May 17th 2019

CRFCast – HR Insights from the Corporate Research Forum: How to Connect with People in a Virtual World with Nick Morgan

Face-to-face communication is becoming rarer in the modern workplace, with ever more interactions taking place virtually. However, research shows that virtual communication is much less effective, and it’s hard to build trust that’s essential to effective relationships at work. In conversation with Nick Morgan, author of Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, we discuss the pitfalls, how to improve virtual communication in remote and/or virtual working environments, and the role HR policies can play.

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Episode Transcript

Gillian Pillans [00:00:03] You're listening to the CRF cast, where we explore a research we've been working on here at the Corporate Research Forum, and we discuss the latest thinking and strategic H.R. topics with academics, practitioners and leading experts in the field. I'm Gillian Pillans, Research Director at CRF. And you can find out more about CRF and listen to our podcast archive at

Gillian Pillans [00:00:36] My guest on today CRF cast is Nick Morgan, author of Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World. Nick's book is a culmination of two years research into how communications work in the virtual sphere. The problems we face when we don't deal with people face to face and how we can improve the quality of virtual interactions. Now, virtual communications, whether that's by email, teleconference or videoconference, is now a staple of organizational life. Indeed, many of us communicate regularly with people we've never actually met in real life. However, trust and connections between humans are built on emotions which are very difficult to convey virtually. Nick and I discuss five basic problems associated with virtual communications and what we can do to deal with the fallout.

[00:01:24] Nick, thanks for joining us.

Nick Morgan [00:01:25] It's a pleasure, Gillian. Thanks for having me on your podcast.

Gillian Pillans [00:01:28] I'd like to start by just exploring why you decided to write this book about virtual communication.

Nick Morgan [00:01:36] Yes. So I was going around the world talking about body language. It's my other favourite subject and what I found was the audience increasingly in the last few years has been asking the question, how do I project all this information you say is getting through in body language in the virtual sphere? Because my team works in on several continents, I never see them face to face. There was a very good question that was asked and enough that I thought I'd better research it. So I did. I spent two years trying to figure out how communication works in the virtual sphere, and frankly, the answer was much, much worse than I thought. We spent half hour days in the real world and half in the virtual world. And that's changed us profoundly as I felt. And so that's why I wrote it.

Gillian Pillans [00:02:17] And so we've kind of stumbled blindly into that way of communication without really thinking about the impacts and then how we could make that was effective.

Nick Morgan [00:02:25] Exactly.

Gillian Pillans [00:02:28] In your book, you talk about some of the major issues, with virtual communication. Your research has uncovered five of them. So can you summarise what do you see as the big issues with virtual communication technology that we're going to have to deal with? If we if we're going to communicate effectively in that way?

Nick Morgan [00:02:46] Yeah, absolutely. What I found was in the business setting, what we care about is other people's intent. So when we're having a face to face meeting, meeting and sitting around our colleagues, we're wondering, is that person going to support me in this initiative I'm putting forward? Is this other person hate me? Does this person on my side? We think about those questions consciously or unconsciously all the time. What it turns out, is in the virtual world. Intent does not come through in virtual communications. There's a huge lack of feedback, the kind of feedback that we get automatically through body language. And so that was the first sort of shocking discovery. We're all aware of the technical difficulties of the virtual life. We've all perched silently at our mobile phones when they've gone down or there's been a hiccup or we've been on a video conference that freezes. That's very annoying. It happens all the time.

[00:03:33] Audio conferences have a dynamic of their own. They often take technologically don't work very well. And my favourite complaint about the audio conferences, the first five minutes of any audio conference is taken up with "boop, oh who just joined? Please identify yourself. Oh, sorry". And then you start another conversation and it goes on like that. All of that we're used to. It's annoying. It's it's sort of the technical clues that we have to use to make this world work. But what we're less aware of is this issue of intent. The second big problem is that when you don't get good feedback, your empathy quotient immediately goes down. And so you assume the other person is angry at you or or indifferent. And when we don't get the feedback that reassures us that everything OK. Then we assume the worst. And so our empathy goes down.

