How leaders can overcome the challenges of online meetings

Working remotely in some capacity is here to stay, says Sankalp Chaturvedi, so businesses need to make sure virtual collaboration is efficient and productive

Team meetings are vital for all long-term, important decision making for business – how else is a whole team going to discuss innovative, future ideas without getting in one location and strategising decisions together? And though that location has now moved online because of Covid, and people can be ‘Zoomed out’ by the end of the day, the perception around meetings was changing even before they became digital.

In fact, for many people, meetings were often pointless, a waste of time (and money), and to be avoided at all costs. Doodle has analysed the meetings that took place using its scheduling tools over the last few years, and found that, of the 19 million meetings held across the US, Germany, Switzerland and the UK in 2019, two-thirds were considered pointless by those involved, costing a staggering $541bn.

Many of these meetings were already deemed pointless and disengaging pre-pandemic. But now, throw into the mix some of the difficulties that come with long digital meetings – such as the inability to read people's body language, distractions such as phones and emails, and fatigue of staring at a screen – then it is no wonder business leaders are finding it difficult to engage colleagues in creative discussions about long-term business decisions.

So, in this new hybrid world of flexi-working, with a mix of face-to-face and virtual meetings, what do business leaders need to consider in terms of their role going forwards? How will they adapt? I believe leaders need to hone in on three core principles:

A hybrid world requires empathy too – and it’s harder

Never before have leaders needed to be so adaptable and flexible. The ability to empathise and to build and manage relationships in the real world can be hard enough. But in the virtual world, when so many of the cues we need to read are limited by a Zoom or Teams screen, it’s that much harder.

We can’t read body language as easily virtually, we can’t demonstrate that we are looking directly at someone, connecting and actively listening, and we can’t easily tell when someone else has disengaged or is distracted by something in their own surroundings. Leaders will need to develop virtual charisma. It will require dialled-up energy levels, clear and simple messages, and a skillset more akin to actors engaging effectively with a virtual TV or cinema audience. Early indicators in research suggest up to three times more energy will be needed to keep team members engaged in the hybrid world.

Working virtually can also make room for unintentional biases to creep back in. Leaders therefore need to work even harder to allow individuals to disagree without being disagreeable, to ensure that the extroverts don’t loom large over the introverts, and to create psychologically safe virtual space for the best ideas to shine rather than those that are simply well-articulated or promoted most loudly.

We need to rethink how we collaborate, structurally

Strong teamwork is needed for a business to run efficiently, but many companies are not used to this teamwork needing to be virtual – something the pandemic has forced and teams learned organically. New staff have often had to build exclusively online relationships as they get their feet under a virtual table. 

Companies are all creating their own new normal, some allowing more flexibility than others. Leaders will need to think how best to protect long-term relationships with their employees, motivating and supporting without the intangible benefits of physical proximity: the chats at the water cooler, the impromptu catch-ups, the social drink after work. 

It will be necessary for all leaders to rethink how teamwork can adapt within their own business, and how they can create effect, stimulating company cultures, perhaps having to redefine their versions of teamwork. 

All parameters critical to the ‘teamwork’ skills need to be designed structurally.

Attention and time are scarce resources

Meetings, whether physical or virtual, need structure to ensure they don’t become a waste of everyone’s time. This becomes even more important in the hybrid world, as attention dissipates quickly on-screen. And in the hybrid world, meeting after meeting after meeting will impact the attention span of members. And unstructured meetings without purpose will only make it worse, cause fatigue and impact mental wellbeing and performance of members.

Before a meeting is even organised, consideration must be given to its purpose, who needs to be involved, if leaders have the skills required, and whether there is a better way to approach it.

Participants must prepare and come ready to contribute. The agenda must be short and specific. The purpose of the meeting must be clearly defined, and must have an end goal so that all involved leave feeling that it has been successful. In hybrid meetings, fewer focused meetings will be more effective. 

We face a constantly changing future, so adaptability and flexibility must be the watchwords of any future leader. Meetings and teamwork are central to business success; investing in getting them right in this new hybrid world will be the biggest challenge with the greatest rewards. We’re in this together, whether physically or virtually, and we must plan to be future ready, for everyone’s benefit.

Dr Sankalp Chaturvedi is a professor of organisational behaviour and leadership and leader of the Gandhi Centre for Inclusive Business at Imperial College Business School