As we round the corner into year two of Covid-19–induced separation, our virtual work life has become a bit of a laughing matter. If you watch the late-night talk show hosts, or tune into Saturday Night Live, you’re in on the joke. And who didn’t get a kick out of the talking kitten lawyer?
Working from home can be funny, annoying, and sometimes tiresome, but there’s also a lot of goodness in this forced experiment. Beyond helping huge swaths of the global economy stay afloat, virtual work offers evergreen benefits including sustained cocreation, greater participation, relationship building, and efficiency. So rather than simply endure virtual meeting, we should celebrate its key virtues: transcendence, wisdom, humanity, and generosity.
The four virtues
1. Transcendence (supporting sustained, continuous cocreation)
It’s one of the perpetual frustrations of management. You host a successful meeting, exit with momentum, and then watch as that energy dissipates like a balloon slowly leaking air. Virtual cocreation helps transcend the moment and maintain momentum. The key is asynchronous cocreation before, during, and after an event. In cocreation spaces built with tools like Mural and Miro, participants work on and refine ideas, stoke engagement, and connect.
Before the pandemic, a large financial services company launched a team effort to design a new initiative. The initial plan was for the participants to do homework on key questions before meeting in person for the critical work of coming to an answer together. Then Covid-19 hit. At first, the company considered shelving the project. Some argued that there was no way they could accomplish what they set out to do if they couldn’t physically be in a room together. Eventually, however, executives decided to go virtual for a limited period, assuming that they would soon return to normal and their original plan.
Normal never showed up. As stay-at-home orders lingered, the company ran one, and then another, and finally a total of five virtual workshops. Instead of five spikes of engagement followed by the typical slow energy leak, however, they enjoyed eight weeks of nonstop cocreation. Participants visited and updated a custom-built Miro board before, during, and after each workshop, refining their answers to key questions and building on what their colleagues had added. In the end, management agreed that the energy and breadth of insight that came from this participation would not have been equaled in person. (For more on virtual cocreation, please see “Socially Distanced, Collaboratively Close.”)
2. Wisdom (getting the right people in the “room”)
Have you ever been in a meeting when, after rounds of debate, someone pipes up with the idea that completely changes the course of the conversation? What if that person hadn’t been in the room? Virtual increases the odds that they will be.
In the virtual world, distance, expense, and scale are not constraints. Everyone who needs to join can. Experts can be tapped whatever their location. More participants can join the mix, broadening perspective, diversifying thought, enriching the conversation, and sparking additional insight. The topic, the conversation, and the organization benefit from the accumulated wisdom.
In person, a cocreation event with hundreds of people would be a daunting task to organize. Virtually, with the right design and technology, size ceases to be a limiting factor. Freed from the time and expense required to get a large event together, groups can come together quickly, helping their organizations react faster.
At the financial services company, an initial group of 15 people set the direction. Then the company used a crowdsourcing tool called Waggl to bring in many voices. Over 500 people provided initial feedback. The whole company was then invited to offer input. Two thousand employees eventually weighed in, comparing ideas and giving feedback—an astonishing level of participation that led to greater buy-in on the final answer.
The point is never to go for size just for the sake of it. Virtual allows selectivity, making it possible for all the right people to be in the room for a given conversation. No omissions, no substitutes.
3. Humanity (building meaningful participation and relationships)
In virtual gatherings, you have to pay attention to inclusivity. Luckily, the format can make it easier to allow each voice to be heard. In a live meeting, capturing input can be a challenge. If there is one person who drowns out everyone else, you risk leaving with a one-sided view. Virtual offers a plethora of tools to encourage participation: stickies, annotation, chats, whiteboards, breakout rooms, etc. Because different techniques work best for different people, this variety can increase participation.
One successful approach to building both participation and relationships is to group participants into “pods”—small groups that stay together throughout a longer session. The pod goes through the experience together, and its intimacy fosters real dialogue. Well-designed pods help participants connect with people they don’t normally talk to, instead of gravitating toward the people they already know. Carefully designed virtual sessions can bring a warm humanity to the experience and help bolster the weak ties in organizations, leading to real sparks of innovation that have been hard to maintain in the move to remote working.
4. Generosity (giving the gift of efficiency)
Meetings take up a lot of our time, but virtual meetings must move faster. There is an unspoken social contract in virtual: “We won’t keep you on Zoom/Teams any longer than necessary, but in return we need to have a focused, sharp discussion.” What greater generosity is there in our workday than getting precious time back?
Technology helps. You no longer have to interpret your colleagues’ scribbles on a Post-it or wait for them to finish their extended coffee break in between sessions. With the stroke of a button, participants teleport from breakouts back to the main session.
The efficiency of working from home has been well documented. One study that compared the calendars of knowledge workers before and after the pandemic found the workers were more productive in the lockdown of 2020 than they had been in 2013. They spent 9% more time interacting with customers and external partners and viewed their work as more worthwhile by a number of measures. A 2013 study found that the productivity of a group of travel agents increased 13% during the first nine months they worked remote, and that increased productivity combined with lower office expense and turnover led to savings for the company of about $2,000 per employee.
Slack chief executive Stewart Butterfield told the New York Times Magazine that after the shift to remote forced him to condense his high-production monthly all-hands meeting from an hour to just 21 minutes of fast, focused executive updates on Zoom, staff members rated the streamlined version higher than any of its predecessors.
Cultivating the virtues of virtual
Capturing these benefits is not automatic. It requires careful thought and design. That starts with clarity of purpose, knowing your goals for any cocreation exercise or meeting. Embracing radical simplicity helps: Define a singular purpose and strip down to the essentials to stay focused and maintain energy. In virtual gatherings, short modules are best. Use technology wisely, and make sure to rehearse so that tech enhances the experience. Above all, acknowledge what’s different about this format and look for ways to cultivate intimacy.
You can’t wing virtual. You have to prepare, design, and innovate. This format asks more of the managers doing the designing, but it also gives more back in terms of the quality of the output and ideas. That may have come as something of a pandemic surprise, but it’s insight worth holding onto.