[00:04:22] The third problem that I found was the one that all of your listeners are familiar with them one way or another. And that is that we leave traces in the virtual world, some of which we're proud of and others of which we're not. Your listeners probably have interviewed people and Google them and found their pictures on Facebook of their drunken college exploits. Very embarrassing for the for the exploiters and a very simple level. We don't have much control over what goes on in the virtual world, what's said about us, what shows up about us. In the deeper sense of that an image gets out about us, which may or may not be authentic.

[00:04:57] The fourth problem that I found was that when you have a lack of information and empathy, it actually gets very difficult to make good decisions. We think that as logical beings, as if you're old enough to remember your Star Trek, Mr. Spock. That's the way we tend to think. It seems very logical. We size up the pros and cons of each position. In fact, we don't. The reason for that is we use emotions to tell us how important something is or isn't to us. And that's actually the basis for making decisions. So when you take out the emotions, as happens in the virtual world, then we actually get quite bad at making decisions. We don't know how important things are. We tend to underestimate the importance of things and we get annoyed by trivial things when we decide that that email is actually very insulting toward us when the other felt that just meant as a joke. And so that really leads to the final problem, which is that the thing that we need to do to be successful in the business world is to establish trust with our colleagues, with our clients and with our customers. That becomes much more fragile in the absence of this information that we normally used to size people up and decide how trustworthy they are. And so you had all these problems together. And what you get is really a much more difficult emotional time. But please understand by emotion, I mean really human intent. So it's not just happy or sad. It's it's all the ways in which we humans judge each other.

Gillian Pillans [00:06:18] Why is it so difficult to get emotions across when we are not in face to face setting?

Nick Morgan [00:06:24] Well, that's really the the nub of it, isn't it, that we think we're better than we are. And we're also still all communicating as if we were face to face. So when I write my email, I assume you're going to pick up my tone. But of course, tone is conveyed by the role of an eye or the nod of a head or a half smile or a smirk. It's not conveyed in words very well. In fact, the research shows over 60 percent of the time you're misunderstood and you misunderstand the e-mails that come to you.

Gillian Pillans [00:06:51] 60 percent. Wow, that's quite scary isn't it. Yeah.

Nick Morgan [00:06:54] It's horrifying. And these are people that we know well. These are our colleagues and our friends and loved ones. And strangely enough, the same thing happens on audio conferences and even on podcasts for various technical reasons. Emotion doesn't come through as clearly through the human voice when it's recorded and condensed. And then on video conferences. And we can get in the technicalities of that if you want to. But even on video conferences, because it's a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional world, we don't handle as well. We have a harder and harder time reading other people's intent.

Gillian Pillans [00:07:25] Okay. I guess the bottom line is. It's much better to meet face to face, but in reality, the world doesn't work that way. And particularly when we have teams that are across the globe potentially working in different time zones. So virtual collaboration is an organizational reality that's not going to change. I just wonder what sort of tactics do you have that you could share to overcome some of the challenges of virtual communication.

Nick Morgan [00:07:51] That's exactly what the book is about. The bad news is there isn't one single fix. The good news is the fixes aren't rocket science. They're not terribly difficult to do. Really, we need to learn a new language. We need to get much clearer about that thing which isn't coming through, which is our intent. And we also need to listen better for other people's intent. And so I say, for example, if you have a regular team audio conference started by asking people like a stoplight, how are you doing, red, yellow or green? Red means there. I'm having a terrible day about to murder somebody. Please don't bother me. And if somebody says that, you can say, oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Maybe you'd like to be let off the call. It would be an appropriate response. Yellow means my normal level of stress, but I'll probably get through it. Keep on. And green means everything's great. And so something like that allows people to check in in a fairly safe way. And then if there's a need, you can follow up. So that's a very simple way to make it a little clearer, something which doesn't come through well at all and not a conference.

