‘Remote belonging’: The new rules of online meetings

Written by Stephanie Russell Wednesday 31 March 2021
As online and virtual meetings become the norm, there are new techniques emerging for managers to pick up social cues
Relaxed person on a video conference

Fifteen people are in the waiting room. You click on the ‘admit all’ button. “Connecting to audio” flickers as your attendees enter the meeting room and turn on their microphones and videos. Fifteen faces stare at you. There is a strange echo. The screen freezes. Meeting one of five for the day is about to begin.

Many experts suggest that it is becoming harder to understand non-verbal cues and to listen to what others are saying during virtual meetings. Non-verbal communication and gestures must be used in a more exaggerated manner to convey our message; our reliance on eye contact is hindered due to the in-built delay in video calls. In a face-to-face discussion, we would be able to ‘read the room’ but over a virtual platform these cues are at best misinterpreted, and at worst lost entirely.

Soft skills used by leaders during this period of change take on even greater importance. Being inclusive can add positively to a future where recipients feel they are valued as a learner and contributor, rather than being a cog in a machine.

Avoid the talking head

All virtual meeting attendees can add value but, with limited social cues, it becomes challenging to identify whether all attendees are listening, interested, or feeling anxious and excluded. Inclusive leadership should therefore incorporate attributes of empathy, support and flexibility; indeed, some experts believe that creating a culture of remote ‘belonging’ is an essential skill for 2021.

How do we do this? Rather than relying on the extroverts, we can begin thinking about how we can best draw out the viewpoints and perspectives of all attendees. TV producer Julian Dismore recommends embracing screen share, videos, photos and anecdotes to make online sessions more engaging and inclusive. His motto of “What is well-begun is half done” illustrates how captivating our audience from the start and drawing on more than one method of communication to convey the message can improve inclusion. Utilising functions such as the poll option, Q&As, group discussions and chat enhance the diversity of voices.

Tailor your communication strategy

Effective leaders communicate in ways that are tailored to their audiences. The challenge within a virtual meeting setting is that it might be difficult to identify the social cues associated with unhappiness, lack of motivation and appearing withdrawn from the interaction. Individuals may also find the screen a barrier that exaggerates their feeling of distance from their co-workers and, with it, a discomfort in sharing their feelings with others. In a virtual setting, the greater chance of success in identifying unhappiness and potential well-being issues will arise when there is a prevailing culture of authenticity created by leaders, whereby they do not disguise their own emotions, and when time has been invested to get to know all colleagues. In this way, a virtual room has the potential to still be ‘read’, albeit in a limited way. For example, we may notice that a normally extroverted individual has become quiet, withdrawn and distracted.

Use of a virtual platform’s direct chat function during a meeting might provide the starting point for beginning to address the well-being concerns in an appropriately private way. This can be followed up with the offer of a phone call. Cues from a colleague’s tone of voice that might reflect sadness, hesitation or concern will be easier to explore further and one can then gain a greater understanding of their cause, and begin to agree the possible support to be provided. Tailoring communication strategies also help individuals to feel less pressured to respond immediately to a work task, allowing time for reflection before answering a question or completing a project. Building trust, rapport and emphasising with teams and individuals that online video platforms are only one method among many, can drive effective communication, inclusivity and improve overall mental and physical health.

Ask for feedback

Leaders driven by a passion to improve their own practice and encourage the same from their team, will provide opportunities for sharing open and honest feedback. Looking for a deeper connection with those we interact with is fundamental and recognising the different challenges everyone may be experiencing, results in a more optimistic and supportive working environment. Leaders need to consider the quality that D’Auria and De Smet writing for McKinsey refer to as “bounded optimism.”

Bringing your authentic self to work and encouraging others to do the same, fosters a climate of trust, where people feel comfortable providing and receiving feedback. By using the poll facility or chat function, enables questions to be asked and anonymous feedback to be provided, leading to reflection and improvement of future delivery sessions.

Learn, unlearn, relearn

Whilst the actions and behaviours identified as essential to effective communication come naturally to many of us, the challenge is to now consider how we replicate and apply these through a box on the screen. As Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock stated:

“The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”.

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Dr Stephanie Russell is principal lecturer, corporate programmes, at Anglia-Ruskin University’s Faculty of Business and Law.

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