Written by: Scott Weighart, Laura Fay and Andrew Atkins

"The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.”

            -    John Maxwell

As crises often do, the Coronavirus frenzy has put business continuity planning into hyperdrive as companies solidify procedures and logistics that will allow a broader segment of their workforce to log on remotely. Working remotely isn’t a matter of convenience, work-life balance, or cost mitigation. It’s an infrastructure requirement and a matter of operational integrity.

But having the means to support virtual or multi-location teams is one thing. Having virtual work be effective and productive at scale and continue to drive revenue and business growth is quite another.

Based on our years of experience advising executives and leaders, we’ve compiled a list of our top five best practices that CEOs and senior executives should consider to engage their employees virtually, during times of both crisis and stability.

Top five ways to make “virtual work” actually work

1.   Declutter your meeting schedule

2.   Have a plan

3.   Insist on virtual face-to-face

4.   Pay attention to logistics

5.   Avoid the one-way meeting trap

1.  Declutter your meeting schedule

It’s happened to all of our calendars. A meeting that once had an intentional purpose somehow becomes a recurring meeting with questionable need. Auditing your calendar to eliminate or reduce unnecessary meetings is increasingly important in a virtual environment where you must work harder to keep people engaged.

Ask yourself these questions – if there isn’t a clear answer, you may not need that meeting after all.

  • Does the information covered in the meeting require discussion? Or is a simple written update sufficient?
  • Does the discussion change week over week? If not, you might be meeting more frequently than necessary. Go biweekly vs. weekly, monthly vs. biweekly.
  • Has your involvement changed in the project, and are you still a necessary participant? If you are not a key influencer or SME, remove yourself.
  • Are there multiple people from your team already involved? Find a way to rotate responsibility or share meeting notes to create some efficiency.

Meetings should focus on getting things done, moving things forward. If that’s not happening, clear your calendar. 

2.  If you decide you need that meeting, have a PLAN

Virtual meetings don’t have any chance of being equally or more effective than in-person meetings if you don’t go in with a PLAN. By that we mean clarity of:

Purpose:

  • Establish need and clear purpose for the meeting
  • Start with the end in mind and determine the desired outcomes

Logistics:

  • Consider the right group, the necessary roles to have in the room
  • Leverage the right technology tools to maximize potential engagement

Approach:

  • Be purposeful and prioritize options for more efficient decision-making.
  • Clarify roles from the start, including decision-making, agenda tracking, participation,

Next steps

  • Focus on deliverables, not topics, outlining clear and specific actions and accountability.
  • Distribute meeting minutes with assigned next steps shortly following the meeting.

3.  Insist on face-to-face without the face-to-face

It’s increasingly common for a leader to have their direct reports scattered geographically. Despite this – and the ready availability of cost effective, easy-to-use technology – relatively few leaders routinely use video conferencing as a primary vehicle. It’s almost always conference calls, emails, and some physical meetings. Try to make a small change to start. If you have a recurring biweekly staff meeting, try meeting via video conference every other session. Or, use video chat for your recurring one-on-one meetings. You’ll find there is a different level of engagement and participation.

4.  Do sweat the small stuff—like logistics 

One reason that many leaders avoid virtual video conferences is there are inherently more things to go wrong than with a phone call. It often takes a few more minutes to get people connected. There can be firewall compatibility issues and system unfamiliarity can derail execution.

Get people used to logging in five or ten minutes before the scheduled start time of a meeting so they aren’t fumbling with their connections. Consider scheduling a meeting for 8:50 or 8:55 and note that the discussion will start promptly at 9. Once video conferences become a regular, scheduled vehicle, everyone will get faster with the technology. And be aware of time zones when you schedule meetings with a global team.  

5.  Avoid the one-way meeting trap

As virtual meeting size increases, participant engagement decreases. So how do you keep your team focused and involved when you aren’t physically sitting across from them? 

  • Use an icebreaker. HBR suggests that it is particularly crucial in a virtual meeting to “reinforce interpersonal relationships” and reduce isolation. Break down the formality of a meeting to create more open dialogue. Try checking in on something participants are looking forward to or sharing something they recently enjoyed.
  • Take advantage of available tools. Many virtual platforms allow for polls and chat boxes that encourage participants to weigh in on topics. Try posing questions and calling on individuals to share their insights. Share your screen to mix up the visuals. Give the group reasons to be actively engaged.
  • Pay attention to the clock. There are two important rules of thumb offered by HBR, which we subscribe to:
    • The 60-second rule: Introduce each problem or discussion topic with one minute of compelling setup.
    • The five-minute rule: Don’t speak for more than five minutes without opening it up for discussion to get others speaking.

Regardless of the fires you need to put out to manage the situation at hand, as the leader of your organization, you need to set an example of adaptability, innovation, forward thinking, and open communication. The new norm mandates a virtual environment, and with some of the best practices above, you can help drive your business forward without missing a beat.

Leaders who leverage the efficiency and potential impact of virtual communications may find themselves adopting those efforts as permanent long after the COVID-19 health crisis is firmly in the rearview mirror.

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