COVID-19 SPECIAL: COMMENTARY

How to make the most of virtual meetings

Whenever we encountered a deadlock in a decision, discussion or problem a few weeks ago, the natural refrain was "let's call for a meeting". That little luxury of huddling in a room to hash things out has become a distant memory - and almost a forbidden evil.

Then there were the customary committee meetings, with far more people than required for good decision making. You may be familiar with them: steering committees and project committees - with reams of minutes and action items.

With the advance of Covid-19, governments globally have rapidly put in place measures to minimise social contact. Closer to home, Singapore has elevated safe distancing measures by moving to full home-based learning for schools and closing most work premises.

So how has all this affected the corporate meeting culture?

Voice and video conferences, as well as webinars, are now de rigueur for teams and business meetings across split locations and homes. After initial teething problems, these virtual meetings have become widely accepted and even welcomed for the time saved in commuting to work.

The "always on" nature of Web-based interactions, and the efficiency that e-meeting formats present, are also appreciated. Yet, some worry that teamwork and social dynamics could be compromised. Would social distancing result in emotional distance among colleagues, teams within organisations, or between us and our clients? Work culture across time zones and distance is not new for many who work in multinational corporations.

In a previous organisation, I sat as a node in a matrix structure with a functional reporting line to a San Francisco-based head of research, criss-crossing a regional line to a Hong Kong-based chief investment officer.

Time and space did not prevent my San Francisco colleagues and me from building lifelong friendships that have outlasted our careers at the firm. Work was fun. Our camaraderie extended beyond the workspace.

When my child was born, my colleagues couriered the most thoughtful mum-and-daughter care package that I received.

That was in the early 2000s, during the years of the tech boom and bust. We had fairly basic voice and video conference functionalities available then - certainly not the sophisticated bells and whistles on hand today.

What we had going for us went beyond the advances in technology, and was focused on the basics of mutual trust, respect and tight rapport - built on our commitment to deliver an excellent outcome. With the human factor being the pulse of an effective meeting - both online and offline - it will take a concerted effort by all participants to ensure success, even with today's technological prowess.

Here are five simple tips I share with my team to make our virtual meetings much more effective:

1. SHORT, SHARP AND SWEET

Keep the meeting brief and to the point. Meeting organisers ought to define, lead and housekeep the agenda. Ensure meeting materials are sent a day ahead, with deliverables and timing.

2. BE PREPARED

Meeting participants should get familiar with the agenda - with materials sent ahead of time with talking points prepared in advance - in order for them to make meaningful contributions.

3. BE PRESENT

Do not be distracted by other matters while attending the meeting, even while on mute. It is disrespectful and a waste of everyone else's time and effort.

4. GET TO THE POINT

Attention spans are short when meetings are held over e-channels, so speakers, moderators and participants should keep their messages succinct, meaningful and engaging.

5. LESS IS BEST

Minimise meetings - or the number of participants - as one-to-one calls with a shared document to co-author can be effective. Ask yourself if that large meeting is necessary.

Business focus need not be compromised while we work from home during the circuit breaker period. Major corporate decisions need to be made and innovative strategies need to be devised to confront the challenging business environment. More than ever, employees want to be actively involved in decision making.

Not being in the same office necessitates a special effort to reach out to individuals to brainstorm and discuss key topics. Socially, keep engaging colleagues via virtual catch-ups or "bring-your-own-glass" drinks sessions. Maintain mentorship relationships, as sounding boards are valued more than ever during challenging times.

With clients and business partners, offer solutions that are pertinent for the new normal.

Within the financial sector, wealth management and business clients are looking for navigators who offer prescient analysis, sound business and investment advice, as well as solutions. When all the dust settles and normalcy as we know it resumes, our work environment and corporate culture might have changed forever. What will endure, however, are the interactions that we instinctively crave as human beings - the "a-ha" moments during brainstorming sessions, the camaraderie over team lunches and the after-work celebrations. And for that, we wish that this too shall pass.

Till then, may our social distance not get in the way of emotional and true engagement with the ones whom we care about - be they friends, family, colleagues or clients.

• The writer is head of the portfolio management and research office at the Bank of Singapore.