A year of virtual working – the lessons to take forward in the future

Guest post by Jean Gamester, Toastmasters International

How have you found the experience of moving to working online?  Have you embraced it with enthusiasm, or do you see it as a bit of disaster?

We seem to be somewhat conflicted. According to a KPMG survey last summer, 64% of workers preferred the flexibility of remote working, but over a third felt their ability to collaborate had fallen[i].  There are plentiful stories of zoom fatigue and studies about the adverse impact of remote working[ii].

My own experience reflects the conflict.  I’ve gone from constantly travelling between client sites to connecting with people from all over the world from my screen.  I’ve loved the connection and the opportunity to be home.  I have also wondered whether I am really getting value from all this time on screen.  Drawing from my experience of leading engaging change in organisations and of being with audiences from the public speaking stage, here are three ways of staying connected that have helped me in the virtual world over recent months.

Connecting with a greeting

If we were meeting in the “real world”, we’d arrive in the door, say “Hi”, get settled and chat about the weather, the latest events etc.  This may seem trivial but it’s a subtle process of connection, of taking the social temperature.  It allows us to be with each other, ready to listen actively and talk connectedly.

When we are meeting remotely, we need this greeting space even more.  Without it, we are straight into the action with no warm-up of our voices and of our relationships with each other.  We have the discomfort and disconnection of bypassing greetings.  I’ve started building in warm up time into key meetings. In some cases, we’re opening the virtual doors fifteen minutes early for people to arrive and chat.

Seeing and be seen

In a room with each other, we don’t just take in the words that people say, we are dancing with all sorts of verbal and non-verbal cues.  These help us to see what is really going on, whether it’s our turn to speak, how people might respond to us.  As someone who was brought up never to interrupt and to wait until last when others have finished speaking, I’ve learned how to use physical cues like leaning forward, making eye contact with the meeting Chair, in extreme cases raising my hand. When face to face, I’m likely to notice when some voices are dominating and to draw in those who are being left silent.   

In the virtual world, I have my video on all the time, and encourage others to do so too.  This way, we can see those facial expressions, those burning to speak, those ready to move on and we can respond to them.  When chairing, I look for everyone to have a voice, just as I would when I am in the room with others.  The advantage of having all those faces on screen is that you are seeing everyone straight on, rather than turning to see everyone in a crammed meeting room.

Being truly present

When we’re not in the same physical space, it is easy to allow distractions to take us even further away. Do your eyes want to dart about checking on emails, messengers or unpredictable children and pets?  Maybe is it just me with the multiplicity of the three screens, the phone on my desk and my gorgeous dog Betsy.  If we are not getting the value from the time online, is it because we’re not giving the value of our full presence?

I’m learning to close down everything except the people on the screen and any documents we are sharing together.  I turn the phone face down and the sound off. If I start to get distracted, I slow my breathing down, relax my shoulders and get curious about what is going on in the screen in front of me.  What are they thinking?  What’s the big picture of this, the implications, the gaps, the opportunities?  If I had to play this back to them, what would I say, how could I summarise it?  Who else might have a perspective to contribute but hasn’t been heard? We can accept the unpredictable and adapt as it arises.  By being present in this way, we offer more and deepen the quality of our presence.

The key is connecting 

We don’t need to feel the fatigue of being distractedly glued to a screen.  We just need to find new ways of connecting.  It is worth taking the time to greet each other, to see and be seen, to be here and present in the moment.  Like me could be energised by this new way of connecting with colleagues.


Jean Gamester is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org

[i] KPMG Summer 2020 American worker survey – https://advisory.kpmg.us/articles/2020/american-worker-survey-summer-2020.html

[ii] Zoom Fatigue study from London South Bank University – Personnel Today https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/zoom-fatigue-is-a-thing-study-shows/

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