As the coronavirus spreads, companies must make proactive decisions that help them protect individual employee health, keep critical work on track, and prepare for the potential for planned business disruption. Many are revisiting policies, considering new technologies, canceling conferences and restricting all but business-critical travel. And now Twitter is even encouraging all employees to work from home.
These commonsense precautions make perfect sense, yet there are profound implications for how work gets done. Whether the threat is short-term or long-lasting, leaders who can enable a remote/virtual workforce to thrive will have a significant competitive advantage.
While virtual collaboration is becoming more and more common, many think of it as a “second-best” to being in person. It is true that face-to-face environments have unique qualities: you can break bread together, there’s more opportunity for informal interactions, and you have many more cues (such as body language) to understand how others are thinking and feeling. Because of these, we think of face-to-face time as necessary for high-stakes conversations, complex topics or for building relationships.
But now is the time to challenge that belief. If done well, virtual has some unique qualities that can actually make it better than being there. In this scary and uncertain time, there is one no-regrets move that you as a leader can make today: take your team’s virtual collaboration game to the next level with these proven strategies:
First, Put The Basics In Place
1. Invest In The Supporting Technology
- If you haven’t already, subscribe to a video conferencing technology such as Zoom, Webex, or Go-To-Meeting. Get everyone an account and insist that it become the default. (You can add a plug-in to Outlook or Gmail so a virtual meeting can be added to any Invite with a single click.)
- Make sure everyone has a working camera on their computer. If not, invest in an inexpensive add-on
- Add a group messaging platform such as Slack or Microsoft Teams to your suite of collaboration tools
2. Make Video The Norm
There are so many benefits of video conferencing versus just dialing in: it reduces multi-tasking, creates human connection, and lets you read body language and facial expressions. It reminds you who is in the meeting and increases the likelihood that they will actively participate.
Yes, it can feel awkward. Do it anyway. Do it on bad hair days. Do it when your background is a mess. After a while, it will feel natural and you will never go back.
Then Make Virtual Even Better Than Being There
Make Meetings More Engaging And Inclusive
In a live meeting, it’s never good to have two people talking at the same time or two conversations in play. That means airtime is limited and consequently, all too often, a few voices dominate. However, in a virtual meeting, the airtime expands significantly when you use the chat feature. Consider two scenarios:
- Imagine you’re holding a meeting to decide on the location to pilot a new program. You’ve reviewed the options and now want to get a pulse check from the group. In a regular meeting, you could go around the room to hear from everyone, but that is cumbersome, time-intensive, and usually results in group think. Or you could ask for input from anyone who feels strongly, which is likely to favor the usual suspects. Virtual meetings present a great third option. You say “Ok, the top candidates on shown on the screen and we’ve considered each one. Please put your first choice in chat, along with your reasoning if you’d like. Then pause, watch the entries come in concurrently, take a moment to digest them, and move the dialogue forward from there
- Imagine a project team joins the leadership meeting to share analysis and recommend the next steps. In a worst-case scenario, they nervously present the information into what feels like a blackhole. They can’t see anyone, most people are on mute, many are multitasking. There are no comments or questions, and they sign off despondent and even more nervous. Now imagine the positive opposite: they join the meeting and see everyone wave hello over video. As they present, the participants use the chat to post questions, share appreciative comments, or provide links to supplementary information. It’s amazing what happens when groups start to engage in friendly exchanges over chat. The dialogue gets richer, the time is used efficiently, relationships deepen, and it’s much easier to accurately gauge the progress and what should happen next.
Keep Everyone Connected And In The Loop
Using your group messaging platform, establish channels that enable the transparent, relevant, frequent, and on-demand flow of information. The channels will emerge organically from the team and members can choose to belong to the ones that help them do their best work and feel connected. Here are some typical channels that help teams collaborate effectively outside of meetings.
- Projects: Project channels are used for keeping everyone up to date, rapidly disseminating new information, alerting everyone when the project pivots, and recording decisions that have been made along the way. They can replace the deadly status meetings and make it much easier to stay aligned. They help new team members get oriented and those returning from vacation to quickly get up to speed
- Topics: Topic-based channels are an ideal way to rapidly build a capability or center of excellence. Use them to share data and research, ask questions, and find a distant colleague with the exact expertise you need on a project
- Locations: If you have people in different sites, it can be great to have a channel for each one. That allows the team to plan impromptu events and share local information (traffic, new restaurant, etc.)
- Announcements: A channel is a much better medium than email for communicating information to all employees. It doesn’t interrupt their workflow the way email does and is easy to refer back to in the future
- Fun: Try including a virtual water cooler where team members can share personal news, bring some levity to the workday, and celebrate accomplishments or milestones
Done well, group messaging platforms allow a virtual workforce to realize the benefits that come from co-location, with one huge upside: team members can decide when and how they dip into the flow of information. They can read the water cooler posts when they need a mental break, but not get interrupted when they are in the middle of deep work. They can focus on a project rather than wading through their email, losing valuable time to context switching. And of course, in a virtual team, group messaging platforms can turn time zone differences from a problem (it can be hard to find mutually convenient times to meet) into an asset (work gets seamlessly advanced around the world and around the clock).
The Corona virus is here now. But even as this crisis passes, we still face the ongoing risk of climate change, worsening traffic in urban areas and other global crises. We can help future-proof our organizations by making virtual collaboration a core capability.