Keeping Virtual Teams Focused In The Pandemic Era

Well, a-lot has changed in the last few months. I don’t want to be cliched by saying this, but we are now officially living in ‘unprecedented’ and dynamic times. Economies have tumbled, organisations that relied on open office spaces and hot desking as modes of productivity have switched entirely to distributed and virtual working from home. Not to forget, other words in the mainstream have surfaced with strong degrees of truth, such as the fact that the need to adapt and pivot business models is more important now than ever! Re-inventing the value chain within executive teams now occur virtually, involve everyone in the organisation and virtual meeting toll Zoom has definitely inherited some great PR, user adoption and a booming share price as a result!

This article outlines some simple principles that have been based on how Nature’s team work and transplanting them in ways to stay focused in virtual meetings. Personally, I never logged into Zoom prior to the global pandemic as my user adoption trajectory favours platforms that unify productivity apps within collaboration, communication and project management tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams and JIRA CORE.

Zoom, however due to its ease of use and platform agnostic deployment, is now well ensconced within many companies virtual meeting arsenal. You can say that Zoom has how replaced the conference table everywhere. However, with that said, it’s important that we do not zoom out in any form or manner when engaged in virtual meetings and stay on point, committed and fixated on driving and creating purpose and value.
The rise of virtual meetings has, however, also had its concerns as humans miss the face to face social element..

Betsy Morris from the Wall Street Journal argues that “the biochemistry of communication likely changes” during virtual meetings as human beings are fundamentally social in Nature and yearn for that face to face interaction. The article goes on to further contest that the absence of face to face interaction is resulting in the “sudden mass adoption of technology [which] disrupting the normal, instinctual and finely-tuned way of communicating that developed to help humans survive”.

Whilst meeting face to face is important, virtual teams and collaboration technologies will always coalesce and this will mean teams will need to find simple methods and frameworks to stay focused. The use of video, avatars and backgrounds can enhance the soft skills element and often break the ice (something that is always needed in physical face to face meetings anyway to create alignment)

So how do you stay focused for example in a Zoom meeting where, in aggregate:

  1. There are many participants, some with virtual backgrounds, fancy workstations with a tonne of books (or even those dialling in wearing their pyjamas)
  2. Attendees are geographically dispersed and timezone agnostic , hence they may not all be in their ‘productivity zone’
  3. Presence of a significant degree of cultural variance, especially in the current era where those whom were probably never interacted face to face are now meeting virtually meeting.

Point 3 is actually relevant in the context of the learning organisation, as it’s a foundational method to break silos and involve intra and cross company collaboration by the way!
As meetings are about discussing outcomes, in a virtual setting, how do we do this despite the variances in attendees, locations and culture ?

As Ken Thompson outlines, “Good operational meetings, whether co-located or virtual, are the engine of organisational and project governance. However often their success is left totally to chance”. A series of recommendations are outlined in the article itself but the one stands out for me which is based on etiquettes and processes used in aviation.

The term ‘sterile cockpit’ is relevant here for virtual meetings and can be borrowed to foster focus. For example, during critical phases in a flight such as take-offs, change of altitude, headings and landings; the flight crew follow a checklist vigorously and nothing else is discussed. Important matters that may arise spontaneously are put on the back-burner, and not disusssed until later as this distressed focus on the objective at hand. Basically, Thompson says “In operational meetings this means stick to the agenda”.
Offcourse not all meetings have detailed agendas as they may be emergency taskforces or those that are in fact about making agendas (for a focused meeting itself)!
Nevertheless, keeping some kind of overall purpose context and goal of meeting written down is prudent. In the lens of Biomimicry, it is possible for organisational teams to stay committed on outcome driven objectives and relate it to their team purpose (inside and outside meetings as well). This, coupled with other frameworks such as the CAMP model for building high performing teams and a communication methodology that draws from Bioteams (studying Nature’s team and learning from them to make human teams work more effectively and in a high performing manner) will help to unify and streamline meetings with collaboration tools that will reduce any clutter and mission drift – both of which are waste and should not be entertained at all, especially where no explicit agenda was defined prior to the meeting no matter how brief!

There are many frameworks and models, some organisational endemic whilst others being rooted on academic theory that can assist any enterprise in becoming more effective in focusing and engaging virtual meetings in the current era.
Indeed, creating this capability company wide can be a challenge and a change management project in its own right, and larger organisations should consider looking into gamification and simulations to train, prime and nurture high performing teams. Equally important though, is motivating teams in the first instance, as discussed in this article. Now, before you go on that Zoom or Teams or Skype call again, think about the importance of an agenda, especially if you are working on an operational mandate, at its most fundamental level!

  • Morris, B. (2020, May 27). Why Does Zoom Exhaust You? Science Has an Answer. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from