How to Make Virtual Engagement Easy

How Are Virtual Meetings Different From Face-To-Face Meetings?

How Are Virtual Meetings Different From Face-To-Face Meetings?

7 Differences—and 1 Key Similarity

With awareness of key differences and similarities, we can design better meetings. My job is working with some of the most intelligent and innovative companies and universities to help make connection and engagement easy. When that happens, meetings and events come alive. But to do this, we must first understand how virtual and face-to-face meetings are different. 

Both have their advantages and disadvantages. So whether you meet online or in person, where you compare the two, it’s kind of like teleportation gone wrong. You lose some things—like you might end up missing a limb. But you gain others, like arriving to find you have an extra finger. In reality, each offers something that the other doesn’t.

It’s important as well to recognize that there’s one overriding similarity whether you’re meeting face-to-face or online. This is something we can harness to make our meetings more engaging, impactful and effective. But before we get to that similarity, let’s first cover the seven ways meeting virtually and in-person is different.

What’s Different

1. In virtual meetings, we only see heads.

Unlike in-person meetings, there is far less shared context in virtual meetings.  Online, we are just talking (or silent) heads, give or take our shoulders and hands coming into the frame on occasion. Sure, that’s a playful difference. But it speaks to the fact that you have a whole lot less shared context to start with in virtual meetings.

2. When you meet in person, you have more nonverbal clues and insight.

There’s a whole lot less nonverbal context while remote. You can’t see how everyone is reacting to what you’re discussing. You miss the smiles and the eye rolls.

On the other hand, research done at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that we are getting eye contact and “face time” in overdrive in a virtual environment. We are used to having more to look at than somebody’s nose hairs. 

3. In virtual meetings, participants can mute themselves.

That’s not really an option for an in-person meeting. When others are on mute, you miss all the context. If you’re sharing something as a leader, the meeting facilitator or a trainer, you can’t hear the chuckles or the side conversations. Whether others are on mute or unmuted makes a big difference.

4. When you meet virtually, you have a fridge.

That allows you to procrastinate and eat lots of food when you don’t want to do work. When you meet in person, you’re kind of trapped and present. You have no fridge. We have to acknowledge that we have distractions at home. Accordingly, we’ve got to be intentional about how we carve out space and time to be present. 

That’s not to say working remotely doesn’t have its advantages. Maybe you get to have lunch with your kids or your spouse, or your dog or, say, your lizard. 

5. Working at home, you can use your world to connect.

When you’re virtual, you are surrounded by everything in your world. You have a different kind of personal context that you don’t have when you’re in an office or meet in person.

In a face-to-face meeting, I can’t ask you to grab an object that represents a part of who you are. Right now, since I’m at home, I can quickly grab a picture of Otto, my son, who was born not so long ago on Jan. 1, 2020. I couldn’t do that quite as easily if we met in a conference room.

When we meet virtually while working from home, there are lots of creative ways we can use people’s spaces. Invite people to leave their virtual bubble to go grab something that represents a topic they want to share or their takeaway from the meeting. Incorporating these kinds of analog visuals, and inviting movement and activity, can increase meeting engagement. The rest of this book is piled high with ideas to do just that! 

With face-to-face meetings, you’re stuck with what you have, or what you bring to the meeting. If you’re in an office or classroom, all you have to work with is what’s in that space. I think this is why some people describe their workplace environment as a bit stale. 

6. In person, we have organic connection.

When we meet in-person, people show up a couple minutes early. We have side conversations. An organization’s culture develops at the water cooler.

Virtually, we’re in a vacuum until whenever the meeting starts. Then we click the link and we pop into our little portal. We lose that organic connection. But we can be more intentional about how we connect.

I think and write a lot about connection. That’s why I created the We! Connection Toolkit. It’s designed to amplify connection, belonging and trust with a whole heap of activities and novel group exercises. 

I know how important connection is. A mountain of research says if we don’t connect, engagement, morale and productivity all go way down. So when we’re working and meeting remotely, it’s really important to build in time for that connection before we jump into content. 

But we also need to be intentional about how we connect. We can’t just rely on the idle chit-chat and small talk that some people, especially introverts, dread. Instead, start off the meeting with more meaningful, intentional prompts, questions or exercises. 

7. Virtually, it’s easy to use visuals.

Consider starting your meeting with an idea or quote. We have one quote in the We! Connection Toolkit, for example, from Alan Alda: “Listening is being able to be changed by the other person.” I can share that really easily just by holding up the card with the quote. And you can do the same. Then ask what everyone thinks of that quote or idea. 

In person, visuals often require more work. I need to print handouts or write something on a whiteboard.

But virtually, we can easily use analog visuals to make our content come alive. This method is almost like magic because you can make anything outside the range of your camera simply appear in the blink of an eye. When used well, this approach can be extremely engaging for attendees. 

A Key Similarity

For all the ways virtual and face-to-face meetings differ, there’s one really important similarity: the purpose. This is the reason we’re coming together, and it’s the same whether we’re online or in the same room.

I think we do ourselves a disservice when we let logistical concerns trip us up. We can spend too much time and energy trying to convert face-to-face meetings into virtual ones. We should instead ask ourselves how we can creatively accomplish our purpose. What can we do even better virtually?

That means using the space around us and the access people have to the internet. The entire world of information is a single click away when you’re on a video call. Also, use the chat. When you’re meeting virtually, everyone can speak and listen to each other at the exact same time in the chat. 

At the beginning of a meeting, everyone can introduce themselves in under 30 seconds using chat. In person, that might take 15 or 20 minutes to get around the room. When we’re introducing ourselves one at a time, we’re focused on ourselves. It’s very hard to actually hear anybody around us. When we’re meeting virtually, everyone can quickly type their intro into the chat. Then they can scroll up the chat and focus on the group. We can flip that perspective from me, me, me to a focus on others. You can actually accelerate your purpose and conversations online, although it does take a bit of additional structure or facilitation. 

Brainstorming 101 is to come up with ideas alone first and together second. Virtually you can have everyone type their idea for a particular project or task into the chat without pressing enter. Then have everyone press enter to share their ideas at the same time. This is a great way to avoid groupthink. 

That’s much harder to do in person. You’ve got to get sticky notes, which can get messy. Then you have to think about how you’re going to capture the ideas that are jotted down on the sticky notes.

Ultimately, there are a lot of advantages and disadvantages to meeting both virtually and in person. You can’t replace that context or shared experience you have when you meet face to face. 

It’s better then, as Priya Parker’s suggests in The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, to focus instead on meeting for purpose rather than time. Think about why you’re meeting. Then consider how you can use the tools and the differences we discussed to make your meeting come alive and accomplish your goals.

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