I’m fortunate to spend a lot of time helping groups to reach alignment, collaborate, have meaningful conversations, and decide what to do. And I believe that even after pandemic restrictions lessen, effective virtual collaboration in business will stay as an expectation and norm, even after conferences, conventions, work dinners, and large gatherings find their new normal.
Here are four considerations stemming from hours of leading virtual workshops with diverse teams and different work cultures, sectors, and jobs.
1. Virtual collaboration has seen amazing innovation in the past 12 months, and this will continue
Mural, Miro, LucidChart and tools like Mindnode have seen amazing innovation and have changed the way their users think and communicate. Some of the most effective and important meetings I’ve had have happened virtually, augmented by shared browsing and collaboration tools. If the extent of your “collaboration” during the pandemic is PowerPoint and screen sharing, you are missing a significant development in team communications.
2. A great and meaningful virtual session can be as good—or sometimes better—as in-person meetings
Bear with me; here's why I say this.
2D video interaction can democratize a group of people in unexpected ways. I’ve hosted virtual facilitation sessions where the participants have felt more engaged, more empowered to pick up and place an idea on a shared board, and get more out of the meeting because everyone has a more equal voice. It’s impossible to talk over someone and hard to inadvertently (or purposefully) overpower a conversation when everyone occupies the same small rectangle on a screen, using the same tools to talk.
Taking away physicality can have the unexpected effect of drawing more people out, and drawing more out of people. And if equity and diversity of input isn’t a theme of 2020-2021, I don’t know what is.
3. The insight from a virtual session can be more efficient and illuminating than in-person
If you’ve sorted through a pile of sticky notes, fretted when some of them blew away (literally), and have been terrified when that one great point that nobody expected didn’t get written down, you will know what I mean.
If you have over 300 pictures of white boards on your phone right now, you will know what I mean.
A compelling virtual workshop leaves an exportable record that is more durable and accessible before and after the meeting, and lets people express themselves in ways they might not be able to in- person. Share your idea as a meme? Use the Noun Project in real time to highlight someone else’s great point? Use new visuals and infinite colours to group ideas and share a pattern only you have spotted? All of this can happen better virtually than in person if you know the tools and design the right experience.
4. An expectation and an imperative
“The medium is the message” changed my life when I encountered it as an undergrad. Our media just underwent another massive change in 2020, and we are just at the outset of understanding what this means for true engagement, great learning experiences, gathering perspectives and creating spaces for creativity.
Is it perfect? No. We are exhausted after a few hours on a screen. The digital divide is real and unfair. The new innovations will become integrated into big tech platforms and companies will rise and fall in this category.
Should we eschew in-person over virtual when public health is not an issue? No, not at all.
But there’s momentum in virtual collaboration. Tackling factors like the digital divide, climate change and business travel, more inclusive conversations, breaking the tyranny of geography, will all influence and propel this momentum. Whether Generation Z, currently the primary guinea pigs for virtual schooling, leaves the early 2020s with a hatred for virtual collaboration or a love of it remains to be seen (how post-secondary and public school system choose to innovate will be a factor).
This is exciting for communications and communicators, facilitators, strategists, and anyone thinking about engagement and collaboration. Relatively speaking, this is new. This is interesting. This is a good thing to keep pace with and think about.