Cyberspace is the only place anybody is meeting in these locked-down days and for some, it’s taking quite a bit of getting used to, from managing the technology to what to wear, or the concept of having to take turns to speak. If you’re working across cultures, virtual meetings can be even more complex as expectations and communication styles are different. But the conversation must go on. Here are a few pointers for a successful gathering.
Who should attend?
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should invite all and sundry to your virtual meeting. See the event as you would a face-to-face meeting, pre-lockdown. Are you wasting people’s time? Are they essential to your meeting? Could you achieve your goal without meeting at all?
Time zones are an issue when working across cultures. If these meetings are regular events and time zones are incompatible, spread the load. Someone will always be inconvenienced but you will avoid resentment building if you acknowledge the fact that not everybody wants to be summoned late in the evening, especially after a frustrating day of working from home.
Set an agenda
Virtual meetings can veer off the tracks all too easily. People are isolated in this new world of working from home, and are understandably excited to see colleagues on screen. Emotions can run high. Everybody may talk at once, especially in cultures like those of southern Europe, or South America, where animated, spontaneous conversation is the norm. So having an agenda is all the more important. Circulate it to everybody before the meeting. Be clear about what the goal of the meeting is. Work through the agenda, point by point. If you are dealing with cultures that work in a non-linear fashion – Middle Eastern, for example – you can still offer an agenda and work through it, but build in time for small talk and expect constant interruption, even in a virtual meeting.
In some cultures, like Germany and the US, communication is direct and relationship-building prior to a meeting is seen as unnecessary. In many others, though, among them Latin American, southern European, Middle Eastern and Asian, establishing trust is important prior to doing business. There is no harm in a cross-cultural meeting to go round the table quickly and allowing everybody to introduce themselves, or make a brief comment about what they are doing. In these times of social isolation, engagement on a personal level is all the more important.
Observe meeting etiquette
Depending on your relationship with the other attendees, it’s reasonable to ask for a few etiquette basics. Clearly, this doesn’t apply with clients and external suppliers, but it can help reduce frustration with internal meetings. Everybody should enable video. Just because you’re having a bad hair day, doesn’t mean you should come up on the gallery view as a black square. It’s disconcerting and deprives colleagues of seeing your body language. Anybody who is not talking should mute themselves so other attendees are not distracted by rustling, chewing or the sound of text messages pinging in.
Get set up properly
Anybody who has been in a virtual meeting for an hour will note how intense it can feel. There’s a sense of being under scrutiny far more than you would feel in a face-to-face meeting of the same length. So start the meeting in a comfortable position, with a suitably neutral background. If you’re in front of a shelf of books or a messy background, people will look at the books and the background, not at you. Have water to hand, and any notes or material you might need for the meeting. If you take a bathroom break, mute yourself before you leave the room. Cyberspace is awash with jokes of a recent virtual meeting by Vancouver City Council in which participants were distracted by the whoosh of a flushing toilet.
Rules of engagement
In a large meeting with people from different cultures, where interrupting a speaker may be seen as unthinkably rude, lay out the ‘rules’ before you start. For example, if somebody wants to speak, they should raise their hand. If a presentation is being made, should questions come afterwards or during the talk?
Make the most of the technology
Learn to operate the features of whatever software you are using to make the meeting more dynamic. Screen sharing, for example, or inviting live questions or discussion points via the ‘chat’ function. Annotate your notes or even send out a poll for instant engagement. Share files or a copy of your presentation before everybody leaves the meeting. Invite participants to record the meeting so that they can refer back to it; this can be especially helpful to attendees whose first language is not English.
Awkward silences seem even more pronounced in cross-cultural virtual meetings. Americans tend to be uncomfortable with silence and will try to fill it with talk. Asians see it as natural and a time to think. If you are the chair, don’t feel you have to fill every silence with chatter.
As it’s highly likely that not all participants will take in every point made, follow up with clear, written communication. Be consistent in what you ask for, from action points to sharing files and inviting comment. If the meeting has not gone well, or if you sense that somebody has felt left out, or not heard, there’s no harm at all in reverting to the old-fashioned technique of picking up the phone.
WRITTEN BY SUE BRYANT
Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.