Virtual can’t be better than in-person, right? Incorrect. Here’s a guide.


One of the major themes, discussions, and arguments about the shift to more remote work and hybrid models has been the idea that you cannot innovate or do things properly in a largely-virtual environment. As noted by Ed Zitron in his work-related newsletter:

One of the classic anti-remote defenses is that remote work doesn’t allow you to make deep and meaningful relationships online. The Wall Street Journal article I wrote about yesterday spoke of “forging deeper relationships” in person, a Tribune article talked of the “sense of belonging” that in-person work gives, and the BBC quotes experts speaking of “deeper, more collaborative relationships with colleagues” that come from in-person communication, all of which is mostly just accepted without criticism or consideration.

It all boils down to one major point: that digital communication cannot build meaningful, lasting, in-depth relationships with those you know, and I would like to offer a counter-argument: yes, it can.

One of our seminal pieces of the last 6-12 months is about flawed hybrid work assumptions and biases, and we covered the same topic in that piece. You absolutely can be innovate if you’re increasingly virtual. You can drive product decisions. You can be entrepreneurial. You can be engaging and develop relationships. It’s all very much possible.

Here now: a guide to doing the virtual right.

Reduce your distance bias

More pre-work for meetings: Have the owner of the meeting create a memo or document explaining the purpose of the meeting and the goals/action items. Make it a shared document so that people can leave thoughts beforehand, and then address those thoughts in the back-half of the actual meeting. It’ll remind people, Oh hey, Kathy is in this meeting, and help minimize their bias. Not to mention, when people are prepared, the quality of the meeting is better.

“Farthest Person First:” Ask for feedback on the point of the meeting and goals from the farthest person (away from HQ/core) first. Any other initial weigh-ins or opinion solicitations can be done in reverse mileage from HQ, to avoid distance bias. When you return to in-office or hybrid, keep this model going.

For the in-person participants, use a white board to list who is on the phone/video component of the call: Sounds basic, and it is, but you’ve definitely sat in meetings and thought 35 minutes in, “Oh, Craig is on this call?”

Roll with us: We have solutions on mitigating bias and creating more collaborative, creative, connected teams. Both go directly into helping people feel more included and valued, both traits to foster in the new hybrid work model.

Avoid four common mistakes of virtual learning

Mistake #1: Running online learning sessions of 2 to 4 hours in length. Anyone who’s ever had to sit through a long university lecture knows that the brain loses focus quickly. When learning sessions are long, learning is low, since participants are unable to pay attention for hours on end at the level needed for strong memory encoding to occur.

The solution: For virtual learning to be effective, sessions should be 50 or 55 minutes long. But that doesn’t mean the learning itself is shallow. When learning is designed well, learners can achieve intense insights in short periods of time.

Mistake #2: Cramming learning into a single session or week. Most learning programs attempt to cram as much learning as possible into a short period. Back when most learning occurred in person, that approach made more sense, given the costs of reserving physical space and the time required for facilitators and participants to commute to the location. But virtual learning makes it easy to space sessions out over time without incurring extra costs. Since no commuting is required, it’s easy to break learning up over multiple sessions on different days.

The solution: Organizations should make virtual learning sessions shorter and allow more time in between, stretching learning out over three weeks or more. The result is powerful learning that’s far more effective than a single session could ever be, because of the spacing effect. It also allows you to make learning more social, a critical factor for success, as we go into next.

Mistake #3: Failing to make learning social. Most learning programs are content to let participants walk out the door and not give material another thought until they return for the next session, if there even is a next session. This is a squandered opportunity to leverage the power of social learning.

The solution: To maximize recall, learning programs should engage participants’ social networks every week, encouraging them to share what they’ve learned with teammates, friends, and family. By connecting learning material to social interactions, participants link new ideas to the brain’s social memory network, resulting in better recall later on.

And, the effect of thinking other people might be watching you creates positive social pressure. When learning is social, learners encode more richly, recall more easily, and act more often.

Mistake #4: Designing for Net Promoter Score instead of behavior change. Most learning programs are designed to be fun and popular. But since effective learning is effortful, such programs are often ineffective. In fact, learning that really sticks tends to involve making people feel mildly uncomfortable, given this means participants likely experienced strong emotions.

