What makes virtual work work?

October 27, 2021  |  Charles Spinosa PH.D.

Dr. Charles Spinosa from VISION Consulting explains the ‘first line of attack’ for ensuring your organisation is not undermined by the frustrations of poorly managed virtual meetings.

To many, VISION is known as the Commitment-based Management™ (CbM) company. We help managers from the C-suite down design the network of promises that drive execution in their organisations. We help managers make clear and urgent requests and obtain genuine, complete, and personal promises. Thus, we cut enormous amounts of waste in chasing and rework. (You can read more about CbM here.)

Many of our clients have designed strong networks of promises for operational speed and flexibility. They have also become great at face-to-face conversations for making urgent, crystal-clear requests, negotiating, and receiving generous, genuine, personal promises. But virtual working causes promise decay. Especially at the C-level and next two levels down, our new and former clients are experiencing clogged-up schedules of one call or meeting after another where either they have to clarify what they have already said or wonder why they are there at all. They are back doing the chasing and rework that CbM relieved them of. Deadlines are missed and missed again.

Illness beyond Covid-19

What has gone wrong? Aside from the inevitable technological glitches, life in the virtual world is full of distractions. As you look at your colleagues on your computer screen, you are also alerted to important emails coming in, movements in the market, headlines from news briefs, and so forth. You’re very likely working from your home, which has not been organised to separate you from your family. Distraction is, truly, at pandemic proportions. If you consider yourself a driven, highly focused executive, ask yourself: ‘Have you allowed yourself to check in on emails or news during a recent virtual meeting?’

In 2008, the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus wrote On the Internet, in which he detailed the tendency of online life to distract us from our challenges and, worse, drive us to offer easy, pat solutions that do not require taking the risk of advancing our skills and thinking.

Recognise these symptoms?

  • Have you seen managers trying to move quickly to saying ‘yes’ or ‘I’ve got it’ to you?
  • Have you made requests that were ignored?
  • Have you found managers stuck in their heads and talking past each other?
  • Does the mood of your virtual meetings start out well but then fall flat?
  • Do you find yourself terribly weary at the end of a day of virtual meetings?
  • Do you have a hard time remembering the last virtual meeting that truly inspired you?

If you experience any of these symptoms, we invite you to deploy the following first line of attack built on the CbM principles you may already know.

First line of attack

Hone your performance, preparation, and post-mortems of meetings. In the virtual world, preparation and post-mortems are essential and more demanding than before.

Performance for solid commitments

The two main problems in the performance of meetings are:

  1. Participants get into a reporting mindset, just want to say what they already know, and then move along. They do not want to challenge, be challenged, or think together.
  2. This reporting mindset pollutes promise making; promises are made with brief remarks and little thought, or not made at all.

We have two main recommendations:

  1. Introduce a check-in at the beginning of the meeting where participants state their moods and thereby begin managing them and, at the same time, take on the ethical responsibility of not allowing themselves to be distracted.
  2. Have a facilitator (for instance, a trusted, courageous PA) or other member of the meeting to bring laser focus to requests and promises and then record them.

Preparation for urgency

Preparing for meetings in the office simply required working out the agenda and sending it out ahead of time. People came with the heightened goodwill that comes simply from being together. Virtual meetings have little of that goodwill. People frequently wonder why they are at the virtual meeting. Thus, many virtual meetings should be eliminated in the preparation phase, which is now essential. Virtual meetings succeed when the concerns of the meeting are urgent. The person who calls the meeting should be able to say whose neck is on the line with each agenda item and have that person speak and receive advice.

The old reporting meetings do not work in the virtual world. Have each participant from the old reporting meeting circulate a one-pager describing successes and challenges. Then create a meeting focused on overcoming the challenges. In the old world, everyone focused on transparency and clarity. In the virtual world, urgency and intensity are more important. Heat is now more important than light. For this reason, it is best to figure out the mood you want the meeting to have and prepare an introduction to get you there.

Post-mortem for mood-management

Did you manage the mood of the meeting? Or did you let it slip? What enabled the mood management? What triggered the slippage? Use the reflection of the post-mortem to develop your skills for calling out and rectifying a slipping mood, identifying the trigger of slippage and your favourite means of adjusting the mood for the better. Could the means be a simple break or a reminiscence of the team working together in a better mood? What about a second round of answers from all participants on what their mood is and why they are in it? Again, what about a simple, firm directive? Act as though you are in a mood of hope, no matter what you feel now.

Managers generally enjoy executing this first line of attack, and it is often enough. We are, of course, happy to help with the next levels of promise management.

It kills us to say it, but the chattering class is right that executing virtual work well will give you an enormous advantage in everything from having time to think and innovate to cutting floorspace.

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At VISION, we help leaders develop the poetry of their leadership styles and their organisational cultures to enable dramatically higher levels of productivity, speed, and innovation. The insights we share today come from such work, and we have our clients and their success to thank for our often contrarian approach. Let us know about your experiences of virtual work, and let us know if we can help you.


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