Virtual collaboration superheroes and answers to your webinar questions

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This article is a follow-up to last month’s webinar, Virtual Collaboration for Volunteer Managers and Boards of Directors. It features your answers to one of my questions, and my answers to some of yours, as you recorded them in the webinar’s chat box.

I kicked off the session with the fun question: “If you could have a virtual collaboration superpower, what would it be?” Here is a sampling of your responses:

  • Ability to virtually see/read body language
  • Ability to read tone through email
  • Thinking ideas across need for speech, typing, etc.
  • Mind reading, Teleportation, Clairvoyance
  • Able to access the Internet no matter where I am!
  • Ability to help people understand that they see and hear information from their own perspective, and those differences make us great, but also make it harder to communicate.
  • Ability to know exactly what is needed and when and how to achieve everything on time
  • Bullet proof technology, Ability to magically create the best tools to use
  • Free collaboration tools for all
  • Ability to get people to focus during online collaborations
  • Ability to facilitate spontaneous dialogue between attendees
  • Super Hair - when having a bad hair day!
  • My superpower would be the ability to ensure that no one has internet or other IT problems connecting and staying connected. (Amen!)

Here are my responses to a few of your questions posed during the webinar:

1. Many national NGOs have boards of a dozen or so and have virtual meetings. It’s difficult to manage the process and relationships – let alone the content. Sometimes they have never met in person. Any tips?

Often, competing interests and personalities that surface in a meeting, and derail board progress, can be brought to light, and mitigated, ahead of time. One of the most proactive ways I’ve found to reduce the stress of managing virtual meetings is to work on your relationship with each board member, individually.

By example; even a short 1-1 phone or Skype call, with each board member, can have many benefits. It can orient you to their interests, near-term and long-term. It can reveal their preferred communication style and channels. It can be an opportunity to identify individuals who might exhibit some form of dysfunctional behaviour (e.g., naysayer, bully), and an opportunity for you to pre-empt that destructive behaviour before the actual board meeting(s). Your 1-1 interactions and conversations can also inform your virtual meetings' ground rules and code of conduct.

Responding to the challenges of running virtual meetings, a number of universities, often in collaboration with corporate partners, have begun introducing new courses and workshops in virtual team management and leadership. These universities include: INSEAD, McGill University, The University of British Columbia, Yale University, and Stanford University.

2. How can I best virtually orient a new volunteer or staff member?

For your first orientation session(s), consider having ready, sharing and reviewing:

  • New (Virtual) Volunteer Checklist. This can include requirements for their home office/work station set-up, their availability, approved authorizations that they need to have (e.g., to access shared drives, contacts, and calendars).
  • New Employee Handbook. Applying to both staff and volunteers, including virtual volunteers, it contains information about the organization, people policies, code of conduct, use of phone, communications and culture expectations, confidentiality agreement, etc.
  • Their first work assignment, including details, execution, time reporting, dispute resolution processes, etc. Start them small. If it's volunteering, think micro volunteering. Go from there.

If your orientation is done virtually, you can review all of the above, together, via a screen share application. And then, sign off the relevant documents, e.g., confidentiality agreement, using an e-signature application such as Adobe Sign.

Of course, orientation is not a one-shot event. Follow-up check-ins (for example, within the first week, and first 3 months) can all be done using the virtual communication channels available to you. I’ve found The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook (2014), by Jayne Cravens and Susan Ellis, to be one of the best resources available to virtual volunteer managers.

3. How can I keep people engaged during online meetings?

If you are chairing the virtual meeting, you are the de facto facilitator. The use of facilitation techniques such as checkpoints, starting questions, and informed majority serves to create a highly interactive and productive virtual meeting environment.

The virtual meeting platform itself can be used as an effective tool for varying engagement approaches. Almost all popular video conferencing platforms(e.g. GoToMeeting, Webex, Adobe, and Zoom) come with built-in engagement opportunity features such as chat boxes, instant messaging, polling, whiteboards. Use them.

To keep their attention, borrow a technique from the worlds of cinema, literature, and public speaking - add contrast to your agenda. We are wired for contrast. Our hunter-gatherer ancestor’s attention was gained when something different, like a lion, entered the picture. Recognizing the value of dialogue over monologue, orchestrate your agenda with diverse and frequent 2-way interactions in mind.

4. How do I have those non-business conversations that you mentioned were so important?

As shared in the webinar, a Unify study on the habits of successful virtual teams identified the amount of personal (non-business) conversation as the #1 predictor of a highly successful virtual team.

Currently, the world’s two most popular messaging apps are Whatsapp (linked to your smart phone number) and Facebook Messenger. Whatsapp, Facebook, Slack, and others, are conversation opportunities, both business and non-business. As per your comments during the webinar, many of you have already experienced the value of these tools:

“I can’t tell you just how useful Whatsapp is to connect groups”
“I can’t say enough (good things) about Slack”
“Asana is also a great free communication tool, similar to Basecamp”

Consider the communication preferences of the people you are trying to connect with. The 2016 Nonprofit Technology Trends report highlights the diversity of communication preferences: “Communications Directors more heavily favour Twitter than EDs and Development Directors.”

Regardless of channel, the underlying guiding principle is the same. Good relationships usually develop slowly over time, growing out of the many, often mundane, interactions we share each day, month, year.

5. When is it best to use audio and/or video and when best to use email or chat?

Audio-only conferencing is more reliable and easier for most people to use, can handle hundreds of callers simultaneously (should you ever have to!), and works in more places. Video-conferencing is more engaging and makes for better conversations, works best with 5 or fewer, and requires excellent bandwidth. This recent CRTC ruling is an attempt to level the bandwidth playing field, across Canada.

Consider the type of virtual meeting. Status and working meetings, typically 30 – 180 minutes duration, are certainly much easier to organize than strategy meetings of 1-4 days.

When collaborating, remember that interruption is the enemy of productivity. Try use passive communication tools, like e-mail, that don’t require an instant reply. That is, unless you need an instant reply, in which case, use online chat or pick up the phone and make a call.

Final Comment

A webinar such as this with many, diverse, participants (almost 500) is a learning opportunity, writ large. Thank you to everyone who participated and shared their thoughts.

Ben Ziegler is a conflict management and collaboration specialist. He works as an independent mediator and consultant. He has extensive experience as a virtual facilitator, as an online mediator, facilitator of global virtual teams, and designing online collaborative processes for the BC government and nonprofit sectors. Previously he spent 14 years as a consultant in the high-tech sector. He has authored multiple e-books on collaboration, maintains a blog on collaboration-related topics,, and offers a self-paced e-learning course on virtual collaboration. A fan of vibrant neighbourhoods, Ben is active in a number of local nonprofit organizations.

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