Author, Taylor Brown
By now, workforces that could transition to working remotely in response to COVID-19 have made the shift. And their leaders are thinking about their next great challenge: innovating to advance large-scale remote collaboration. While individual productivity remains strong, organizational momentum will stall if businesses can’t find effective ways to galvanize practices, not just people, virtually.
The recent cultural jolt requires leaders to fast-track digital integration efforts, reimagining virtual engagements as an essential new practice, not a pilot nor a placeholder.
As a leader navigating the pivot from managing stakeholders in a room to managing teams across screens, I offer six insights to guide businesses and their partners as they develop their virtual work forums and practices, enabling influence and impact no matter the circumstance:
1. Flawless Execution Looks Different and Requires New Players
Virtual collaboration is uncharted territory for many leaders. They need to know their strengths, and they need to know their people. They’ll succeed by facing that reality head-on, considering every action and solution through the lens of the attendee to design a productive experience.
In practical terms, every visual, video and audio component must be polished and medium-appropriate. Presentations designed for display on vast screens don’t translate well to laptops or mobile, and audio problems frustrate listeners. Similarly, the flow of the experience must be seamless and impactful. Speakers should spend as much time with technical staff as necessary, rehearsing transitions (with each other and with media) to avoid the deadly pauses that can only be forgiven in a live setting. Potentially most important of all, the caliber of content must be elevated to inspire and influence in a less dynamic context.
Remember: attendees will always note the company’s standard no matter the medium or format. They’ll take virtual collaborations as seriously as their leaders do.
2. Pre-Meeting Communications Must Accomplish More
Leadership pushes out anticipation-building messages before most events. But when meetings are virtual, these communications have heavier lifting to do. Attendees need to be better prepared, technically, strategically, and professionally, to make meetings productive. Is the workforce tech-savvy? Do they have any history with virtual engagements? Leaders must consider what their people-distinct from anyone else’s-need in order to show up focused, inspired, and ready to participate.
For meeting goals to be achieved, employees need to understand those goals with greater clarity in advance. At a foundational level, employees have to be comfortable using the relevant digital platforms. Special guidance and support may be necessary, often requiring a different type of preparation (for example, do you need a specific resource focused against technical details and day-of moderation to deliver your outcome in a new context?). Strategic priming is also key. If leaders are hoping to solve a problem, they can share what they know and what they aim to discover, giving their people the chance to do some thinking and even submit thoughts prior to the event.
Thoughtful preparation, information dissemination and advance strategic grounding will allow collaborators to show up equipped and eager to drive an agenda forward.
3. A Precise, Intentional Agenda is Critical
Employee attention can wander in any context. And let’s face it, there are no norms to follow when it comes to virtual attendance. Businesses should recognize it’s going to take a new kind of effort to stay focused and plan to support their teams.
Leadership should build a tight agenda packed with valuable content, ensuring the extra effort to focus feels worth it. And the cadenced interplay of information, media, visuals, and more personal moments must feel energizing. With fatigue as a given, leaders should embed reengaging moments through music, video, transitions, topic cadence, and of course, they should model the behavior of engagement they want to see from their teams.
Myth: A common virtual collaboration orthodoxy is that longer sessions do not work — however, experience suggests there is no rule of thumb; rather the quality of the content is what will drive sustained engagement even during longer meetings.
4. Discussion Needs More Structure
As anyone who’s ever attended a Zoom meeting with more than four attendees can attest, open discussions don’t work well in virtual settings. Businesses must provide more structured ways for attendees to share opinions, keeping them connected and engaged with meeting topics.
Here, technology offers many ways to replicate a live activity or even enhance it. Video conferencing platforms usually provide chat functions that enable sidebars, and the company can ask select employees to stay active in these spaces. Even members of the leadership team can participate, initiating exchanges that could not occur even in a live setting.
Onscreen, a simple roll-call approach can ensure everyone has the opportunity to demonstrate their presence. After breakouts, groups can select one representative to share their insights or other outputs and attendees can nominate each other to speak, shining a spotlight on peers who’ve shared interesting thoughts. With just a little creativity, the discussion will remain robust. And since there are no rules, companies should consider their culture and feel free to write them.
5. Don’t Underestimate the Fun Factor
Attendees will log into virtual meetings from all types of environments, many of them very informal. Some leaders fear that acknowledging this fact might somehow diminish the importance of the subject matter, but the meeting will actually end up being more productive if planners accept this reality and embrace it.
Fun is a creative accelerant. And while the company can’t transform a physical space to nurture creativity, they can encourage their people to design their own spaces and practices. Unexpected dress codes (themed attire, etc.) for ideations can unify a group and help them shed the self-consciousness they might feel in live settings.
Beyond promoting creativity, leaning into informality can provoke serious thinking. Should employees take off their shoes to shift their perspective, imagining life in their customer’s footsteps? Could colorful Zoom backgrounds represent opinions on core topics, which leaders view and address in real time? Define what fun means for your organization.
6. Progress Should Be Visible, Celebrated and Sustained
Live meetings culminate in shared, triumphant moments-rounds of applause, high fives, and appreciation for rich content visible on full whiteboards-validating employee contributions and value. They also launch new chapters for the company and kicking off those eras virtually can set the stage for a new, ongoing kind of employee activation.
Many platforms can host virtual post-it walls, where attendees can share their stories and feedback in the hours, weeks and months after a meeting. These virtual spaces, dedicated to leadership’s highest-priority topics, can live on in a way rented conference rooms can’t. Teams can continue to share their reflections, and leadership can push out recaps/updates elevating the ongoing value of everyone’s contributions. The same enthusiasm and sense of accomplishment that often occurs in physical gatherings must be felt to fuel organizational progress and employee motivation.
By adopting virtual collaboration tools rather than settling for them, leaders can unlock other potentially overlooked yet valuable advantages. Data capture is comprehensive; even sidebar chats can be preserved and mined for great thinking. Data may also reveal what employees heard and understood and what they didn’t, helping leaders improve follow-up experiences. Typical meeting norms are busted, allowing for more equitable conversations across hierarchical teams and more candid comments from attendees.
As the world around us continues to change, we are reminded of the unabating need to evolve the way we work. We are inspired by examples of those who are practicing agility, moving organizations forward in new ways amidst new context. This spirit of nimbleness that starts with navigating new conditions, both live and virtual, goes far beyond just that, into new frontiers of value creation. Organizations that can maintain that transformative mindset across their entire business will evolve and will grow. Because no matter the medium or the circumstance, they’ll know how to innovate, and most importantly how to inspire and activate their people.
Bluedog, a modern growth consultancy, partners with businesses to tackle their most complex problems through an innovative approach to growth strategy. With a strength in problem diagnosis, we focus our approaches on influencing choice for consumers and monetizing choice for businesses, developing breakthrough strategies that inspire action. Without a bias towards a particular solution, we shift the conversation to connecting brand and business with an ambition to create confidence in navigating toward growth.