The solution: Rather than trying to create content people will like, focus instead on activating habits. That means not just teaching skills, but also gauging a program’s effectiveness by measuring change—as NLI does with the Behavior Change Percentage metric.

Understand the logistics and behaviors of successful virtual meetings

  • Turn on your video, and encourage everyone to do so if they are able to. This builds relatedness and connections and helps mitigate distance bias.
  • Start with a ‘human’ check-in and show genuine warmth. Keeping people at arm’s length feels formal. When virtual, pull your sliding scale of social distancing in closer.
  • Provide certainty. Share your intent before asking for input. Let the attendees know they are important and you will interact with everyone regularly throughout the meeting.
  • If possible, share the agenda ahead of time so those who want to can prepare if needed. If there is a big decision to be made, allow people to think about it before the meeting. And pay attention to the volume of agenda items—consider quality vs. quantity.
  • Adopt the mindset of inclusion. Plan on hearing from everyone, not just the most outspoken. See the attendees as a source of learning instead of competition or threat.
  • As the meeting leader, lower your status a bit to encourage more participation. Ask questions more than you give instructions. Provide choices to give a sense of autonomy. Give your opinion after others have shared theirs.
  • Don’t cut people off. Let them finish their thought. It can be hard to do, especially in a virtual environment, but coming in over the top of them says you don’t care enough to listen. If someone is taking more time than expected, when they take a breath say something like, “We will need to move on so the next person can share.”
  • Build psychological safety. Allow space for people to think out loud and create habits for sharing mistakes. Also, make people feel valued even if their answer isn’t what you were expecting. Respond with a genuine positive remark like, “Wow, that’s an interesting connection,” and show curiosity by asking for more info. Remember, how you handle these situations determines if people will contribute to the rest of the meeting.

In 1-on-1 virtual meetings, focus on quality and insight, not deadlines and tasks

In a few weeks, you might be sitting next to people you haven’t seen in 15 months except on video calls; in other cases, you might have a new teammate in Poland who was an elite find for the organization — and you may never meet him, but now you’re in the trenches together.

Things are vastly different. You need a growth mindset to help get through that, and manage stress.

The good news: growth mindset can be developed over a short period of time, and you can inspire your team to constantly learn and develop new skills. We talk often these days of “up-skilling” or “re-skilling,” but many of those programs have very low success rates. Instilling a growth mindset in your people over time, through small repeatable actions, is a better approach — and an essential need for managers post-COVID.

Employees and managers alike can grow through quality conversations. Try opening a dialogue with a direct report by discussing where they see their career in three years, or bounce some executive-level strategy off them and get their take. If you have a mix of in-person and virtual, adopt a “one virtual, all virtual” rule which means no people can be together, even if they’re in the same office. It cuts down on exclusion, clique-y behavior, side conversations, etc. and helps to make the at-home people (the virtual ones) feel less left out. Work on having quality meetings as well: memos to open and parallel processing review (everyone works on the same document for 10 minutes, then comes back to discuss it). Quality conversations and meetings help teams grow.

Help your employees maximize their cognitive capacity

Some strategies:

  • Schedule frequent breaks and actually follow through (ditto for vacations)
  • Institute “speedy meetings” and put Parkinson’s Law to work—while you relax
  • Provide options for flexible and remote work approaches
  • Practice optimal inclusion to decrease inefficiency and conserve others’ time
  • Unplug completely at day’s end to decrease stress after hours
  • Leverage technology to work more efficiently
  • Carve out quiet reflection time at the end of team meetings

Remember: it can be done and has been done

2020 was tough. 2021 has been tough. But many companies have survived, and some have even thrived. It’s not the best time to be in hospitality, no — although that too is coming back! But many companies have seen a 2020-21 period with great returns, more employee autonomy, and the tech and logistics to support mostly-virtual knowledge work. It can be done. Human interaction is crucial, and that needs to be a part of your strategy when it’s safe and responsible and bringing people together won’t escalate threat reactions and emotions. For now, though, you can achieve greatness in a predominantly virtual setting. It’s entirely possible!

Author: Ted Bauer

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