Virtual is the great equalizer:

How to leverage this collaborative powerhouse


Published on: August 2021

Written by: Jacqueline Brodnitzki

Co-authored by Cilsy Harris, Senior Vice President, CIO Insurance & Service Applications, The Hanover Insurance Group

At one time, most of us probably thought that a year into the pandemic we’d be back in the office and the virtual solution we employed as an emergency measure would be a thing of the past. However, it’s become very clear that virtual is here to stay – either as companies adopt fully-remote business models, or as is likely to be the case more often, they move to hybrid models that blend the best of remote and in-person work. Regardless of which model they choose we think smart companies will preserve the best aspects of the virtual experience to continue to create equality in communication and facilitate greater sharing of ideas.

This virtual environment has been a great equalizer. In many ways, our ability to meet and work virtually has helped us eliminate pretenses and share our authenticity to create more human connection. We’ve become less self-conscious and more down to earth in our business interactions. We’ve learned more about our colleagues’ personal lives, enabling us to recognize and truly treat each other as humans, not simply as the means by which work gets accomplished.

Creating big wins for important business goals

This new environment has created six big wins for achieving important business goals:

1.  Driving engagement/connection:

Authentic connection is the secret sauce for senior executives. It’s what drives trust, engagement, and execution. Our research shows authentic leaders build trust and put others at ease by sharing their own emotions and experiences, and by revealing stories and life lessons that resonate with others’ own situations. A byproduct of the virtual world is that some of the barriers to sharing have been removed. The close-up camera creates eye-to-eye contact and a more personal interaction. Our insight into each other’s daily lives outside the office through the view of the camera has changed the tone and ease of our connection. Virtual meetings also foster authentic connections across geographically dispersed teams in the organization in more efficient and meaningful ways. Regularly scheduled meetings with teams in Europe, Middle East and Asia/Pacific in the morning and those in the Americas in the afternoon, create cross-pollination of ideas and connections that previously would have required weeks of travel.

2.   Enabling collaboration among large groups, across geographies:

Dick Lavey, executive vice president of Agency Markets at The Hanover, relays how forums are being reinvented. “Picture a traditional sales planning meeting, held in a large, cavernous hotel room with 40+ people spread out in a big square, using microphones,” he says. “It was intimidating for the presenter and difficult for the audience to track the dialogue. Now, this same meeting is transformed into an intimate and engaging experience for both the presenters and the meeting participants.” Well-facilitated meetings create forums for dialogue that lead to better outcomes. The outcome of this shift is understanding that for certain events and forums, choosing a virtual model can create greater intimacy and engagement. Choosing the right forum for the purpose is our call to action.

The virtual world has delivered the impetus to rethink and reimagine how we design forums to optimize attendance and participation, and to offset some of the challenges presented by geographic location. “Events that once were considered feasible only when they were held in person, like our annual Innovation Expo, saw big gains in attendance across all geographies,” according to Will Lee, EVP and Chief Information and Innovation Officer at The Hanover. “It also has enabled all attending Hanover employees to experience the event in the same manner, regardless of location. One of the most significant outcomes of this new approach was creating a live example of how we can design environments to make space for innovative thinking that cut across the entire organization and include all roles and levels.”

We are also able to meet with more people, more quickly. At the Hanover, our agent road shows, no longer limited by time and space, can be held on back-to-back days–in Georgia one day, Upstate NY the next, and Washington State the very next day. This meeting line-up would have been impossible in person. “We ‘cover more ground’ by not covering any ground,” says Lavey.

At BTS, we’re hosting highly collaborative senior executive team meetings and leadership development programs that enable leaders to create greater impact. After only a few half days, global executive teams decide strategic direction, tackle sticky issues, form agreement on how to better work together, make important decisions, and create strategic action plans–launching the organization on a new trajectory.

3.   Attracting talent:

For Lee, finding great talent has gotten a real boost with hybrid operating models, and at The Hanover, we are seeing this have a meaningful impact. As we’ve eliminated geography as a defining factor for those hard-to-find roles in security, innovation, and even executive leadership, we’ve become an attractive employer to a much larger pool of talented candidates. Candidates are now able to choose roles based on company culture and specific opportunities, without being restricted by the proximity of the job to their homes.

4.   Retaining top talent:

A client recently told me that he lost a great employee because this person was assured a role with another company in a work-from-home arrangement. Top employees have demonstrated great commitment to their work, high productivity and skillful leadership while enjoying the greater work/life balance that work-from-home enables. This has become quite important to many people of all ages, especially working parents, employees who care for elderly parents, and those helping family members with physical and mental health issues. Remote work is an increasingly valuable way to attract and retain great talent.

5.   Creating efficiencies:

Even reimagining how products are launched has delivered more tangible benefits than we previously thought possible. At The Hanover, our virtual launch events have attracted much higher attendance and generated strong satisfaction ratings. At BTS, we’re able to help more clients in a single day and our clients appreciate spending less time traveling.

6.   Improving interactions:

Lastly, the equalizing effect has improved many daily interactions as well.

  • We’re all the same on video, take up the same space, and our stature at the table is the same. No one is at the head and no one has a second-row seat.
  • Rather than having some in the room and some on video, we’re all in the same room, and we’re able to meet with our global teams, on equal footing, at any time.
  • Those with differing communication and work styles, such as introverts and extroverts, find the capabilities of collaboration technology suit their ability to participate either by chat, raising their hand, or amplifying the comments of another person. Everyone can contribute and be heard.

As many companies transition to their future work models—whether they are fully-remote or hybrid—the virtual experience and confidence we have gained over the course of the pandemic will help us be even more efficient and effective.

Many employees are anxious to get back to the workplaces that are the backbones of our society. We look forward to seeing faces and having meaningful in-person interactions. And, we have the opportunity to make this transition in a thoughtful way, to leverage all we’ve learned about authenticity, efficiencies, and connection through technology.

Tips for maintaining the equalizing benefits of virtual work

Here are a few tips to pull through some of the equalizing benefits as we make our way back to the office:

1.   Be mindful and intentional about continuing to connect with people on a personal level.

Schedule time regularly in your calendar to get together with a small group for lunch, organize a skip-level group for coffee, or host an informal, or one-on-one conversation. Set no real agenda other than to see how people are doing, get their feedback, listen to what they are working on. Be sure to share personal stories and experiences as part of this two-way interaction.

2.   Commit to creating an environment in your meetings where everyone can contribute and be heard.

Assign an individual in your team meetings, on a rotating basis, to play the role of monitor, to encourage the quiet or remote individuals to participate more, and to reign in the overly strong voices. Make a point of sitting in a different place each time to shake up the room. Set up a team chat channel for each of your regular meetings and encourage follow up comments and conversation in between meetings, for those less comfortable sharing in the room. Participate regularly yourself to model the behavior.

3.   Don’t be afraid to keep the new virtual paradigm where it makes sense.

The lessons about productivity and efficiency, whether you are hosting a virtually based product launch, sales meeting, or training program, should inform how to choose the format. And fewer, shorter, more effective meetings will energize people and afford them more time to get more done.

Now is the time to preserve the good that has come out of our virtual working environments, even as we migrate back to the traditional office. We will all be more engaged and connected as a result.

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