Virtual working – lessons from real life

Change & Organisation Development

by Sarah Beart and Simon Martin

13 March, 2020

Like all organisations we are looking how to deal with the effects of the Coronavirus outbreak. Our clients are thinking about how to keep making progress on planned work which involved bringing groups of people together, sometimes from around the globe, to tackle issues like strategy and organisation design. Should they just stop, because who wants to do strategy or change work on a crackly phone line?

We would agree about the crackly phone line. But we know from experience it’s possible to do excellent work virtually; everything from ordinary business meetings, developmental experiences such as coaching and leadership programmes, right through to strategy and organisation design. We have clients we’ve never actually met face to face. And with our own partners living and working in several cities, we have virtual weekly meetings and run virtual development for ourselves too.

We do know that you can’t do it by just replicating what you would do if you were all in a room together, and endlessly apologising for what can’t happen. So we thought we would share a few of our top tips about how to run serious business conversations virtually:

1. One virtual, all virtual. This is an important point which we first learned from Ghislaine Caulat’s research on Virtual Leadership (thank you Ghislaine – full plug below!). If you want to create a conversation in which all can participate then make sure everyone is connecting in from a quiet and private separate room. Having people using different channels e.g. one person calling into a small meeting, or small groups huddled together in different locations who CAN communicate with each other in breaks, often makes for unhelpful sub-group dynamics, and a feeling of exclusion for people on their own. And we would argue that it’s either video for all or audio for all – make a healthy level playing field for your conversation.

2. Act like normal humans. Find ways to do your normal social processes. So many people launch straight into the “business” of the meeting without going through the basics of “how are you” and sometimes even forget “hello”. This does little to draw people into giving their full attention to the conversation at hand. In fact we’d say you need to devote more time to this aspect when working virtually to allow people to tune into each other. Find out where each other are, how each other are, allow a bit of messy chat if that’s how you normally start a meeting. Draw people into being interested in each other – then you’ve got their attention.

3. Choose a good technology. And make sure beforehand that everyone who is going to be in the meeting can use it. Don’t just ask – check with a test call. Sound basic? How often have you found yourself shut out of a virtual event, or trying to run one with a key person unable to join. We currently favour zoom for its reliability and flexibility: it’s easy to set up, and doesn’t require any downloading of apps. You can have break out groups, shared content, co-created content and all kinds of other useful features (and judging from a recent experience you can do a great Q and A from Botswana for a large conference). However, some of our clients’ firewalls block it: we want to know this in advance, and then we use something else – Skype, Webex, Facetime.

4. Tend to your dynamics. Remember that working virtually amplifies existing social and emotional dynamics, and can disinhibit people. Things that are difficult to talk about in a room together can be even trickier virtually, and people may therefore either say a lot less or a lot more than they ordinarily would. Take care with yourselves (especially right now as there’s the extra pressure caused by this current outbreak)

5. Design and redesign your conversation – don’t just expect it to happen! We have had some previous blogs touching on the importance for leaders of getting skilled at designing conversations (here for example). Think about topics for the conversations, where you need interaction within your group, what needs to be formal and what informal, what is better done offline or asynchronously, and what the purpose is of each element of the conversation. If you were going to have a strategy day or Executive awayday, feel free to have a day but design it with several short sessions spaced with breaks for work offline, food and comfort. Maybe share more in advance, use different methods to get feedback.

We’re not relishing the disruption (and suffering) that the Coronavirus is bringing. But we are working closely with our clients to design work that helps them keep on track with their business priorities. We hope this gives you heart – and if you’re not used to working virtually and would like to think with us about how your organisation can do this well, then drop us a line on And if you want to know more about Ghislaine Caulat’s research her excellent book is available, on Kindle too.


Virtual working – lessons from real life

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