Aside from what you might’ve heard about Internet romances, it’s virtually impossible to establish any relationship, personal or professional, virtually. But don’t stop reading.
Research over the past 10 years shows that a virtual meeting eliminates the interpersonal communication that comes from the nonverbal stuff that people exchange in person, says Nick Morgan, author of Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma, published in 2008.
“We make decisions unconsciously before we make them consciously,” he says. “That means we make these decisions based on what’s in front of our unconscious mind, and that means most of the data for those decisions is coming from face-to-face meetings. An entrepreneur seeking backers, setting up an account, trying to attract new customers, or adding a supplier should go to the initial meeting in person. The good news is that relationships that have been established can be maintained on the phone.”
Last March, the Harvard Business Review asked Morgan to provide five tips for an effective virtual meeting. Here is an abbreviated version:
1. Recognize that virtual meetings are suboptimal and plan accordingly. Do the less important things via virtual meetings and save the emotional stuff for face-to-face meetings, because it’s emotions and attitudes that are conveyed mostly via body language.
2. Plan the virtual meeting in 10-minute segments. Recent evidence suggests that attention spans may be about 10 minutes long in this computer-addled, information-overloaded age.
3. Pause regularly for group input. One of the first casualties of a virtual meeting is group participation. So, stop regularly to take everyone’s temperature. Go right around the list, asking each locale or person for input.
4. Label your emotions, and ask others to do the same. Say, “I’m excited about this next bit of news, because it means that.” Or, “Jim, I’m really surprised to hear that third quarter numbers aren’t improving.”
5. Don’t neglect the small talk—but use video. Get the group to send each other 30-second or 1-minute clips of what they’re up to or what the weather’s like where they are. (Read the entire article by Morgan here.)
But Morgan warns that business relationships need to be renewed in person to keep them strong.
“I used to do coaching and editing for an elite group of IT experts in the early 2000s,” Morgan says. “These researchers from around the world were at the forefront of what the next internet/IT developments were going to be. They prided themselves on the nature of their online virtual relationships, and how good they were at maintaining them. We had one person in Asia, another in South Africa, some in Europe and the United States. We got expert at how to communicate around the world, and talked about mouthful-kind of terms like synchronistic communication and dealing with different time zones. We had a lot of fun with it but what we found was that we needed to meet face-to-face each quarter.”
So each quarter the group would reconnect in person. “If we went any longer than that, the strong egos began quarrelling with each other,” Morgan says. “While that’s not an ironclad rule, it certainly became a rule of thumb for me — when you have a team located around the world, if you are not meeting every quarter you are headed for trouble.
The virtual universe holds intriguing possibilities as it evolves, Morgan notes.
“I think the future is always stranger and more surprising than people think,” he says “We are headed pell-mell toward more and more virtual connections. I was reminded of this recently when a 4-year-old in my neighborhood was visiting. He was looking at a photograph, and he tried to reach up and touch it to make it click over to the next one. He looked up to me and said, ‘Your picture is broken.’ He thought that it should operate as a touch screen. What we would consider a virtual experience had become his real experience. You are going to have a whole generation raised in touch-screen technology. I can’t even imagine what is going to be considered norm 20 years out. It’s going to be fascinating.”