Making Virtual Work: It’s About Culture
April 1, 2020 | Ann Kowal Smith
Let’s be honest: virtual connection just isn’t the same as human-to-human contact. But it can nevertheless be a valuable tool for developing and sustaining workplace culture.
Executives report a preference for face-to-face meetings because they build stronger business relationships, enable colleagues to “read” each other more clearly and lead to higher quality decisions. The same executives acknowledge that virtual meetings save time and money and connect global teams.
Sometimes we simply have no choice. Whether required by physical distancing or dictated by geography, we often find ourselves in virtual meet-ups rather than an office conference room.
But virtual meetings can afford us the opportunity to forge meaningful connection and effective collaboration.
At Books@Work, we are pros at virtual connection. As a virtual team for almost a decade, we are leveraging our best learnings as we work with our facilitators to convert our programs from in-person to video. Although some of our best practices are tactical, including selecting the right platform and creatively using its features, for us it’s more than tools or convenience.
Virtual connection is an integral part of our organizational culture. We have learned that our mindsets and behaviors are more important than the software we leverage or the habits we practice.
Be all in.
A virtual meeting requires your body and your face, not just your voice. So many colleagues have defaulted to phoning in, or turning off the camera. Companies accept this behavior as a norm of the medium. But just as you would never go to a conference room with a paper bag over your head, virtual meetings need your eyes as well as your ears.
This is more than just etiquette. Established body language research demonstrates that only 7% of a transmitted human message is verbal (words alone) and 38% is vocal (tone, inflection and non-verbal sounds). The rest is non-verbal. When we turn off the camera, we leave 55% of our message behind. It’s hard to be effective as a team, when so much of our meaning falls away.
The eyes have it.
Sociology Professor Jessica Kelley of Case Western Reserve University made a surprising discovery when she facilitated her first virtual Books@Work session.
“The degree of interaction between the participants themselves (rather than everyone speaking to me) was very high. I think in some sense it was better than in a physical group where many people orient their chairs or bodies toward the leader which changes the communication.”
In person, directional comments can turn what should be a robust multi-party discussion into an unsatisfying call-and-response experience. Virtual meetings guard against this phenomenon, however, as each speaker addresses the entire group. With all eyes facing “out” through the screen, the virtual space becomes a unique leveler.
Practice humility (and focus on the others).
Just as we tend to dislike the sound of our own voices, it’s easy to get frustrated by the way we look or come across in a virtual meeting. Unlike a natural conversation, we see ourselves and our own expressions, and we tend to self-modulate or, worse, perform.
Others do not always see what we see. In a recent virtual Books@Work session, one participant commented that he could hear children’s voices in another participant’s house. He commented that it made him feel closer to his colleague, “I now see you as a father and a husband.”
By letting go of our images (both self and projected), we enter the virtual space with humility and a willingness to see each other differently.
If we resist our egos, the virtual space can be a powerful window into a shared collaboration space where colleagues can extend the work they do alone. They can focus on the conversation, share ideas, challenge assumptions and explore multiple perspectives.
It’s about culture (and a lot of practice).
Connection doesn’t happen overnight. But it’s not impossible for virtual teams to develop the relationships that enable them to speak their minds and take interpersonal risks. It takes patience, practice and a safe space to make mistakes.
It’s not the format that destroys the meeting, it’s the attitude of the participants and the culture of the group. Virtual meetings may not be perfect. They can be an excellent tool to support the trust and psychological safety that powers healthy organizational cultures.
For colleagues that simply cannot be together, virtual meeting skills are crucial to nurturing and maintaining these cultures. Whether in-person or virtual, generative conversations include humble questioning and active listening to foster openness, respect and inclusion. And a willingness to learn from each other – no matter how far afield we sit.
Image: Eileen Agar, Carousing Computers, 1988 via Wikiart.org
Ann Kowal Smith
Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.