As leaders come to terms with the prospect of not being able to get their teams back into the office for face-to-face meetings for some months, it’s timely to reflect on what has been working well in on-line team meetings and what people are missing.

It’s remarkable how so many businesses who previously made very little use of Zoom, Microsoft Teams or other video conferencing tools have been able to move all their day to day management processes on-line during the last 6 months. Many leaders we talk to speak about how team meetings have become shorter and more efficient, and how as a result they’ve had more time for 1-to-1 conversations and getting to know team members on a more personal basis during lockdown. But the effort to keep motivation high through this extended and challenging period is a new priority for leaders.

Motivation is built from strong team relationships based on support and challenge. And it’s clear that this motivation is affected over time when meaningful conversations across the team are limited. Some topics are much harder for teams to discuss when everyone is on their own, staring at a screen, rather than sitting around a table with a cup of coffee. There are many reasons for this. On-screen conversations are more sequential, the time delays on a video call mean that people can’t rapidly build on each other’s ideas or talk over each other to hear multiple voices and perspectives at the same time. And whilst this can make for a calmer meeting – it can also mean that contentious topics and dissenting voices are easily overlooked. The difficulty of managing scale and holding the attention of a larger number of participants is another barrier to conversations about complex topics that have many different stakeholders and interdependencies. The typical tactic in a pre-Covid world of getting all the interested parties in a big room and keeping them there until everyone has had a chance to have their say and heard each other’s arguments doesn’t translate well to an on-screen meeting.

We’ve compiled a list of the sort of issues that have often NOT been discussed as deeply as they needed to be during the last 6 months of remote working, as a starting point for leaders when they are thinking about what needs prioritising in the months ahead.

  • Bringing new people and new roles into the team
    • Welcoming new joiners and helping them to understand individual personalities and team culture
    • Where some people have taken on new roles, how have others ‘made room’ for them – and where are possible overlaps or gaps at the boundaries?
    • New ambitions – people have had lots of time to reflect on their life goals. Do you know what the future ambitions are for people across your team?
  • Controversial subjects
    • It’s easier to avoid conflict in on-line conversations but that doesn’t mean it goes away. What are the controversial subjects you are not discussing as a team?
    • Is silo working getting stronger as people focus on their immediate team Are some people avoiding working together
    • Have leaders become more directive during the crisis and does that now have to change?
  • Complicated / multi-disciplinary topics
    • This could include questions on the size and shape for the organisation to fit new customer demands
    • Managing change – particularly when you can’t bring people together to discuss it
    • Managing performance – when much of this takes place out of the office
  • How we work as a collective leadership team in future
    • Handling hybrid meetings, paying particular attention to involving everyone across the team – as some people won’t be in the office for medical or other reasons – for some time
    • Ways of exercising consistent collective leading across the whole organisation when working remotely
    • Managing the different levels of fear that people will feel about coming back to the office
  • Difficult stakeholders or other external groups
    • Whilst in many ways it’s easier to invite people outside the organisation to join an online meeting without the time or expense of travel – it’s also easy to fall into the habit of keeping all your online contacts within your own circle and postponing wider cross organisational forums
    • Who have you been avoiding talking to?

All of these can be tackled with a combination of careful meeting design, 1-to-1 preparation and facilitation – but topics that have not been on the virtual Teams table for many months won’t get resolved with by magic – and the coherence and motivation of your own team is at stake if they continue to be avoided.