Gillian Pillans [00:08:52] So, having having some sort of emotional check in at the start of the meeting is one solution. What other tactics have you seen in practice?

Nick Morgan [00:09:00] I would say for any meeting that's a little more complicated than a one time call and has more than a few people on it. And this perhaps a regular team or if it's a meeting with clients, say that you're going to be having on a regular basis, then what you want to set up is an MC for the for the call, not somebody who's worried about the technicalities of it, but somebody who's worried about the human exchange. There's research that shows that if you're trying to maintain trust and good sort of rapport on a virtual team, that it's important that everybody communicate equally, roughly equally. And as you can imagine, that doesn't happen very often. You tend to get talkers who dominate the particular call or even or even endlessly call after call after call because they like to hear the sound of their own voice or because they're passionate about a particular subject. And so an MC can make sure that everybody's checking in and can say, all right, let's take a pause here, we've been talking for 10 minutes. This is what I've heard. We haven't heard from Jane over in Singapore lately. Jane, what's the what's your take on the situation? And because that doesn't happen easily and naturally a virtual call. That's a very good way to put that back in.

Gillian Pillans [00:10:15] Yeah, it's interesting because so we've done a lot of research and two and have improved diversity and into 17 organisations. And that's also one of the tactics that some organisations are deploying to make sure that's diverse perspectives are heard and whether that's in the region have been a physical meeting or virtually as well. So that potentially has application across lots of different scenarios.

Nick Morgan [00:10:37] Yeah. My mind, you're good in a number of ways.

Gillian Pillans [00:10:39] Yeah. Yeah.

Nick Morgan [00:10:40] The other thing we need to do along the same lines is become better about making our own intent clear. So we not only need to care about other people's intent, but we need to put the emotional language, if you will, back in that that gets stripped out because it isn't coming across in the body. So, for example, if you're giving a critique of somebody else's idea in person, you might say something that sounded quite harsh, but your eyes might look kind or you might pat the person on the arm or something like that to sort of soften the blow in the virtual world that doesn't come through and that person just hears the harshness. And remember, again, for evolutionary reasons, they're going to assume the worst if they don't get a clear attempt. So getting clear about your emotional state or your intent toward the other person is helpful. Saying something like, well, Jane, I really like that idea, but here are a couple of issues. I see what we tend to just go right to well, I see these problems and these problems that we forget to put in the softening touch verbally because we're so used to it coming across non-work.

Gillian Pillans [00:11:43] Coming up in the second half of this series cast, Nick and I will go into more detail about the role HR can play in improving the quality and impact of virtual communications in organisations. We'll also explore some of the implications for people policies.

Gillian Pillans [00:12:03] If you're enjoying the CRF cast, please subscribe to our channel to get the latest editions automatically and live as a reviewer and to share with your colleagues too.

Gillian Pillans [00:12:15] It sounds like leaders have a key role to play here. You know that the person who's responsible for the meeting thinking about planning ahead in terms of how to increase the level of emotion in the meeting.

Nick Morgan [00:12:26] Yes. Leaders have to set the tone and they have to model the language. And I think a really key question to ask yourself first is how did what I just say make you feel? And if you don't know the answer to that, then you better ask it out loud. And if it if you do, you'll find it does two things. Not only do you get an answer to the question, so you find out what the other person's reaction is, but also you show them the respect of saying, I care enough to pause the proceedings here and ask you exactly how you're feeling about this, how how you react and the information overload we all suffer with. It means that we tend not to do that. But another nice way to increase the connection is and this is something, again, for the leader to model, is to take a quick 30 second video of your surroundings or you having lunch or you walking out the middle of the day for a quick coffee. And just give people a little tour of your surroundings, get a bit about your culture, where you're from, and then post that online and your on your forums that everybody has a chance to see it and encourage everybody just the same. That has the virtual charm that similar to whenever people get together face to face, they always start with a dinner, even worldwide negotiations. I start with that dinner. And that's because when we see each other in different surroundings like that, then we get to know each other better and we learn to trust.

