Navigating Virtual Meetings


We’ve been dumped into a virtual world, where everything is mostly familiar but simply more difficult. You can blame something Prussian philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz, called “Friction.” From his book On War: “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war.

So, it’s not just you – everything about meeting and working virtually IS in fact more difficult. You have to think about things that used to be automatic. You miss people and your routines. Working from home is persistently distracting, and maintaining focus requires effort. Watching yourself on video is messing with your sense of self, and re-adjusting is hard. You’re sitting all day instead of moving around. All of these things add up.

Clausewitz’s friction is real, and it’s here in our virtual workspace. But you can take some proactive and positive steps to reduce friction in your virtual meetings. Here are some guiding principles for your consideration.

Design your meeting. Calling a meeting is easy. Getting results out of a meeting is hard, even before we introduce Zoom and audio lag and pets/kids interrupting. What you relied on in the past will work differently – from reading body language, to pivoting on the fly, to using a brilliant whiteboard doodle to change opinions. Now you must know what you want out of the meeting, know who needs to be involved, know what you need them to be prepared to do. Don’t forget to share all of that with the participants ahead of time!

Provide an agenda for every meeting. Even if it’s a simple statement of “Meeting Outcomes:” you are setting expectations and focusing your participants.

Time online is different than time face-to-face. I just heard from a colleague that his company has directed that during the crisis all meetings should be either 25 minutes or 50 minutes in duration. This decision internalizes Clausewitz’s concept of friction. It takes time to log out of one meeting and log into the next. Instead of consistently starting your meetings late because people are running from one meeting to the next, recognize this new reality and give people the time they need. Clausewitz wrote: “Activity in war is movement in a resistant medium. Just as a man in water is unable to perform with ease and regularity the most natural and simplest movement, that of walking….”

Everything now requires more time to set up and to get into. Accept this and account for it.

Start with video, and start with something personal. Especially in this time of social distancing, seeing and connecting with each other is so important. People perform better when they are comfortable with each other. So turn on your video and start the meeting with a quick bit on something that’s happened to you either personally or professionally. At CEEK, “tell a story” is one of our corporate rituals, and you can improve your connections with the team by simply sharing a little tidbit about your day. And you should go first to model the behavior. Ask everyone to share something.

One quick note about video: it’s a bandwidth hog, and it can be quite distracting when no one is making eye contact with the camera. So if you are comfortable with the team’s ability to stay focused, turn off your video after the introductions and get down to business. On the other hand, video can be an antidote for multitasking. Read on.

Keep multitasking in check. Science is telling us that we are terrible at multitasking, (and this) but like our self-assessment of our driving abilities, we are terrible at recognizing that we are terrible at multitasking. When I worked at one of the big consulting firms, my team evolved an informal method to account for the inevitable multitaskers – when asking someone a question, always state their name first, ask the question, then end the question with their name. That gave the person 2 chances to realize someone was talking to them and to start paying attention. (“Chris. Did you run those reports on the course completion numbers from last month, Chris?”) It was awkward, but it worked for us. Here are a couple of less awkward and more effective ideas:

  • Keep video on (yes, I know what I said above!) because, well, peer pressure is often an effective means of reducing the temptation to check email.
  • Give people different tasks: take notes, track action items; come up with a fun fact for everyone at the start of the meeting.
  • Constant engagement by calling people by name and asking for input.

Take Notes. Given Clausewitz’s friction, it’s more important than ever to re-introduce this in-person meeting best practice. Have the person taking notes share their screen so everyone can see and agree on the information being captured and the decisions being made. Or use a shared document (we use Dropbox Paper). Make note of decisions and action items. The corollary to this is to review Action Items at the end of each meeting to make sure everyone understands and agrees to take on the responsibility.

Take a deliberate approach to reducing the impact of Clausewitz’s friction, and pick one of these principles to try out in your next meeting. Simple, small tweaks can make your day a little easier and have a significant impact on your happiness and productivity. As always, CEEK a better way.