We were not prepared for this – “this,” of course, being the sudden and pervasive shift to remote work. Along with this new reality, we’re also faced with virtual work’s lesser known but equally important companion, the “virtualization of etiquette.”
The previous models of business behavior and human engagement no longer apply. For example, when we want to participate during a virtual meeting, do we raise our actual hands, click on the hand icon on our screen or just jump into the virtual conversation? When the camera reveals evidence of our colleagues’ interests or hobbies, what do we make of that? Do we comment, ask for more details or silently register the information for the future? Are these new clues about a person’s life appropriate for conversation?
With no end in sight to the remote work model, here are some practical lessons from the field on facilitating better standards of virtual behaviors and communication:
- Normalize the change. Recognize that home life has a way of forcing itself onto center stage. When a child makes themselves heard during a meeting, I often ask the horrified parent to please send a photo of our newest colleague. Now that our personal lives and business avatars have merged, we might as well share.
- Maintain an at-home business environment. Whether formal or informal, have a designated office space within your home – even if it is not an office. This helps put attendees, including yourself, into the proper frame of mind and enhances focus.
- Educate the workforce on presenting themselves on-camera. This is a new requirement that most colleagues are unfamiliar with. A videoconference can be compared to being on stage, where presentation really matters. Encourage associates to get a good-quality camera and ensure the room is well-lit but not harshly so, and that the light isn’t directly behind them. Set standards of attire for different kinds of meetings that are consistent with your culture but more comfortable than for on-site meetings.
- Establish and communicate the virtual rules of etiquette. Videoconferences should be regarded similarly to in-person events. While multitasking is easier and thus more tempting while on a videoconference, it’s as bad form as it would be in person. Shutting the camera on and off during a videoconference is equivalent to going in and out of a meeting room.
- Train associates how to recognize non-verbal cues. Maintaining focus in a virtual session is more difficult than being in-person. The distractions are greater, and it’s exhausting to follow non-verbal cues. Again, awareness and standards are key. In addition, meeting leaders can learn new ways to keep attendees more virtually engaged.
- Define the different types of meetings and the norms for each. In smaller meetings that are oriented around brainstorming, jumping into the middle of a dialog is acceptable. For more formal and review meetings, it’s more appropriate to use the electronic hand-raising facilities and allow the current speaker to complete their point before beginning yours.
- Adopt a common platform for communications and collaboration. Videoconferencing platforms need to enable the dynamic setup of new channels or communities organized around projects, business issues, problems to be solved or simply things that people want to talk about. These platforms should be able to encourage spontaneous conversations.
- Institutionalize random interactions. At Cognizant, we’ve integrated virtual coffee breaks, online lunch-and-learns and regular unstructured team connects. We sponsor online cooking classes and forums to discuss creative ways to manage home-schooling during the pandemic. This helps reinforce the organizational cultural bond and facilitates informal conversations.
The most important learning is to recognize the subtleties of human behaviors and interactions that need to be redefined for the remote work world. Great ideas abound, but they need to be codified and communicated in ways that are simple and fit the culture and style of your organization.
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