Fully Remote: The Culture of Virtual Meetings

Fully Remote: The Culture of Virtual Meetings

Many firms across Europe and North America are switching to mandatory working from home. To make the new reality a success, video conferencing is essential.

In every disaster there is an opportunity. As Covid-19 rampages across Europe and North America, schools are shutting and workplaces lie empty. My own place of employment is no exception. The highlight of my past week was the company-wide email sent on Wednesday announcing a temporary mandatory work from home policy. Commuting by public transport over the past few weeks has been an extremely stressful experience for me, as opposed to the typical relaxing wind-up and wind-down. Simply getting into the office now feels like a significant risk.

Pandemics are not good for anyone, but there is definitely a silver lining for video conferencing firms. Zoom's share price has increased over the last month, bucking historically high falls on the New York Stock Exchange. Microsoft Teams usage has gone up 500% in China since January. As more of Europe gets locked down those numbers are only going to increase. For the next couple of months, remote working will be the norm.

Distributed Workforce

Not everyone can work from home. Doctors, teachers and front line workers can't. Most office based workers can though, and quite a few already do at least occasionally. Consequently, the transition to remote working isn't that disruptive for most businesses. Virtual meetings are hardly a new concept. Any multinational organisation will be holding tens or hundreds of conference calls daily.

That bias towards virtual meetings extends to smaller businesses too. Most of my client interaction is through GotoMeeting, Zoom or Skype. There are quite a few clients that I have never met in person. Heck, there are some CRMT employees that I've never met in person even though I interviewed them over Skype as part of the recruitment process.

It is far from unusual to encounter EMEA marketing teams distributed across the continent, with team members based in many different offices. Some of those people will work from home on a semi-regular basis because the people they deal with most regularly aren't in the same country let alone the same office. There is no reason why these people couldn't work from home all the time.

Cultural Resistance

The bigger impact will be the minority of businesses which strongly discourage remote working. Typically, these are organisations with a culture of presenteeism or with a strong preference for face to face meetings. The former is generally a bad thing but is quite common in some non-European countries. Sweeping it away will be a net benefit of the current crisis.

As for face to face meetings, they generally are more productive than virtual meetings. Humans are social creatures after all. People are typically far more open when discussing an issue face to face, although that can lead to diversions and off-topic interaction. Audio only communication cuts out the non verbal cues that are so important in building relationships and getting a genuine two way dialogue going. Instead, it leads to a more curtailed discussion and a lot less willingness to speak out. As such, more considered decisions are made when issues are discussed in person.

The Visual Medium

Video conferencing is often touted as the solution to this problem, and it definitely does help. The problem is getting everyone to use it consistently. Video conferencing quickly breaks down when more than one person switches off their camera, which can happen without constant reinforcement. That requires a company culture built on openness and video conferencing. There are plenty of companies in Silicon Valley do have a strong culture of always using webcams on conference calls. Even more don't, particularly in Europe where shyness and introversion are more common. Remote workers frequently find video conferencing inconvenient because it exposes some of the more casual habits inherent in working from home, such as not dressing for a work environment.

In a world where remote working is going to be the norm for the next three to four months, those concerns no longer matter. It can be very hard to adjust to remote working and the people doing it for the first time will see their productivity drop temporarily. The ability of video conferencing to develop inter-personal relationships and the enforced professionalism it demands are definite advantages. Company cultures are going to have to change to fit the norm of remote working, and once set those cultures aren't all going to go back to what they were. That will have implications far beyond the way meetings are conducted. For now, physical health and economic survival is the priority. No one cares much about cultural matters.

Written by
Marketing Operations Consultant and Solutions Architect at CRMT Digital specialising in marketing technology architecture. Advisor on marketing effectiveness and martech optimisation.