Using Human Behavior to Make Better Virtual Connections at Work

By Dr. Francis Eberle

A year into the pandemic, I have noticed that some people have changed their persona on video calls. Some seem almost as if they are lost, when, before the pandemic, they were energetic and very talkative. Other people seemed to have become more outspoken, when prior they were quieter and more reserved.

To understand what is going on, we need to look to the psychological and cognitive sciences of behavior. Video calls are not the same as in-person interactions, so understandably the connections we make during these two types of connections do not occur in the same way. When people are on video calls, their behavioral tendencies differ due to that lack of connection. The approaches used in traditional communication and interaction during in-person meetings don’t work in a virtual setting.

The way people connect in person is multi-sensory. We see, hear, touch and even smell. When we go into an in-person meeting, we see people talking, we might say hello to others in the room, smell coffee or snacks, hear familiar voices and maybe laughter, and perhaps hug or shake hands. Then there are often side conversations, discussions about project work or scheduling plans, all before the meeting starts. This biologically triggers our brains and tells us where we are and how to act.

On your last video call, how many of these things happened?

Behaviorally we all have certain tendencies that are dominant. We sometimes refer to them as introvert and extrovert, but I don’t like those categories because they are very simplistic. For example, there are ambiverts, and people may have a dominant tendency yet adapt to the situation or context around them. Consider Whoopi Goldberg, Laura Bush and Bill Gates. They do not fit a simple category, but they tend towards being introverts.

I find it helpful to think about the differences by how people gain energy. In general, introverted people enjoy time to themselves, which they use to energize. Those who are more extroverted tend to gain energy from time spent with others. Yet both types of behaviors need quiet and people in some form.

I think I can attribute the changes I’m seeing in people on video calls to how the pandemic has changed human interaction. People who used to get their energy from in-person interaction are not getting as much as they used to or would like. And people who get their energy from time alone are getting plenty of it.

Given what we know about behavior, and what we have learned over the past year through video interaction, here are a few ideas to get the best from your teams during virtual meetings:

  • Encourage interaction. Start meetings with informal discussions or check-ins. Try ice breakers or send people into breakouts before you start the meeting agenda. Change it up each time you meet. Don’t start right into business.
  • Have fun. Occasionally do something fun like a virtual escape room, play 20 Questions, Guess Whose Bucket List, Taboo or charades, plan potlucks or other celebrations. These allow for a more relaxed and connected human experience.
  • Adjust acknowledgment. Pay attention to each person’s behaviors and connect any acknowledgement to that. For those who are more outgoing, make it a big deal for them. For the more reserved folks, ask if you can make it a big deal or if you should be more subtle. Everyone likes to be recognized, but consider the difference between balloons, horns and an award or a big thank you given during a team meeting.
  • Learn the team’s behaviors. If you know your colleagues beyond their work tasks as people, it can provide great insight in how to work with them. There are tools and assessments that evaluate behavioral styles, motivators, and soft skills. Assessments help identify which skillsets a person has already cultivated, as well as the skills that need further development. An assessment company I appreciate is TTI Success Insights.

There are many other strategies when it comes to virtual meetings, and if you’d like more ideas just email me at francis@price-associates.com. The big idea is the in-person ways of working do not transfer well into the virtual world, whether leading or following. It is just not the same. Learn from and about other people in ways you may not have in the past. Let them take charge, have fun and interact while paying attention to what is getting done. These are new leadership skills for most leaders, but fortunately they are easily learned.