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Nicole Reigelman, Corporate Faculty, Harrisburg University of Science & Technology

“You’re on mute.” “Your screen is frozen.” “Can you go back to the last slide?” These are familiar sentiments from 2020.

We also saw more of our co-workers’ kids, pajamas, and pets during Zoom, Skype, Teams, and meetings on other virtual platforms last year.

COVID-19 compelled entire industries to transform how they operate – from academia to medicine to transportation and logistics.

Some organizations transitioned to remote work and adjusted seamlessly to virtual operations; others are still learning.  One of the most challenging aspects of the teleworking landscape is creating a communications environment to replace the traditional face-to-face interaction that fuels many organizations.

As we discuss each semester in HU’s Professional Communications course, face-to-face interaction is second-to-none when sharing complex messages, especially when stakeholders are diverse in culture, age, or experience. And knowing your stakeholders and their communications preferences is key to making virtual communication work.

In project management, it is critical that a project leader be able to articulate directives to her team as well as provide clear updates to the customer and organizational leadership. But effective communication depends on feedback from a message’s receiver, so the project manager can be confident that her team understands her instructions and updates.

So, how can we replicate the rich, complex, pre-COVID interactions in the virtual space, that starves participants of nonverbal cues that often reveal more about a message than even the words used?

At first glance, it may seem that using today’s tools makes communication instantaneous and easy but communicating effectively in the virtual space may require more time and focus. 

Project leaders need to listen more, offer more touchpoints with stakeholders across communications mediums (but especially on the stakeholder’s preferred medium), and help their teams get the most out of meetings by preparing and sharing materials in advance.

The last item – managing virtual meetings – is a skill and an art. But there are tips that will help a project manager maximize each virtual session.  

  1. Assign one person to manage, and a different person document the meeting. Even if it is a group brainstorm session, identifying a single person to manage the conversation can keep the session flowing and lessen the likelihood that people talk over one another. And without a dedicated notetaker, you risk missing the great ideas from your team.  
  2. Make the agenda available in advance. This simple best practice requires planning but allows team members to come prepared to offer thoughtful input, which reduces wasted time and keeps meetings focused.  
  3. Keep meetings short. Members’ focus during virtual meetings is a diminishing resource, so if there is a particularly complex topic or lengthy issue, consider ways to break the meeting up.
  4. Talk less and leave gaps for people to interject with comments or questions.  It may take team members a few moments to formulate thoughtful questions or responses. Leaving a gap in the conversation before moving to the next agenda item may feel like an uncomfortable silence initially but allows team members to organize their thoughts and can generate more valuable contributions.
  5. Provide visual aids like documents, slides, and infographics in advance. Sharing your screen is great, but people read and comprehend at different paces, so if we truly want to be inclusive and want to share the information or solicit input from the whole team, provide those documents so people can scroll at the own pace.
  6. Finally, when a meeting is wrapping up, make sure everyone is clear regarding expectations, deliverables, and deadlines. If the team leaves a meeting without knowing the next steps, they’ll likely be unprepared for the next meeting, causing frustration and wasted time. It’s always a good idea to send up a follow-up email recapping the expectations and posting the meeting minutes in a shared space. 

Even as organizations look toward resuming more traditional operations, for some, the workplace has changed permanently. Companies like outdoor retailer REI, Zillow, Hitachi, and Nationwide insurance are extending telework indefinitely or offering permanent or more robust work-from-home options for employees.

The negative impacts of COVID-19 have been felt globally and demanded that organizations evaluate how they operate. Those evaluations can serve as important lessons learned for operating in a post-COVID world.

Hopefully, the abundance of communications tools that are now available to organizations and that employees have learned how to use will help us interact and share information more effectively in the future, no matter the workspace.

References

Asmelash, L., & Kosik, A. (2020, August 14). Outdoor Retailer REI to sell sprawling new and unused headquarters to shift to remote work. https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/13/business/rei-sell-campus-coronavirus-trnd/index.html.

Enjoji, K. (2020, June 1). Hitachi plans to make working-from-home standard practice. https://www.cnn.com/world/live-news/coronavirus-pandemic-06-01-20-intl/h_e5fd5526738c9e92587be1e618db0fa9 .

Nationwide Mutual Insurance. (2020, June 24). Nationwide Newsroom. https://news.nationwide.com/nationwide-announces-permanent-shift-in-workplace-work-from-home-strategy/.

Vasel, K. (2020, August 13). Zillow exec: Why we changed our minds on remote work. https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/13/success/zillow-work-from-home/index.html.

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