Gillian Pillans [00:13:47] Okay. So we talked a little bit about the role of leaders, but and I'm wondering what the HR function can do here and whether there is a role for potentially thinking about people policies. Is that potentially something that we could deploy as a toolkit to help improve the quality of virtual communications that organisations?

Nick Morgan [00:14:07] Yeah, I think it's enormously important. If you're serious about managing people well in the virtual world and we have to be because we are doing it and just doing it badly right now, then you need to institute some tests, say on on leaders, for example, you could pretty easily develop software which would just test how often on an on an audio call other people are communicating and how much this leader just talk and talk and talk. And so you could also do that manually by having an HR person sit in on the call, just sort of get a feel for how the balance was. But that's one very simple test of how much group cohesion there is and how well the leaders are doing to establish a dynamic in the virtual setting. It's even more important that everybody contribute because, you know, face to face meeting Jim can be sitting there in the corner, but he can look like he's all and he can look enthusiastic. And you can somehow get a read from Jim that he actually is on board here. But in the virtual world, you can't get to a place to start is by instituting some policies that allow HR to start thinking quite consciously about new behaviours that will work well in the virtual world. I think training is also extremely important. We don't know how to communicate well in the virtual world. We think we do, but we're actually doing is communicating like we always do. So we say something in an email that again, we assume the other person is going to get our clever wit and then for some reason inexplicably that terribly insulted. How could they be so stupid as not to see that brilliant? Well, that's because we're communicating as if they could see us. It's a different form of communication. We need to know how to learn how to do it.

Gillian Pillans [00:15:44] Are there good examples that you've come across of organisations who've taken some of these principles and then applied that in practice to to try and improve the quality of communications?

Nick Morgan [00:15:55] Sure. I have a number of interviews in the book with companies that are doing aspects of it. Well, I haven't found a company that's doing all of it well. But for example, I found a small consulting company that consults the airline industry. Literally, every single one of their employees is in a different country. And yet they often work together on the same projects. So what they do is they have nine minute daily meetings, virtual meetings. And the reason for the nine minutes is that because everybody about 30 seconds to go around and say, here's a current problem, here's a call for help, here's here's what I need from the rest of the group. And people can weigh in very quickly and then they know if there's some need to go into further depth, then they can set up other calls or email exchanges or whatever. And then they also make very sure that several times a year they meet face to face for an extended period of time. And this is a very important thing for a child to understand who often has charged travel policies. I mean, of course, of course, the huge advantage of the virtual world of work is that it saves enormous amount of trouble. But what I want HR to start to think about is a different kind of efficiency. So you're saving money on travel, yes. But what human beings actually do very well when they get together face to face is they exchange an enormous amount of uncut. Just information about each other very quickly, and so they learn to trust each other or they learn to decide that, hey, the other person is an idiot, then I can't trust them. So now I know. But you learn those things very quickly, very efficiently in a face to face call. So there is a real efficiency to meeting face to face. So I would say that HR rethink your travel policies so that when you have teams that you are expecting to do good work long term in a virtual setting. Every now and then bite the bullet, get them together face to face, and give them several days just to clear out the content issues and the underlying emotional pipes and get get the trust built up again. Then you can send them off virtually to work and they'll do it much, much better.

Gillian Pillans [00:18:02] In your book you're pretty critical of various different moods of first communication, including video conferencing, audio conferencing, webinars and so on. I just wonder, is there anything emerging in the communications technology field that you feel positive about and you think might help us improve that quality of interaction, given that, you know, virtual communication is going to be a reality as far ahead as we can see.

Nick Morgan [00:18:25] It is a reality. I honestly look very hard for hopeful signs and there simply aren't any. And I'm an optimist, a ridiculously optimistic person. So it is painful for me to say this. We're really in thrall to the two enormous advantages we get from virtual communication. The first is it's much more friction free, as they say in Silicon Valley. In other words, it's easier to send it's free to send emails, essentially. So if I can send one email for free that I can send a million for free younger to send a million. And it's also, again, in the Silicon Valley parlance, asynchronous meaning. I can send it at any time and you can receive it at any time. Now, the unintended consequences of both those things were, first of all, information overload and then 24/7 communications. And we all complain about that and bemoan that that we have to be in touch all the time. But the reality is now that we do and that's changed our modes of working and not for the better. It's very hard now to turn off your workplace. I have one tiny...

