The growth in awareness of the climate emergency is increasing pressure on companies to reduce their carbon footprint and is likely to lead to a significant reduction in business travel, including flying. And yet at the same time, many companies are seeking to increase collaboration between people who are not routinely face to face, either because they work from home or are based in different geographical locations
One inevitable consequence is a greater reliance on technology to connect us. And yet, for most people, the quality of online meetings is dire. One reason is the technology itself: even the best online meeting platforms are poorly designed and lack important functionality. And then there is the blight of poor internet connection with associated dropout.
However, another important factor is the way we use the technology. Online meetings differ subtly, but significantly, from physical meetings. There are three main areas where greater skill makes for better meetings.
The first is in the meeting set-up. Instead of taking in the whole human being, in all their three-dimensional richness, as we do when we meet in the flesh, we are limited to a thumbnail or, at best, a larger image that occupies the majority of our computer screen.
To make the most of this, there are a few basic principles to do with positioning the webcam, and framing and lighting well, that help maximise the impact you create on other people’s screens. In particular it’s crucial to understand how eye contact - so important when you’re in the same room - is replaced by a pseudo eye contact mediated by the webcam. When you speak, you are likely to look at other people’s thumbnails in order to gauge their responses. And where you position these on your screen will significantly affect their experience of you.
The second is how you speak and contribute your thoughts and ideas.
This involves many of the same skills that help people communicate well in any environment, to do with content, physicality and vocality. But there are subtle adjustments that need to be made when you are talking to people via a webcam rather than in the flesh. Even those who are effective communicators in physical meetings can benefit from greater understanding of the minutiae that create impact online.
The temptation can be to slump in your chair and gaze off to the side, thinking while you speak. But the result is deeply disengaging for those watching and listening. Sitting forward and upright, speaking with energy and conviction, and using your hands assume even greater importance, as do clarity, intonation and pace when people are hearing your voice through tiny speakers.
It pays to be focused and concise in what you say. Being truly present in the meeting, without distractions, is essential if you are to influence others. So shut the door, close down your email and other programmes, eliminate visual and auditory distractions, including putting your phone on silent.
Speaking for too long at a physical meeting risks other people tuning out. People seated in front of a computer feel less observed and there are many more things competing for their attention, so once they have stopped listening, it is much harder to get them back.
Thirdly there is a significant difference in how the best online meetings are hosted. We know from many of our clients that the quality of regular meetings, when everyone is in the same room, often leaves much to be desired. In many organisations the standard of chairing or facilitating is poor, with discussion dominated by a small number of confident individuals, while the less vocal and more reserved, who may have fantastic contributions to make, regularly struggle to get airtime.
This dynamic is exacerbated in remote meetings because the hurdle to speaking is much higher. We regularly work with clients who experience what I call a 50/50 moment. They have something they could say at a meeting, but err on the side of caution and only speak when they are certain it will be well received. To do so in an online meeting requires that much more confidence, so the default is to keep quiet.
Moments of silence are relatively rare in most physical meetings. But in online meetings a question thrown out to the group regularly results in uncomfortable silence until one of the usual suspects fills it, whether or not they have anything valuable to say.
The challenge of managing those who over-talk is also magnified. In the absence of the subtle cues from others that they wish to speak, many people simply keep going, even when they know in their hearts that they have run out of things to say, because they cannot face the potential awkwardness of silence.
The need for the host to understand how to run a productive meeting is even greater than in physical meetings: to monitor the dynamic, to facilitate contributions from everyone and to manage time and content with grace and firmness. Running a good meeting is challenging. Running a good meeting online even more so.
Most of us are destined to spend more time interacting with others remotely. The companies that equip their people to do this well are the ones most likely to thrive.