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Coping With Travel Restrictions: When Meeting Face to Face Matters, and What To Do When You Can’t

When the stakes are high and pressure is on, I recommend in-person meetings. That’s because we forge connections more easily with people we can see. But the reality is, meeting in person isn’t always possible. Business travel often gets dropped, due to weather, budget, politics, injury, family, or other pressing priorities.

Joining me in writing this month’s issue is Elise Keith, founder of Lucid Meetings. Here we talk about what criteria to use when deciding when you should push to meet in-person, and strategies for a great remote meeting when getting together in person just can’t happen.

We’ll start with a scenario. You have team members from around the world who are heading to HQ in just four days to hammer out details of an ambitious launch plan for a risky new product. Some team members are enthusiastic about the upcoming launch, while others have grave misgivings. Tensions are high and tempers are short as people start their final preparations for this two-day meeting.

Of the 20 team members, most know each other fairly well – but they’re not necessarily on the best terms. Many don’t know each other at all. Some are new to the organization, while others are firmly established.

Just as you’re about to log out for the day, you get an urgent IM from your boss: “Bad news. Company-wide travel ban just announced. Sorry. Please find another way to get launch plan done. Thanks!” You ponder your options.

Since this product is regarded as critical for the company’s fortunes, you may get an exception to this ban if you push hard. On the other hand, you don’t want your boss to have to go to bat for you unless it’s absolutely vital.

You’re giving yourself until 10 tonight to make your decision:  Can you achieve your goals virtually, or is it mandatory for this team to meet face to face?

Deciding whether you need to meet in person

Using our scenario as an example, we’ll look at a checklist of statements I created many years ago with my colleague Penny Pullan of Making Projects Work. Back then, we believed that if any of these statements were true, a face-to-face (F2F) meeting was mandatory. Today, it’s not as clear as to when an in-person meeting will achieve superior results over a virtual meeting. Elise and I revisited this original list of statements and concluded that in many cases, virtual meetings can get the job done at least as well as a F2F meeting. Here’s our updated take. What do you think? 

  1. We have just one chance to get this right. We cannot afford to get it wrong.

Virtual works!  A F2F meeting does not necessarily increase the likelihood that sound decisions will be made, or that people can suddenly reach unanimous agreement about a divisive idea. In fact, if the team leader divides the work into several smaller virtual meetings spread out over a few days, this team probably has a greater chance of creating a viable plan. “Rapid prototyping” can’t easily be done with everyone hunkered down in one room for long periods of time. Testing concepts and validating ideas is usually best done over a few days by multiple participants in different locations.

  1. Time is of the essence. This has to be done fast.

Virtual works!  It’s almost always easier and faster to convene people virtually than it is to assemble everyone in one physical location, especially when some have to travel long distances to get there. An added benefit of meeting virtually: More people can be involved when they need to be. By breaking down the work into smaller chunks that can be handled by subgroups working concurrently, this team can move faster, with greater agility. Careful planning is required, especially in making sure the various tasks and subgroups are integrated, and that all are working with the information they need at all times.

  1. A high degree of trust among team members is critical if we are to meet our objectives. 

Try to meet F2F. Given the lack of healthy pre-existing relationships across the team, this meeting should take place in person. With a contentious conversation expected and so much riding on a successful outcome, this is a case where a face-to-face conversation seems essential.

  1. In-depth conversations are necessary for us to make well-informed decisions and reach agreement.

It depends. Generally speaking, if all 20 people on a team need to be involved in discussions relating to the creation of this launch plan, then a F2F venue will give the team leader more latitude to set up the needed conversations. For example, the leader can assign subgroups to certain tasks, followed by a large-group debrief, followed by another small group task, etc., throughout the two days. If, however, segments of work can be assigned to small groups that can work on tasks independently, such work may be done just as well virtually. In either case, an online conference space can help people prepare for the needed conversations, whether it’s to weigh in, post important background information, ask questions, etc.

  1. Topics of discussion are contentious, or may cause conflict or evoke emotion. 

Try to meet F2F. In this case, we know that the team is polarized as to whether to even go ahead with this risky product. We also know that tensions are already high and tempers are short. Given the importance of the outcome to the company’s fortunes, and given that existing relationships could use some repairing, meeting F2F is the surest way to resolve conflicts, achieve intended outcomes, and along the way, cultivate stronger relationships. (See #3, related, above).

  1. Tapping the enthusiasm and energy of all participants will be important for us to achieve our goals.

It depends. If people are already jazzed about working together on a shared goal, then setting up a productive virtual work environment to meet an ambitious deadline should work out well. However, if some team members show lackluster support (or worse, stand in outright opposition), then pulling them together in one place at one time, especially when the clock is ticking, may be your only hope to garner the enthusiastic support of everyone. (And even then, you’ll need to design conversations very thoughtfully!)

  1. Creative brainstorming and problem-solving will be central to our discussion.

It depends. In-person meetings do not always yield better or more ideas than can be done either independently, or by working with others virtually. In fact, by using a virtual conference area either before or during almost any kind of meeting, you can gather up many more ideas, in less time, than you might otherwise do with 20 people in one room. Many of today’s virtual meeting tools make it easy and fast to brainstorm, either asynchronously or synchronously, and then rank and vote. If you’re planning a very specific kind of brainstorm that relies on people using a large physical space, you may need to meet in person. As with any brainstorming session, be prepared to inject some kind of stimulus to prompt ideas, whether it’s a visual or a series of provocative questions.

  1. To accomplish our goals, we must be absolutely sure we’re on the same page. Any instances of misalignment can be catastrophic.

Try to meet F2F. In a virtual world, it can be really tough to detect misunderstandings, unrealistic expectations, or different operating assumptions – until it’s too late. In the case of a make-or-break project, with team members representing different cultures, time zones, and native languages, the potential for misunderstandings or misalignment will be very high. Having people work side by side during this crucial phase is essential.

  1. Some team members balk at using technology to mediate important conversations, and strongly prefer being F2F.

Virtual works! This may represent a great and teachable moment for those who categorically dismiss virtual meetings as not being “as real as F2F.” It will be up to the meeting leader to make sure that everyone has easy access to the given technology and that all feel comfortable using it. This may mean giving people a private demo session in advance, or at minimum, asking them to test the links and go through a demo on their own. Use only the features that you really need to achieve your goals. Who knows? This meeting could be a turning point for those who thought that meeting technology was not for them!

  1. Many team members frequently come to virtual meetings unprepared, lose focus easily and participate very little, despite frequent encouragement.

Try to meet F2F. If key team members continually show up to virtual meetings unprepared or unwilling to participate fully, despite encouragement and cajoling, they’re likely to continue that pattern. While you may be able to help change their ways with some 1:1 outreach, you will have better luck keeping everyone focused and participating if you’re all in the same room, and you don’t have to combat bad online habits. An option to consider: Ask the non-participants to provide input another way, and leave them out of the virtual meeting so their lack of participation is not a drag on the conversation.

Going back to our scenario, we would recommend that our hero try to make the case to her boss for an in-person meeting. Sadly, the answer is likely to be “No.” Since canceling the meeting isn’t an option, she will have to plan carefully to overcome the challenges imposed by the travel ban. Happily, she can meet most of her objectives through the use of a series of virtual meetings, following this checklist of strategies and tips designed to increase the chances of success when complex, sensitive conversations must take place virtually.

Links

Here are a few links to get you started. Download our checklist for many more helpful links.

Related Communiques from Guided Insights:

Related links from Lucid Meetings: