of time,” or, “you didn’t address what was really important,” or, “you’re a terrible communicator,” is extreme, it’s important to the future of the team and the company to consider how best to phrase it and deliver it. It wouldn’t be far off to estimate that four out of five business meetings that occur, whether in person or virtual, could benefit from at least one of the above feedback statements.
The Future of Virtual Meetings
It’s true that most of us are now far more familiar with the virtual meeting technologies that exist, but nothing has changed in terms of how we operate in a virtual environment. Most senior executives have concluded that in-person meetings will largely return, but virtual meetings will remain part of the ongoing business landscape, especially due to geographies where people can’t assemble in-person.
One CEO shared with me his perspective that virtual meetings will replace conference calls. While that very well may be the fate of how the technology fits in the future, the two are not, and should not be treated as the same, because everyone can see each other. This still new form of meeting requires a different skillset to achieve success.
It’s up to today’s leaders to recognize and acknowledge the differences and understand the benefits, drawbacks, and best practices, and address their teams’ shortfalls to conduct business effectively. The good news is that while the technologies may be new, the primary steps haven’t changed; effective communication can be learned. It begins and ends with planning and execution.