‘If we end up working from home for, say, half the week, the fall in commuting would slash emissions, pollution and rush-hour traffic while boosting … happiness’

Simon Kuper, FT Weekend


How will we work after Covid? It’s a question being asked now by the media, and the answer usually contains a reference to online conferencing systems like Slack and Zoom. The technology is there, and if local and global commuting is reduced because of it, it must be welcomed.

As with anything new, we the users make a contribution by exploring the benefits brought by the technology and pushing them forward by … using them! This is already happening but we have a long way to go.

An example is the gap between online and face-to-face meetings in terms of human engagement. In my view, this is because we are applying meeting practices online which were developed over many years for face-to-face meetings, and this is resulting in an inefficient utilisation of the channel by its users. I’m thinking particularly here about online meetings which involve more than two participants.

The assumption we make that techniques developed for face-to-face meetings can be backfitted to our online meetings is not reliable and needs to be challenged.

For example, the period when delegates are arriving for a negotiation has traditionally been an opportunity to connect socially, check out who’s who and get oriented to one another. Consultants call this the ‘warm social opening’, and it’s a legitimate phase of the negotiation. Teams who handle it well gain an advantage.

In a conference call, however, the assembling of participants is marked by the widespread deployment of the Mute button. Participants arrive, check in and immediately mute themselves until the arrival of the meeting owner. I have met employees in different regional offices of the same company who have taken part in weekly online meetings for years and didn’t know a single thing about each other. They have missed out on the well-documented benefits that spin off when colleagues connect, including increased levels of self-confidence. But it takes a brave participant to break the muted online silence.

Non-verbal cues and the exchange of good-natured banter are other techniques that smooth the way forward when we are face-to-face. These rarely get picked up online, where the subtle signals conveyed by body language and eye contact aren’t so visible.

Examples of behavioural adjustments that could useful usefully be made for an online meeting are in voice tone and pitch to ease the process of spontaneous interaction between participants.  Have you noticed how participants often speak louder in a conference call than in a direct meeting? Online, it’s hard to interrupt or even just make a point because we’re not picking up the signals from non-verbal prompts around the room. In a face-to-face meeting the chairperson often does this by picking up the signals and orchestrating the ebb and flow of contributions. Intervening online is more difficult.  Not everyone is comfortable with raising their voice in order to contribute to a discussion.

An informal survey I carried out recently, found that interruptions, off-the-cuff contributions and opinions, both solicited and unsolicited, occurred over 40% less often online as compared to face-to-face.

The disruptive impact of Covid may be an opportunity to explore, from a user’s perspective, how the  technology can bring this core business activity to new levels of engagement and decision-making.

The people involved in online meetings will deliver that when they are equipped with tools and techniques designed specifically for the online communication channel.

Exploring ways in which technology, combined with purpose-specific skills, can achieve new levels of participation and spontaneity in the decision-making process will be a  good start.