With contributions from Sarena Ehrlich, Annika Hoy, and Heejae Park.

The Art of the Virtual Meeting

In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, many companies have announced new or enhanced work-from-home policies and guidelines focused on keeping their employees safe and healthy. For a number of people, working from home is something they’re already accustomed to; but for many, suddenly having your dining table pull double duty as your desk can be a disruption. To help you get the most out of remote working, the CBRE Workplace practice has put together a multi-part series to help you stay productive wherever you work.

Key Takeaways

  • Determine if your communication is best positioned as instant message, email, or phone call
  • Encourage participants to use video. Read body language, dress appropriately, and generally be present and respectful as you would if you were in-person
  • Define speaking protocols, use chat features to solicit questions and leveraging additional technologies to storyboard, visualize, and poll attendees
  • Prepare for virtual collaborations by setting the tone, establishing speakers and roles, engaging your audience and defining the outcomes and next steps

Covering the Basics

With more people working remotely, it’s important to communicate regularly to minimize frustration and isolation. Reaching out more frequently to colleagues, managers, and direct reports for one-on-one check-ins can replicate water-cooler talk and ensure that somewhat serendipitous interactions can still take place. There are seemingly infinite ways to communicate with your colleagues, so determining which communication mode to use may feel overwhelming. Should you email or instant message? Does anyone still talk on the phone? In order to make your connections productive and meaningful, setting some guidelines for communications can be helpful.

  • Instant Messaging: IMs are great for simple, internal asks that need an immediate response. Keep IMs short, informal, and focused. If you’re working on a project team, instant messaging the project group avoids the dreaded reply-all avalanche. Don’t forget to check the recipient’s status before hitting send if you are expecting an immediate reply – they may be in a meeting or in do-not-disturb mode.
  • Email: Emails are better suited for internal requests across multiple departments or to communicate with external partners, especially when a (digital) paper trail would be prudent or when attachments are needed. Project updates, contract negotiations, and meeting scheduling all benefit from the formality and documentation of email. Remember to make use of the cc and bcc functions depending on who needs to be visibly or invisibly in-the-know.
  • Phone: Too often we default to email or other electronic communications, but sometimes the best option is to speak directly to someone. Direct voice communication (whether phone or video) can eliminate text misinterpretations, best convey tone and more quickly solve problems that require long explanations. And don’t forget to be prepared to leave a voicemail if you are calling someone impromptu. Voicemail messages are best when they are short, clearly articulate who is calling and why, and indicate how and when the recipient can best reach you.

The Art of the Virtual Meeting

Let’s start with avoiding the pain of a poorly executed conference call – background noise, disorganization, people talking over each other. With thoughtful preparation and leveraging the full capabilities of digital tools, your next virtual meeting can be a success.

  • Use Video: Making the most of a virtual meeting means turning on the video camera. Having eye contact and reading body language allows for a more natural conversation just like if you were face-to-face. Take a moment to ask everyone to do that at the beginning of the call and include that as the expectation in the meeting invite itself so people are prepared. As an added advantage, video-enabled meetings reduce the tendency to multitask and keep participants engaged. A couple best practices will ensure the best visual experience possible:
    1. Pay attention to your surroundings: It’s important to have a distraction-free background (hide your dirty laundry), adequate lighting (back-lighting will make you look like you’re in the witness protection program), and a quiet environment (no barking dogs).
    2. Dress like a professional: Though you may be tempted to dress down during a virtual meeting, remain aware of the standard dress code of your organization. Presenting yourself in the same manner you would in person indicates a consistent professionalism and respect for your audience. Feel free to pair a smart blazer with your pajama bottoms but beware the temptation to stand up while your video is on to avoid a fashion faux pas.
    3. Be aware of non-verbal cues: Similar to an in-person meeting, expressions and body language are signals to everyone on a video call. Take note of how others are reacting to your message and tone and conversely, be mindful of your own non-verbal signals convey respect and attentiveness.
  • Establish Speaking Protocols: In virtual meetings with less than 4 people, it’s relatively easy to find the right flow of conversation, but what happens when a large team needs to meet via a video or conference call? Not everyone will be enthusiastic about participating in large discussions and the chaos caused by less shy teammates all trying to speak at once could derail your meeting. To ensure everyone has time to contribute their thoughts, follow these tips:
    1. Solicit digital feedback: Rather than permitting participants to shout-out questions, leverage the chat features within the video conferencing/screen sharing software or set up an open comment survey to allow leaders to respond to questions when appropriate without interruption.
    2. Strategically select contributors: Having a clear meeting leader who will call on specific people for certain questions will ensure organization and time management. This doesn’t mean cold calling the person who looks like they’re not paying attention, but rather calling on the team newbie who looks excited, but maybe not brave enough to jump in, or on the experienced veteran who most definitely has an opinion on a topic.
  • Prepare: Expect that setting up a virtual meeting for anything more complicated than a status update will require more prep work if you hope to maintain efficacy and engagement, especially if you are convening a large group. Some things to consider when preparing:
    1. Have an agenda: For facilitators, develop a plan for how you’ll lead activities and discussions, record comments, and potentially organize them on the spot. Establishing action items and identifying responsibilities will help you close the meeting knowing that work will move forward.
    2. Encourage engagement: Supplement your standard presentation deck with interactive activities and tools to keep your audiences actively listening and participating. Online whiteboard tools and mobile polls with live visualization can bolster your virtual arsenal. Examples of these are Miro and Mentimeter1.
    3. Know your role: Be sure to assign distinct roles to meeting leaders and participants so that there are clear speakers and scribes.
  • Curb Side-Conversations: Travel restrictions may result in strange quasi-virtual meetings in which smaller local teams gather together in-person to connect virtually with similar teams in other offices. In these situations, it can be tempting push the mute button and indulge in side-conversations that may or may not be relevant to the topic of the meeting. Although no one appreciates background noise and the mute button should be used strategically for etiquette purposes, these side-conversations not only serve to distract in-room participants, but they also deprive the larger team of potentially interesting insight and perspective. One remedy for this is to have everyone – whether they are together in a room or not – use their own individual laptop camera. When each person has their own screen, they are more likely to stay engaged.

As workplaces adapt to meet challenges like COVID-19 and the need to create more flexible work options becomes more urgent, companies should be focused on developing a strategic plan for workplace flexibility, digitization, virtual collaboration, and wellbeing in the workplace. However, even thinking beyond the current global health crisis, employers should future-proof their organizations to establish supporting spaces, policies, behaviors, tools, and technologies around these topics to ensure both business continuity and public health. CBRE is here to help. CBRE Workplace can help you analyze your company’s current approach and help you create an enhanced, customized, and enduring strategy for work. CBRE Host can help enhance the employee experience, with the overarching goal of fostering the right environment for people to do their best work and navigate their workday with confidence, no matter the circumstances.

In the meantime, we encourage all employers to follow the guidance of the CDC, and continue to engage in practical actions to further slow the spread of the virus:


1Companies and technologies mentioned in this article are shared as examples only and do not represent the full suite of products that may exist in these categories.

COVID-19 Outbreak

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