Originally Published in HR Future Magazine.
It’s time to dust off your virtual environment skills, and no it not just like riding a bike! Unfortunately, it’s more like skiing after having skipped a couple of seasons. You get back on the slope way too confident before finding out the hard way just how much those muscles have atrophied. Operating in the virtual environment isn’t as easy as it looks and beware of those that think it is! There are some real “gotcha” differences between being literally versus virtually in the same room.
Facilitating engagements of any kind is hard enough and not a natural skill for most. Rather than try to relearn our bicycle riding skills, let’s just focus on some of the major muscle movements (big needle movers) that any of us can deploy immediately when leading or participating in the virtual environment (VE).
Understanding the VE should include recognizing some of its advantages, challenges and basic things to consider when spending time there. Advantages range from being able to work from almost anywhere leading to a potentially improved work life balance. Having technical issues or being distracted by barking dogs and vacuums present typical challenges, but they pale in comparison to the lack of an entire dimension of communication simply because you can’t see the expressions on the faces of your colleagues. It’s important to remember that when we operate virtually listeners tend to have shorter attention spans, and we should recognize that big personalities tend to become bigger, and small ones smaller. Team bonding is difficult, and finally, it’s way too easy find yourself loitering around your work too long.
Since we spend the majority of virtual time in meetings, there are some critical things to do before, during and after to make these engagements more effective.
Preparation is key for both the leader and participants. First, determine the overarching purpose of the meeting, three to four key objectives that need to occur during the meeting to achieve that purpose, and the tasks required to successfully accomplish each objective. That and that alone should drive your agenda and determine the participants. Plan the logistics and determine the best medium to support the meeting, then get it out there to the participants so that they can come prepared to play their expected role.
Set up the venue well ahead of time, make sure it all works and that you know how to use it. Set the stage for participants by reminding them of the purpose and objectives. Remind them of some basic rules of engagement, and that you will be enforcing them through the meeting. The first-time folks start going down a rat hole (which they will), remove all doubt by stopping the conversation and immediately getting them back on track. Since facilitating is hard enough under normal conditions, it’s important to enlist someone to help capture information so the leader can stay focused on facilitating the crowd and keeping the train on the tracks. Participants need to come prepared, on time, stay engaged and in their lane throughout. Finally, always end with a quick review and validate any action steps.
More important than ever is to review, clarify, and circulate action items for the entire team. Share the findings of the meeting with the necessary team members and be sure everyone is clear on their next steps. Because this is a new environment, it never hurts to call out what worked and what didn’t to help establish a more effective battle rhythm with your meetings over time.
Tips & Techniques
While these tips and techniques apply in any setting, they are particularly important virtually and they are all things that each of us can control. Establish and prepare the Setting that allows you to focus and minimizes distractions. Effective Listening or listening to understand what people are saying versus listening to respond. Effective Questions: asking questions that elicit substantive and relevant responses. Using Media Effectively, most importantly using the right media and technology, and secondly knowing how to use it. Engagement Triggers involves using mechanisms that keep people engaged without making them feel like they are on the spot. This is particularly important since you can’t see who is paying attention and who isn’t.
Maintain Balance & Control, involves the facilitator not letting anyone dominate, or others hide during the meeting, ensuring relevant input from appropriate participants, and participants staying engaged in their role. Finally, Maintaining Tempo: it’s hard enough to stay focused under normal conditions and the VE can be even more taxing. Keeping participants on track and on time will not only establish more effective engagements and meeting credibility, it will likely reduce the number of meetings needed in the long run.
As a way of wrapping up, let’s take a look at some do’s and don’ts for everyone involved:
Don’t let working in a virtual environment stop you from continuing critical development initiatives in your organization. For a more in depth look at these concepts as well as help deploying them take a look at our short webinar, Leading in a Virtual Environment (LIVE) and its accompanied downloadable tools.