Gillian Pillans [00:19:31] Do you have a glimmer of hope to share with us?

Nick Morgan [00:19:33] I have a glimmer of hope, yes.

Gillian Pillans [00:19:34]  Let's see if we can finish on a high.

Nick Morgan [00:19:35] Yeah. I did hear from a friend the other day who's a professional speaker that for the first time he had given a speech from the comfort of his of his own office, home office in the Boston area where I live to an audience in Singapore via hologram. And it apparently worked very well. But the thing about a hologram is it allows us to do something that's very important for human beings. And again, which is hard to do in the virtual space, which is something called appropriate reception. What it means is that we human beings face to face. We spend a good deal of time tracking where everybody is space. So we know where we are in space. And that's important to us. So we don't come into things and we know where everybody else is, which is important to us. So they don't attack us without us being able to get ready for it. So when we don't get information about people that we're trying to interact with in terms of appropriate section, what happens is our brains were very, very hard to try to figure it out. And they just spend like the computer will unable to fill that channel of information. It's very tyring for us because we're not getting what we want. So one of the great things about holograms is that they allow us to be present in a way that may turn out to be a good illusion for the appropriate section. And if that's the case, then the our futures will involve projecting each other in terms of holograms into each other's spaces. And that will actually be a great improvement. We'll have to get dressed. Unfortunately, you won't be able to work in our pyjamas anymore. But in terms of...

Gillian Pillans [00:21:05] Maybe there's an app for that.

Nick Morgan [00:21:06] Yes. Right. Exactly right. We could dress ourselves in Armani suits on a daily basis. Almost nothing. Yeah. So there is there is hope. I think this is a shorthand way of saying I think the technology will slowly improve and allow us to feel more present with each other and perhaps even start to put in some of those non-verbal cues a little bit more clearly.

Gillian Pillans [00:21:29] So for all those Star Wars fans out there and holograms are the future.

Nick Morgan [00:21:33] Absolutely.

Gillian Pillans [00:21:38] Before we finish, let's take a moment to recap the key points of my conversation with Nick Morgan.

Gillian Pillans [00:21:43] First of all, when we interact in person, a large portion of what we communicate is emotion and more specifically, our intent. This gets lost in virtual communications and it makes it much harder to build trust, which is at the foundation of all successful relationships. Second, we spend around half of our time in the virtual world without really planning for how to communicate effectively. So taking a step back and thinking about how to do this well can be a really good investment of our time.

Gillian Pillans [00:22:12] Perhaps investing in training around how to communicate well online or establishing team norms can help. The upshot of all of this is we have to work much harder to find ways of conveying our own intent, interpreting the intentions of others, and pushing back in the emotion that's lost when we communicate virtually.

Gillian Pillans [00:22:29] Practical solutions can include appointing a facilitator whose role is to observe the process of the virtual meeting and make sure those involved in the meeting are appropriately engaged. Or the meeting leader can take time within the meeting to pause, take stock and ask attendees. How did what I say, make you feel to check with the leaders intention is coming across in the right way and is being understood. Finally, for teams who are going to work together virtually over a longer time period, you need to prioritise getting the team together periodically so you can establish and then re-establish trust. You might save on travel costs by not getting people together, but it's a false economy as you'll end up losing team effectiveness overall. Thanks again to Nick Morgan for sharing with us. Next book. Can you hear me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, is available now through Harvard Business Review Press.

Gillian Pillans [00:23:27] You've been listening to the CRF cast with me, Gillian Pillans, research director at CRF. You can find out more on our website at Follow us on Twitter @C_R_Forum or join the CRF group on LinkedIn. Bye for now and thanks for listening.

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