Lessons From Our Virtual Business

Well, this just got real, didn’t it?

Colleges across the country are announcing plans to cancel in-person classes as “social distancing” and remote instructional methods become the new norm. Our firm has had two client visits and strategic planning retreats converted to Zoom interactions in just the last few days. We expect more hotel and plane cancellations in the weeks ahead as we work to modify our engagements and plan for long-distance communications and strategy sessions.

As we focus on the health and well-being of our communities and our campuses, we also understand the demands won’t stop. Faculty are training up to deliver previously classroom-based course materials online, and administrators are being asked to work from home.

That’s something we know a little bit about, since we have operated a company without a shared brick-and-mortar location for three and a half years now. We’re still learning, for sure, but here are some tips we’ve collected along the way about conducting business, hosting meetings and fostering meaningful professional interactions while working from a distance.

Digital tools are easier to use all the time: Today’s platforms are more intuitive than earlier iterations and enable a much deeper level of functionality and engagement than we would have imagined just a few years ago, whether it’s raising your hand in Zoom or contributing to a classroom discussion in a chat room. Those of us who work remotely share and file content in DropBox, talk face-to-face with Zoom or Go-to-Meeting, and foster inter-team communication with apps like Slack.

Phone conferences are just fine: We do a surprising amount of our client interaction and team planning on the phone. Our earlier experience included days on end of often back-to-back meetings in our university offices, so meetings by phone took a bit of adjusting to at first. It is helpful to have agendas pre-planned (but of course that’s true in person, too), use high-quality ear buds so note taking is more comfortable, and give yourself a break in between sessions.

Get your steps in: Working from home can be more sedentary. Frequent office activity such as getting up to chat over the proverbial water cooler or run down the hall for a check-in with a colleague isn’t in the picture, and we find we have to make more conscious efforts to mitigate effects for which your FitBit or Apple fitness watch will take you to task.

Before you hit “send,” consider picking up the phone instead. We often have several notifications going off at once: information is coming at us in texts, on social platforms, Facebook Messenger, and the deluge of hourly emails. Sometimes, it’s just a good idea to call people for a quick update or check-in. The time it takes to resolve an issue or polish up an idea is often less than a series of back-and-forth messages. Plus, the human contact is valuable in a work-at-home environment that sometimes can feel isolating.

Some of us need a designated work space to feel like we’re going to work: Even if it is a table in the guest room, a place where you “go to work” may help your focus.

 As you consider how best to conduct and facilitate meetings, here’s what we’re finding:

Plan for the lowest common denominator: Understand that your participants may have widely varying levels of access and technological savvy, and provide options for relatively low-tech engagement.

Shorten and simplify: People have less capacity to sit for a long time in an online environment. It’s also easier for them to drift away into checking email or distractions like folding the laundry. Because, you know, the laundry room is right there. By phone or video conference, more than two hours at one sitting is probably too much to ask.

All hail the “mute” button: As much as we love the Boston Terrier in our life, it’s an unprofessional distraction when Rocky barks at the UPS delivery truck during an important client conference call. It is a courtesy for participants in video or phone conferences to mute their speaker when they are not talking.

You don’t have to sacrifice interaction: Today’s technology offers many effective ways to engage with people, such as worksheets or surveys to fill out in advance and then discuss, chat features, participant input options and even small-group discussions. We used to think “distance” connoted passivity, but no longer.

Visuals matter: Especially if you are conducting business via phone only, consider how visuals can help mitigate the downsides of a disembodied voice. Even an emailed agenda that participants can have up on a screen will help. Also, you’ll want to think carefully about any content you’re showing and how to make that visually interesting, since visuals replace a lot of the personal interaction people are used to.

Provide clear instructions in advance:  For virtual group meetings, you can lower barriers to full participation by providing clear instructions well in advance. Accurate dial-information, passcodes, and guidance for how to utilize platform functions can make the event begin more quickly and run more efficiently and effectively.

Test, test, test…and have a backup plan: Even with current computer equipment and proper software, glitches can easily arise. Like, a lot. We practice and test in advance, and for important group meetings we devise backup plans in case participants have trouble accessing content or functionality for the event.

One thought on “Lessons From Our Virtual Business

  1. Greg Shea

    Excellent. Thanks for posting. I find these useful. I particularly “Buckle up for the next phase…” and I shared it with some colleagues of mine who sit on private HS boards. The insights are absolutely applicable.

    Be well. Stay safe and healthy.



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