Introducing the new rules of virtual meetings

Written by
Hervé Borensztejn, partner, Heidrick Consulting, Heidrick & Struggles

28 Apr 2020

28 Apr 2020 • by Hervé Borensztejn, partner, Heidrick Consulting, Heidrick & Struggles

The coronavirus crisis brings risks, opportunities and new ways of interacting, writes Hervé Borensztejn, partner at Heidrick Consulting, Heidrick & Struggles.

One of the most measurable and tangible impacts of coronavirus has been the abrupt halt to travel of all kinds, rendering face-to-face meetings impossible. 

Many sectors have been hit head-on and hard by Covid-19 (notably, the airline, events and luxury industries), resulting in a profound change in working methods for all organisations. It feels as if everything is moving in slow motion and may indeed come to a complete standstill. 

However, is this necessarily a catastrophe? The Chinese character for ‘crisis’ simultaneously translates as risk and opportunity – and a crisis of any kind can bring both. The current global disaster demonstrates precisely this point. It is not the first international health crisis the world has seen, and it will certainly not be the last. It is a moment where organisations can seek to become more agile and to pivot, in order to adapt to a volatile, globalised world, and thus make it through uncertain times.

Virtual management

This includes business leaders learning to direct their teams from a distance; remote ‘virtual management’ has become the new norm. 

If technology brings greater streamlining and efficiency to our working world, it follows that virtual proximity will require leaders to improve their managerial skills radically, with the aim of changing individual and collective mentality and behaviour.

Virtual meetings (interviews, evaluations, feedback sessions and training) are vital to this efficiency. While the rules around these may not differ substantially to those for physical meetings, there is specific best practice to follow. Below are some key issues to bear in mind.

Prepare in advance. Gather contributions from participants prior to virtual meetings to enhance efficiency. Identify agendas, objectives and action plans and set them out clearly.

Consider time zones. Working across borders and continents will mean different times zones, with late meetings for some and early morning sessions for others. Where there are challenging incompatibilities, it may be better to plan separate sessions. For example, notes from early morning meetings could be sent on to those meeting later, to aid communication and continuity.

Cap meeting lengths. Online meetings can be more tiring than their face-to-face equivalents. Conversing over video requires more focus than face-to-face chat, because we have to work harder to process non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and tone and voice. Virtual meetings  should be capped at a maximum of three hours, to include breaks of at least 30 minutes. The facilitator will need to take regular ‘pulse checks’ to ensure full participation.

Keep meetings small. Holding smaller meetings of six-to-eight people will enhance participation and effectiveness. If the number of participants needs to exceed this, provisions for virtual break-out rooms should be made, to ensure contribution by as many people as possible. For example, Zoom allows users to split meetings into 50 separate sessions automatically or manually, with the host able to switch between these at any time.

Make related documentation clear and concise. All documents for virtual meetings need to be especially clear, legible and impactful. Ideally, they should be shared in advance, rather than relying on screen sharing during the meeting.

Keep cameras on, where possible. Ask participants to switch on their cameras (where this doesn’t affect call quality). This ensures that participants’ body language and facial expressions are visible and encourages greater interaction.

Be aware of background noise. Call quality varies, so pay attention to any background noise that may disturb other participants. Ask people to mute their microphones if necessary, switching them on only to make a contribution.

Be inclusive. The facilitator should pay special attention to inclusivity, inviting quieter individuals to take part by addressing them by name. Bear in mind that some people are less comfortable on camera than others.

Patience is key. Virtual management is new and affects interactions. Everyone is learning how to build relationships and communicate remotely.


  • A version of this article was first published by Forbes France.