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Mar 26 2023
Virtual Meetings and Workplaces: Here’s What I Think


COVID has taught us a lot about meeting virtually and conducting day-to-day business via web conference and communication platforms.  Before COVID, for example, we would not have thought of offering our Performance Thinking® Coach program virtually, because we viewed coaching as a face-to-face activity, best done between two people “in the room.” Now, of course, we are all accustomed to communicating and collaborating online, every day. Many of our relationships are online, where we likely make direct eye contact more than if we were in a physical space together where “staring” at one another might seem impolite. We have learned to connect virtually, and that is now normal and expected. And I have certainly established and maintained some wonderful personal and professional relatonships with people around the world whom I have never met in person.

Some business leaders are pushing hard to “return to the office.”  They assert that innovation and collaboration are better served by in-person communication.  Some have tried to identify what they think is better, particularly those business leaders who have invested a lot to create physical environments to support and encourage creative collaboration. 

Many employees have pushed back against the idea of returning to the office. For understandable reasons, they prefer the comfort and convenience of their own homes, access to their family members and pets between virtual meetings, saving commute time, and other factors that they value. 

Yet, there are two sides to this consideration. And my conclusion so far is that a hybrid approach to communication and collaboration makes most sense, a combination of in-person and virtual.  I think we should try to be with each other in person some of the time, when possible, if we wish to have the strongest, most vital and productive personal and working relationships. Let me list some of the things I’ve noticed.

I worked 6 feet from my long-time Manager of Special Projects for years before COVID. We were so much on the same page, so connected during most of work days that she could almost read my mind.  She would fill in gaps in my memory or attention to detail, anticipate things needed, and be an utterly invaluable resource for that reason. She witnessed conversations I’d have with colleagues and clients, we shared comments and insights informally between meetings, filling in gaps, refining things said earlier, reminding each other of things we said at other times.  In retrospect, I think that maybe 20% of our communication occurred in scheduled meetings or discussions. Most of it was informal, unplanned, and ad hoc. That is how we worked so closely together.

Once we went virtual, meeting regularly on Zoom and staying in touch with texting and emails, we certainly continued to get things done. But I noticed over the years during which we worked mostly apart that we lost details, what one might even think of as the texture or fabric of our working together. What had become a dynamic collaboration became more of a sharing of to-do lists. While I am sure we adapted, and people in many organizations have been able to adapt more fully than we did, I still believe that a lot was lost.

In the personal context, similar things evolved over time. As an example, I have a dear friend who lives 2000 miles away (actually many such friends, but this one in particular was very close). As we moved from seeing each other in person on a regular basis to 100% virtual communication, I found that there were many cases of incomplete or misunderstood communications. When most substantive communication is scheduled, things get lost because there is no opportunity to poke one’s head into the other’s space or walk by them with a comment in the kitchen, or mention something forgotten over a meal, to clarify an earlier conversation. Maybe more challenging, everyone experiences incomplete or misunderstood communications. But if we are in the same space, and can casually clarify or expand in a side conversation, those things work themselves out. When communication is less frequent and scheduled, gaps or misunderstandings can fester and become bigger and problematic, even leading sometimes to damaging disconnects.

And then there is body language. When we meet “from the chest up” in Zoom or FaceTime, we don’t see how people position their legs, how relaxed or open they might be, when their body movements suggest anxiety, misunderstanding, or emotions of one kind or another. When we cannot see how someone gets up out of a chair, or sits down, or enters the room, or has different levels of energy at different times during the day, we can miss a lot. And especially in this era where empathy between people is becoming a highly regarded value, that can be a huge disadvantage. In virtual communication, we miss the “iceberg” below the surface, which often contains important cues and indicators affecting how we are together.

I have concluded that with respect to personal relationships, we need to recognize that virtual is different, and not necessarily as complete or revealing as in-person. We can simply be mindful of that difference. And in close working relationships, I have come to the conclusion that, if possible, at least one or two days per week ought to be in-person. With some in-person time, all those details, nuances, and the in-between conversations can continue to fill in the gaps that would otherwise be left unfilled, maybe unrecognized, and possibly harmful to both the relationships and the productivity of working together.

What do you think?

- Carl Binder, CEO


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