Even though it is possible to feel connected to someone when they are visible virtually, the digital space is really an in between space—in between being together and being apart.
That means there are some new guidelines for how to behave in virtual gatherings. But since millions of people have jumped into working remotely during the COVID-19 lockdown, who’s to say what the new normal is?
Researchers at USC Marshall School of Business who specialize in remote communication have some tips to share.
According to Peter Cardon, Professor of Clinical Business Communication, someone should be in charge of the meeting, whether that’s the organizer, team supervisor, presenter or whomever. That person can manage the flow of conversation, ensure everyone is engaged, restrict one participant from dominating, keep speakers focused on solution-based questions and limit small talk.
“We’re in a unique time and we have to adapt. Meetings need to be shorter. It’s too hard to be on camera for hours. Organizers should set limits and stick to them.”—Pete Cardon, Professor of Clinical Business Communication
“A leader of the call is important,” Cardon said. “It’s harder to include everyone in the online space than in a traditional meeting. A leader can encourage rapid turn-taking, keep the group focused and direct the discussion.”
Assistant Professor of Business Communication Carolin Fleischmann agreed. “Any one participant can influence communication effectiveness,” she said. “Patterns that play out in person can be more pronounced in the virtual space. This can be positive, but it can also have downsides. An established leader can mitigate the downsides.”
Best practice when convening any group is to clearly identify and articulate the reason for meeting, whether it’s a family celebration or a strategic planning session. “Focus on goals and relationships,” said Cardon. “Most people think the technology is the biggest consideration for virtual meetings, but it is more important for the organizer to be clear about why this particular group is getting together, and cognizant of how the members will interact.” Organizers should ask themselves in advance how the dynamic online will influence collaboration and whether the participants can contribute to meeting the established goals.
Though some people have been using Zoom for years, many others never heard of the video conferencing platform until a few months ago. Nonetheless, these days it seems everyone is attempting to use one form of video calling or another, with varying degrees of proficiency and frustration.
Jolanta Aritz, Professor of Clinical Business Communication recommends patience as these communication tools gain popularity and familiarity. “We’ve seen several factors that affect acceptance of technology,” she said. “For example, if it looks like a tool will be short-lived, people can rationalize resistance, whereas if it’s going to become a longer-term part of their lives, they work harder to master it.”
This is true for platforms such as Zoom, as well as other advanced artificial intelligence enabled meeting tools. “For international virtual meetings, culture and language can be barriers to communication,” Artiz said. “But with the introduction of automated captioning and translation functions, these differences can be overcome. As the tools are increasingly deployed, they can mitigate cultural and language differences.”
Another advantage—or disadvantage—of video communication is that it creates what at first take might seem like a closer connection than non-visual technology, like the telephone. But it also introduces new considerations, Aritz said. “Others see us up close—closer than we’d be in a face-to-face work setting. We wonder how we look or worry about what others see in the background. These new issues accompany the benefits of visual technologies.”
For some, the accessibility of video communication has begun to eliminate traditional phone conference calls. This can lead to “Zoom exhaustion.”
“There’s fatigue,” Cardon said. “We’re in a unique time and we have to adapt. Meetings need to be shorter. It’s too hard to be on camera for hours. Organizers should set limits and stick to them.”
The researchers agree that common courtesy becomes even more important in the virtual space than in traditional meetings. Fleischmann notes that interrupting others can increase as much as five times the rate as when people are together.
“We see cultural traits emerge and behaviors that might otherwise be unacceptable,” she said. For example, it’s easier for a participant to “disappear” during a virtual meeting than in a traditional setting. “But,” Fleischmann said, “if someone disappears from the screen, we wonder what happened to them. Attention gets disrupted. Virtual communication can increase uncertainty.”
Therefore, according to Cardon, “Intrapersonal and interpersonal strategies are far more valuable than technical skills in remote meetings. Establishing presence and demonstrating interest in others is more important than ever in the online space.”
This includes expressions of gratitude. Cardon and his team have shown that gratitude in the workplace is highly appreciated, perhaps even more so in virtual settings. “Say thank you,” Cardon said. “There’s a hunger for more expressions of gratitude from bosses and peers. We want to hear ‘thanks’ more.”
Understanding effective ways to improve communication can help keep both individuals and teams productive and efficient in their remote workplaces, and help us feel more connected, even when we’re apart.