We all know that virtual communication is just not the same as face-to-face communication. And I think we can all agree that virtual interactions can often feel lesser than if they were otherwise carried out face-to-face.
As the Lead Manager for the M-Files Enablement and Training organization, I know these differences very well. Long before the coronavirus pandemic, our team had been tasked with creating engaging, proactive, and productive learning experiences — whether they are face-to-face or remote. And while there are undeniable benefits to face-to-face interactions, I also know that virtual interactions can be just as effective depending on how you approach it.
Whether it’s a meeting, training event, or a webinar, all communication depends on active engagement. If a participant is disengaged — either not contributing dialogue or not listening actively — then communication efforts will not succeed.
In my career as an end-user trainer, I have spent a lot of time figuring out how to get people to properly engage with a subject or activity, even if they aren’t motivated to do so. I can attest that cultivating engagement is much easier in face-to-face settings.
When you’re interacting with someone face-to-face, there’s a social obligation to engage and be present at all times. There’s another person in front of you trying to interact with you and it would be impolite not to respond or engage. Therefore, in face-to-face interactions, it’s inherently easier to demand engagement if you’re running the show, because people already feel obligated to do so out of courtesy. It’s also easier to keep up the levels of engagement in person because there’s real-time feedback through body language and other subtle cues. You can gauge engagement and shift communications accordingly by determining if participants are looking at the speakers, shaking their head, or vocally signifying that they’re registering and engaging with what others are saying.
In virtual sessions, particularly without webcams, all of these cues are missing and there’s no social obligation to engage. In fact, many people find it easy to disengage in virtual sessions because there’s a lot in their reach they can be distracted with and there’s no one there demanding that they engage.
The lack of cues and body language can also be very disorienting when shifting from in-person to virtual communication settings, especially if you’re leading a group, because you have no way of knowing how others are receiving what you’re saying unless they indicate so in the chat box or turn on their mic and vocalize it.
To sum up this point, there’s a lot that’s missing from virtual communication, namely the courtesy and obligation to engage. This is important to recognize as we proceed in this new way of working, because in order to keep the same levels of engagement in our remote communication, we have to approach virtual communication in a different way in order to compensate for what’s missing.
Let’s get the obvious recommendation out of the way. Webcams… Turn them on. Or, at least, the main speaker, facilitator or presenter should have their webcam on. When the camera is on, there’s internal pressure to participate and stay focused. This already creates a greater obligation to engage and gives a better sense of person-to-person interaction.
However, I also recognize that in some circumstances, webcams are not feasible and certain people prefer to do without them. So, the following points offer options for promoting engagement in virtual communication without cameras.
Another way to promote engagement in virtual settings is to restructure the dialogue. As mentioned before, if you can’t see the people you’re communicating with, then you’re missing a lot of crucial communication feedback. Therefore, if you’re monologuing or info sharing in a virtual meeting with no webcams, schedule regular questions or check-ins to make sure everyone is understanding, following, and engaging with the topic. You can also tie in reflective questions or activities to ensure that participants are active in their engagement.
One of the upsides to virtual communication is that you can prompt participants to check in using methods that don’t require vocal participation, like using the meeting chat window. In our team meetings, I often ask participants to weigh in on a certain topic by offering feedback in the chat window, like using a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. This also offers more introverted participants a way of voicing their ideas, questions, or perspectives in a way that they’re more comfortable with.
As a trainer, I admit implementing regular check-ins is best practice in general communication, because learning requires active involvement in information. So, I recommend making this a habit not only in your virtual communication, but in your overall communication style.
People perk up and automatically engage when they come across information that’s relevant to their interests or work. Every teacher or trainer knows this well and part of the pedagogical process is fostering a connection between what we’re trying to teach with what they’re interested in or already know.
So, this is particularly important to recognize when you’re the main speaker or presenter in a virtual setting. To cultivate more engagement, I recommend that you package your message directly to the audience and connect your message to them.
People will only listen to the how to do it after they have understood the what’s going on and why is this relevant. So, instead of just explaining the what, also explain the why. You can do this by using certain packaging cues:
For me, this is a must for every meeting ever, but allow me to elaborate why this is particularly crucial when it comes to virtual interactions. It’s simple. People won’t engage if they don’t know how they are expected to engage. It’s important in virtual meetings to eliminate any ambiguity on why this session is happening and why everyone has been invited to participate. The easiest way you can do this is to express clearly in the meeting invite the purpose of the session, what you’re hoping to achieve, and what you’re expecting from everyone involved.
Here’s a sample invitation:
The purpose of this meeting is to answer questions that guide planning of the future training event. The answers will give me information to create the training event plan (including agenda and timeline) that you can then add to the calendar invites sent to all participants. This meeting is solely for discussion. We will not create the plans in this session, but I will send them to you the next day for review.
Please prepare to answer the following questions in our session:
- Who are the people in the need of the training?
- What is their prior knowledge of M-Files and what tasks do they do regularly with M-Files now?
- How many people need training?
- What is the future like after the training event?
- What will people be doing differently after this training event?
- What will people be doing on their own after this training event?
- What will people know after this training event?
- What topics do you wish to be covered in the training event?
- When do you wish to have this training event?
This sample invitation expresses clearly why this meeting is happening, everyone’s role, and what the facilitator is hoping to achieve. With this level of clarity, the expectations of engagement are set with little ambiguity.
There’s more on this, especially when it comes to business-critical interactions with customers…
I have spent a lot of my career cultivating and fostering engagement in events. So, when COVID 19 changed work environments and shifted business-critical interactions to virtual spaces, I saw it as an opportunity to put my experience to work.
Virtual communication has shifted from a nice-to-have to a must-be-done to keep business afloat. And for companies in industries where customer experience is everything, it’s important to actively strategize and rethink approaches to virtual communication to ensure there are no compromises on customer service.
For that reason, I facilitated several workshops at M-Files to figure out some best practices for maintaining high-quality customer experiences from the home office. I invite you to check out the results of our workshops in the short video below, and learn the M-Files way of engaging the customer in high-value experiences and interactions virtually from home.