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The new world of virtual order

As we move past the initial disruption caused by COVID-19, there’s a renewed focus on how to optimise “business as usual” now that working remotely has become the new norm, and that most of the associated technical glitches have been resolved, writes John Arneil.

user iconJohn Arneil 28 April 2020 Big Law
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The Harvard Business Review paper, Global Teams That Work, examines how best to augment a geographically dispersed workforce in multinational companies, including how to build teams, embrace diversity, and address strategic and organisational challenges.

The principles espoused are also relevant to the virtual world that we’ve now been catapulted into as a result of the pandemic. Though the primary difference is that multinational companies typically have designated teams to structure and support operations, whether that be technology, infrastructure, communications, or HR. This is often curated and resourced in a staged capacity, in advance of the requirement (i.e. a new office location in a different country or state).

A key contributor to a team’s success is the level of social distance – meaning the degree of emotional connectivity among team members, which is directly correlated with morale and productivity. When a team works in the same location, the level of social distance is low. People from diverse backgrounds interact formally and informally, align and build trust and they feel close and congenial, which fosters teamwork. The challenge now is to build and retain these behaviours in a novel and unfamiliar environment.


Accordingly, the fundamental change in communications and consequential rise of virtual meetings has become the new norm, though the rules of engagement are largely undefined. Harvard Business Review’s paper, What It Takes To Run a Great Virtual Meeting, identifies best practice measures to optimise virtual communications and actively reduce social distancing:

1) Use video

“We’re all tempted to multitask when on the phone. Conversely, a videoconference definitely keeps people engaged and focused,” states Unisearch expert and business adviser, Adriana Cecere.

“With video, people are also more aware of how they’re presenting and receiving information, which is important to retain connection with colleagues and clients alike.”

2) Separate team catch-ups from virtual meetings

To retain both morale and productivity, clearly distinguish when team sessions are held versus meetings. “It goes without saying that empathy reduces social distance. I encourage businesses to schedule relationship-building sessions two to three times a day to talk about how the team is going in general, in a fluid, unstructured way.

Conversely, a virtual meeting should be conducted in the same capacity as in-person meetings. It should be decided in advance who will lead the meeting, with the host responsible for setting clear agendas and sharing prior. Objectives should be outlined, with corresponding next steps to include timing and accountabilities.

Having said that, keep in mind that small talk is a powerful way to promote trust, so when planning meetings, factor in a few minutes for light conversation before business gets underway,” said Ms Cecere.

3) Keep it brief

The only thing worse than a long presentation in-person is a long presentation during a virtual meeting, which can be circumnavigated by providing background information in advance and prioritising discussion and decision-making.

This can be aided by using the “share screen” function to focus attention accordingly.

4) Balance inclusion

The meeting host should be aware of the balance of inclusion and monitor participant’s contribution, and in particular solicit involvement from less vocal parties.

Though enabling participation without all parties talking over each other is one of the more challenging aspects of a virtual meeting “this can be circumvented by assigning a meeting facilitator and periodically calling on individuals to participate to ensure the meeting isn’t dominated by the loudest voice.”

Similarly, the team should be encouraged to use the raise a hand software to indicate that they have a view to share, without interrupting the conversation,” Ms Cecere continued.

5) Tackle tough issues

It may be tempting to wait to discuss tough issues in-person, but that may not be an option in the short to mid-term. In the interim, framing meetings as brainstorming opportunities is a good way to take heat out of the debate. Questions can be positioned to explore an issue, evaluate an agenda and contribute to ideas.

“It’s well accepted that the virus will have long-term disruptions to the traditional office model which will promote far greater agility. There will be different benchmarks and infrastructure to support greater productivity, improved mental health and wellbeing, and a better work-life balance, that will be enabled through technology. This will also reduce overheads, and environmental impact. I encourage practices to evaluate the benefits of a reframed ‘business as usual’ and start to prepare a ‘post-corona’ plan that implements the learnings from isolation to benefit future business,” concluded Ms Cecere.

By John Arneil, Unisearch