What makes the virtual workplace work are the various virtual tools and meetings that connect team members to each other and to their leaders, teams to other teams, and so on. The meetings are supposed to help people come together, align goals, share experiences, and otherwise make sure that the team both functions well and creates a nice, social place to work for its members.  It is very rare, though, that virtual teams report that their meetings work like that: often they speak about technical problems, boring sessions and multi-tasking participants. ‘How can we ensure commitment – and keep our people active and interested?’ virtual leaders often ask – meaning both virtual meetings and virtual work on the whole.

Actually, I don’t think this is necessarily a problem of virtual meetings only: it is not so rare for participants in face-to-face meetings to read e-mails or engage in other activities while the meeting is on, or not everybody to participate fully with their best contributions. This means there is room for improvement in our meeting methods in general – and if you virtualise an ineffective meeting method, the result is rather a double frustration instead of an effective virtual meeting…

Don’t understand me wrong, when there are no technical problems, virtual meetings are of course much more efficient than face-to-face meetings in many ways: travel costs are diminished, organising meetings becomes much more flexible and people can get together in much shorter notice; they can participate in meetings from home, from the car, from the airport. Yet, if the meetings don’t fulfil their purpose, the savings don’t really make sense, and the whole concept of the virtual workplace becomes a bit questionable. Hence, we should both very carefully define the meeting needs – i.e. wished for results from various meetings – of any team, and then create suitable meeting methods for those needs.

When engagement and commitment are asked for, it is my favourite way to take a participatory pair work or group work method that I know works, and create a virtual version of it. For example, the tested and trusted Innotiimi OPERA method which combines individual reflection with pair discussion – involving everyone, regardless whether they are extravert or introvert – and open sharing of thoughts and ideas with coming to common conclusions – moving from divergence to convergence – does indeed create engagement and commitment virtually as well as face-to-face. And the virtual GroupExpo has provided a great change for virtual brainstorming and virtual collaborative learning.

These virtual versions of the methods have a couple of extra benefits that at first were a bit surprising, even for the developers. Note-taking, for example, is much quicker and more comprehensive when using a keyboard than a marker on paper, not to speak of further usability of the notes that can e.g. be instantly edited, compiled, shared. Many participants also report that they can better focus on the topic being discussed and on really listening to each other when in a virtual workshop compared to a ‘real’, face-to-face one. Many have even said that they feel freer to brainstorm, to contribute their ideas virtually, when no-body is looking at them…

Katri Auvinen started her career in international marketing communications, but soon moved on to communications and change management in large projects  – which eventually led her to make the best part of her work, training and facilitation, her full-time job. Consultant since 2006, Katri has gathered a lot of experience in the EU Institutions and is specialised in Leadership and development, Virtual teams and virtual facilitation and communications, just to cite a few.

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