Lessons learned from a year of working virtually

Buisness Insights

Is the shift that so many of us have made to working online something wonderful that we should embrace, or it is something of a disaster?

We appear to be conflicted – according to a KPMG survey last summer, 64% of workers preferred the flexibility of remote working, but over a third felt their ability to collaborate had fallen[i]. There are many stories of zoom fatigue and studies about the adverse impact of remote working.

Drawing from my experience of change management and of being with audiences from the public speaking stage, let me share what has helped me stay connected in the virtual world over the last 12 months.

Connect with a greeting

If we were meeting in the “real world”, we’d arrive in the door, say “Hi”, get settled and chat about the weather, the latest events etc. This may seem trivial but it’s a subtle process of connection, of taking the social temperature. It allows us to be with each other, ready to listen actively and talk connectedly.

When we are meeting remotely, we need this greeting space even more. Without it, we are straight into the action with no warm-up of our voices and of our relationships with each other. We have the discomfort and disconnection of bypassing greetings. I’ve started building in warm up time into key meetings. In some cases, we’re opening the virtual doors fifteen minutes early for people to arrive and chat.

See and be seen

In a room with each other, we don’t just take in the words that people say, we are dancing with all sorts of verbal and non-verbal cues. These help us to see what is really going on, whether it’s our turn to speak, how people might respond to us. As someone who was brought up never to interrupt and to wait until last when others have finished speaking, I’ve learned how to use physical cues like leaning forward, making eye contact with the meeting Chair, in extreme cases raising my hand. When face to face, I’m likely to notice when some voices are dominating and to draw in those who are being left silent.

In the virtual world, I have my video on all the time, and encourage others to do so too. This way, we can see those facial expressions, those burning to speak, those ready to move on and we can respond to them. When chairing, I look for everyone to have a voice, just as I would when I am in the room with others. The advantage of having all those faces on screen is that you are seeing everyone straight on, rather than turning to see everyone in a crammed meeting room.

Be truly present

When we’re not in the same physical space, it is easy to allow distractions to take us even further away. Do your eyes want to dart about checking on emails, messengers or unpredictable children and pets? Maybe is it just me with the multiplicity of the three screens, the phone on my desk and my gorgeous dog Betsy. If we are not getting the value from the time online, is it because we’re not giving the value of our full presence?

I’m learning to close down everything except the people on the screen and any documents we are sharing together. I turn the phone face down and the sound off. If I start to get distracted, I slow my breathing down, relax my shoulders and get curious about what is going on in the screen in front of me. What are they thinking? What’s the big picture of this, the implications, the gaps, the opportunities? If I had to play this back to them, what would I say, how could I summarise it? Who else might have a perspective to contribute but hasn’t been heard? We can accept the unpredictable and adapt as it arises. By being present in this way, we offer more and deepen the quality of our presence.

It is all about connection

The key to all of this is connection. We don’t need to feel the fatigue of being stuck to a screen. We just need to find new ways to connect. Let’s take the time; to greet, to see each other, to be seen, to be here, in the present, right now. Like me you may find the experience energising.

Jean Gamester, Toastmasters International