From Beijing to Bourton on the Water and everywhere in between, events and meetings are being canceled. Starbucks has canceled the company’s annual shareholder meeting and is holding a virtual meeting instead. TED’s conference in Canada is not going ahead, postponed along with hundreds of other trade shows.
Google search analysis shows that interest in virtual meetings has reached record levels. Queries for "video meeting" are 75% higher than a week ago and "video conferencing" is also seeing increased search traffic. If they haven’t already, businesses are preparing to close their offices and ask people to work from home. The threat of coronavirus infection has resulted in the biggest socio-economic and cultural experiment ever: virtual working implemented on a mass scale. To what extent can business life continue uninterrupted? Will virtual companies become the new normal?
In China, millions of people have been forced to shake off the cultural norms of commuting to the office and having face-to-face meetings, with many positive benefits. And if Starbucks can have the most important meeting of its financial year using video conferencing technology, why can’t every business swap the physical for virtual interactions at least 75% of the time?
For some businesses, particularly knowledge workers in the technology sectors, remote working and virtual meetings are an everyday occurrence. But a surprisingly large number of companies have yet to appreciate the benefits. Now, like the employers in China, Italy, and other areas in lockdown, they will be forced to join the experiment and adopt a"‘virtual first" policy.
Wuhan used to be one of the most heavily polluted cities in the world — especially in terms of air quality. Since the start of February when the first coronavirus travel restrictions were imposed, nitrogen dioxide levels above the city have declined dramatically. They are now between 10% and 30% lower than expected levels for this time of year. The same trends have been measured in northern Italy, recorded with satellite images over just three weeks since the country began its lockdown. For any governments still in need of convincing, this should be powerful enough evidence that industrial activity and polluting transport are the primary causes of poor air quality and that the effects can be reversed quickly.
In China, although many companies report flexible working policies, the realities are very different. Many employees who previously commuted for hours every day are reporting improved work-life balance and happiness. Even skeptical bosses are acknowledging that productivity is actually better.
For organizations that have yet to properly embrace home working and virtual meetings, here are some considerations.
Take a top-down approach
Workplace cultures need to change and the move to a virtual communications model needs to be top-down. In many organizations, business travel is regarded as something to aspire to. The preserve of more senior leaders who may also have a vested interest in traveling to amass as many frequent flyer points as possible. Airline lounge and frequent flyer card status could be regarded as commensurate with their professional standing. However, if these senior leaders can demonstrate the benefits of virtual meetings, the rest of the organization will follow suit.
10% of meetings are better when face to face
It is possible to foster close working relationships and network effectively in a virtual setting – but the dynamics are different. From experience, there are 10% of cases when meetings really do need to be face to face to have the required impact, like a first-time meeting with a prospective supplier. People like to see the whites of their colleagues’ and associates’ eyes, but the vast majority of meet-ups can be conducted just as successfully using video conferencing technology.
How to "humanize" virtual meetings
Here are four key guidelines:
1. Pre-meeting banter isn’t a waste of time — it’s essential for creating strong working relationships, so make time for some small talk at the start. Each participant needs a clear understanding of their role and the desired meeting outcomes.
2. Ensure everyone has a clear understanding of the desired meeting outcomes and are held accountable. “Out of sight, out of mind” can be a problem. More so than in a face-to-face setting, people need to be clear about their roles and responsibilities.
3. Treat everyone in the meeting equally. It is human nature to like some people in your team more than others and find them easier to relate to. In a virtual meeting, this can create situations where some participants appear favored over others. Letting them participate more actively in discussions and decision-making can create resentment which in a virtual setting is difficult to monitor. By using video meetings and having each member able to see every participant clearly on the screen, it is much harder for anyone to remain on the periphery of team discussions.
4. Make the meetings easy to join to avoid latecomers. Suddenly having to introduce virtual meetings and home working because of the coronavirus can create technical challenges because people will be using different and often proprietary meeting solutions. Some people might be using Skype, Microsoft Teams, or Zoom, for example. Technical solutions now exist that allow participants to be using any software locally and join the same video meeting — without having to download any new applications — and have the same experience.
The outbreak of COVID-19 will have immense consequences, it already has. And it is impossible to predict how or when the current crisis will conclude. What we can be sure of is that the world is being forced to rethink the way it does business and views virtual working. This can only be a good thing for people’s productivity and it is certainly a big plus for the environment.
Vemun Waksvik, is senior vice president of marketing at Synergy SKY, which specializes in developing user-friendly software for all business meetings.www.synergysky.com