By Ted Powell – June 2020

Despite the many benefits of working from home, Zoom fatigue and other virtual meeting challenges are very real. In his latest blog post, Ted highlights potential issues you and your team are likely experiencing while away from the office, and presents effective remedies for each problem. “How to Overcome Virtual Meeting Challenges” explains why these issues arise while providing actionable steps to move past them. The ability to adapt has never been more critical.

Successful virtual collaboration

In November of 2018, I wrote a blog entitled, “The Power of Presence: In-person versus virtual team meetings”. Borrowing insights from esteemed social scientists Brené Brown and Susan Pinker, combined with my own observations, I suggested that in-person interactions are critical to maintaining a strong and productive team chemistry. Virtual meetings should complement, but not replace the physical presence required to support a high performing team.

It is a year and half later. Look where we are today! All of my in-person team development engagements have been converted to Zoom. The session experience and benefits have been more effective than I anticipated. Participants enjoy the typical positive feelings associated with refreshed alignment, cohesion and trust. I have now logged 100+ Zoom hours. Stop At Nothing has a new and effective way to deliver our 30-year, time-tested methodologies.

Does this “move to virtual” experience, caused by the COVID crisis, diminish my love and appreciation for the in-person sessions? For me, the easy answer is no.

With three months of intensive virtual facilitation behind me, I have noticed a few potential virtual meeting challenges unique to online collaboration. Fortunately, we can work around those once we recognize the ways virtual meetings differ from being in person. Since we are launching digital workshops and services here at Stop at Nothing, I wanted to share three of those drawbacks, along with remedies we recommend to counteract each one.

Challenge 1: Difficulty Assessing Group Energy and Engagement

Humans have always relied on instincts, developed over thousands of years, to read and respond to body language shifts. In a virtual environment, these skills are compromised. During a recent session, my client reached out via a private live chat and lamented that his team seemed disengaged and demoralized while discussing an important decision. I wasn’t so sure, so I designed an “energy rating” exercise. I gave each person a moment to reflect on how they felt about the decision on a scale of 1 (low passion/energy) to 10 (high passion/energy). Much to my client’s surprise, all 12 team members rated themselves between 8 and 10. The leader misread the group’s engagement, and he suffered unnecessary stress as a result!

Remedy 1: Avoid gauging group and individual energy based solely on what you see on a screen. Utilize the energy rating exercise to assess true commitment to key decisions or a virtual experience.

Challenge 2: Diminished Team Trust

Remember the old adage, “absence makes the heart grow fonder”? That may be true with intimate relationships. That doesn’t seem to work with business colleagues and team members. Understanding someone’s deeper motives and intentions breeds trust. Team dinners or lunches with no agenda are so important in creating the space for these understandings. Clarifying or clearing up misunderstandings provoked in meetings sustains trust. Countless times, I’ve witnessed an uncomfortable meeting moment or disagreement get resolved through a casual hallway conversation afterwards. A lack of casual, in-person contact can reduce these opportunities. With virtual meetings, people are quick to hit the “leave” button so they can rest or take care of a household demand. Recently, I saw an adorable 8-year old daughter appear on screen with her mom and exclaim: “When are you going to click on the leave button? That’s my favorite button!”

Remedy 2: No virtual solution replicates the power of in-person team bonding experiences, but I have discovered three very helpful techniques:

    1. Conduct an occasional virtual social hour at the end of the day, ideally between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. Most people have personal obligations after 6:00 p.m. Invite people to show their house, pets, family members and/or hobbies. I have been pleasantly surprised to watch people view a window into the lives of their colleagues that they would not otherwise experience.
    2. Arrange standing virtual coffee hours where people show up when they can for spontaneous, agenda-less conversation. At Stop At Nothing, we hold these every day from 9:15 to 9:45 a.m., and these gatherings have kept us tight and unified since closing our office in early March.
    3. Call for occasional “let’s get below the line” conversations. “Below the line” signals the need to voice and confront an underlying issue that people are reluctant to discuss, particularly one that involves interpersonal feedback or sensitive disagreements. It is easier to defer or avoid resolution of these issues in a virtual environment. High performing teams create psychological safety by agreeing, in advance, that anyone can call for a “below the line” moment whenever needed. Hearing that signal, team members assume an open mind and manage those defensive behaviors that fuel unhealthy conflict.

Challenge 3: Zoom Fatigue

By now, most virtual workers know what this is. We live it every day. Betsy Morris of The Wall Street Journal wrote an article, “Why does Zoom exhaust you? Science has the answer”. She interviews several scientists who reference the extra effort required to fulfill the innate human need to “synchronize” with each other when communicating virtually. It takes a lot more work to seek visual cues. We don’t realize it until we are restless and worn out after a virtual hour. During a prolonged video call, people start to lose interest in the conversation, making them more likely to go along with a decision, even if they have reservations. This undermines team alignment and trust over time.

Remedy 3: Be mindful of the time and energy needed for video by trying the following:

    1. Limit full-day virtual meetings to three 90-minute sessions and one 60-minute session within a day. Allow 30-minute breaks in between each session, and 90 minutes for lunch.
    2. Avoid migrating what used to be phone calls to video. You can still communicate quite effectively via old fashioned audio-only, and it is easier on the eyes. Plus, you can move your body while talking. I’ve experienced more leg stiffness lately, and now I know why!

While this year has presented new challenges in the workplace, we are thankful for the benefits virtual experiences can provide, such as connecting to people without the need to travel, saving commute time, and opportunities to refocus.

We’d love to hear about your experience, from both those who are used to working remotely and those who are new to this world. How have increased virtual meetings affected your team dynamic? Do you see a difference? If so, what techniques or adjustments have you found successful in supporting healthy team chemistry and alignment?