Lockdown measures are easing in Australia and other parts of the world, but the process could take a while. With every passing day, remote work becomes further entrenched in the way business is done.

There will come a time when in-person meetings are common again, but Zoom and other platforms will continue to be a relevant way for teams to meet. What could possibly go wrong?

1. The interruption quagmire

In a real room full of people, it’s easy to know who has the floor. Knowing when to speak up, or when to let someone else chime in, is fairly straightforward.

This is not the case with videoconferencing. A satirical newspaper called The Onion said it all on 18 May with the headline, Coworkers On Zoom Trapped In Infinite Loop Of Telling Each Other ‘Oh Sorry, No, Go Ahead.’

Sharing cyberspace does not produce the same social cues, no matter how clever the technology tries to be.

False starts and interruptions are commonplace and often cringeworthy. We can wait for tech companies to innovate ways of giving people the floor, but we can also strengthen our ability to prompt and be prompted by colleagues.

2. The patchy connection

Many a meeting has suffered at the hands of a participant whose internet connection is faltering. Countless minutes have ticked by as facilitators try to re-establish contact with a key participant.

This happens, and sometimes there’s no way around it. That said, it’s possible to test your connection before meetings. Zoom’s recommendation for video conferencing is 3 mbps if you include sending/receiving files. If we identify connection issues in advance, we might be able to switch connections, or at least warn the group ahead of time.

Also, let’s not let our frustrations get the best of us. In-person meetings have always had technical problems. A level of patience is required, but recurring connection issues get old fast.

3. The bumbling presenter

When it comes to meeting in cyberspace, the onus for productivity often rests on one or two people. Depending on the nature of the team and the topics discussed, screen sharing may be necessary. Video or documents may need to be shared.

The key is to consider technical details in advance, and test yourself. Make sure you know what buttons to click, where the files are, how to share them. Do your part to make the group experience go smoothly. It may seem like virtual meetings are intrinsically more forgiving, but colleagues can often tell the difference between technical difficulties and a lack of preparedness.

4. Extroverts and Wallflowers

It only takes a few first-hand experiences to realise that social cues are harder to read in virtual meetings. This makes some participants more reticent, while others seek to fill every pause. To be silent through an entire meeting might not reflect well. Likewise, dominating the conversation can give a bad impression. Everyone has to find a balance between getting their words in and allowing others to do the same. Dedicated prompts from meeting facilitators can help the group find a rhythm.

5. A lack of definition

Virtual meetings often end without a clear sense of what was accomplished or what action should be taken. This happens in real life, too – we’ve all had the experience of getting up from a conference table and wondering what just happened. But the lack of definition is arguably more a risk in virtual settings, when work is already blended with other aspects of life.

Assigning specific roles can help. A timekeeper can help things stay on track, while a notetaker can provide the group with summary notes. Dedicated facilitators and/or presenters can keep things moving in a productive direction.

There is such a thing as being pedantic, but a detailed approach to virtual meetings – especially when important points are being discussed – will produce better results for the team.

Skills worth polishing

Virtual meetings are a miraculous yet imperfect solution to physical office closures. We’re allowed to poke fun at the limitations of the medium, and chuckle at the mishaps – but if we’re serious about building better teams in the long run, we should take the opportunity to learn the medium, understand the pitfalls, and be more effective. When we get to the other side of the pandemic, whatever that looks like, these skills will more valuable than ever.

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