by Nick Morgan
Virtual meetings are the suboptimal reality of most information workers' lives. They save on travel time and costs, but they deprive meeting-goers of a host of non-verbal signals that help us understand each other. Without the body language, the information stream goes down from broadband to dial-up, the signal to noise ratio goes up, and the possibility for miscommunication accordingly rises.
And it's not just the visual cues that are missing. The quality of most phone lines and digital voice lines are quite poor, so a huge amount of vocal tone is also lost, and the resulting loss of nuance makes virtual meetings even less satisfying and more difficult.
So what's to be done? Here are five steps you can take to help put some of the richness back into a virtual meeting.
1. Recognize that virtual meetings are suboptimal and plan accordingly. Do the less important things via virtual meetings whenever possible. Save the emotional stuff for face-to-face meetings, because it's emotions and attitudes that are conveyed mostly via body language. So if you're kicking off something important, or celebrating a big win, bite the meeting bullet and bring everyone together. In the virtual meetings, do the routine information-sharing stuff. Trying to solve disagreements or rev people up via a digital phone line is pure folly. Our emotional investment in a phone call is simply less than in a face-to-face meeting, and the lack of visual and tonal information makes it much harder to get key messages across.
2. Plan the virtual meeting in 10-minute segments. Recent evidence suggests that attention spans may be about 10 minutes long in this computer-addled, information-overloaded age. Our attention spans are certainly no longer on a phone, so plan your meeting in short segments and take breaks in between. The breaks will allow people to re-engage.
3. Pause regularly for group input. One of the first casualties of a virtual meeting is group participation. The overwhelming tendency is to put the phone on mute and take care of other chores while half-listening. You can keep the group involved by going around the phones asking for input. In a face-to-face meeting, you're able to tell how people are doing by monitoring their body language. In a virtual meeting, you need to stop regularly to take everyone's temperature. And I do mean everyone. Go right around the list, asking each locale or person for input.
4. Label your emotions, and ask others to do the same. Lacking visual cues, we have a very hard time reading other people's attitudes, so make yours clear and train other people on the call to do the same. Say, "I'm excited about this next bit of news, because it means that.." Or, "Jim, I'm really surprised to hear that third quarters numbers aren't improving. Surprised and worried, actually. How are you feeling about them?" You've got to put back in what the phone lines are removing.
5. Don't neglect the small talk — but use video. Face-to-face meetings keep a group tight and cohesive through all the non-verbal signals of solidarity and for the ability of groups to share emotions. That's much harder to do via virtual meeting. So put the fun and sharing in through small talk — but make it video small talk. Get the group to send each other 30-second or 1-minute clips of what they're up to or what the weather's like where they are. Technology makes these clips easy to do, and they help remind people of the visual existence of each other even when not physically co-present. Put some of that money you're saving on travel to good technological use.
Virtual meetings will never replace the need for humans to exchange emotional and unconscious non-verbal information through face-to-face exchanges, but they can be made to do for all but the most important purposes.
Dr. Nick Morgan is President of Public Words Inc., a communications consulting company, and the author of Give Your Speech, Change the World, and Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma. He writes and speaks frequently on communications issues.