Originally published: Harvard Business Review

Doing business on Zoom, WebEx, Teams and the like presents many challenges: the inability to read body language, video call fatigue, reduced participation of introverted team members, technical glitches, and so on. But what’s been overlooked is that these virtual platforms also give managers an extraordinary set of “superpowers”: the ability to do things in meetings that were either unthinkable or enormously challenging in the old days of conference tables and flip charts.While Covid-19 will eventually pass to the point when we can once again meet in person, it will be the rare team that goes back to sitting around a table staring at conference phones and listening to remote participants without video or document sharing — especially once executives understand, explore, and use the tools now at their disposal.Let’s explore three of those tools and see how they can work in practice.

Improved PollingSamantha and her team face a tough decision during her weekly Zoom staff meeting: whether to implement a 20% across-the-board pay cut from now to year-end. Nearly everyone seems comfortable with the idea that this is difficult but necessary, but Kathy raises some concerns. Her team feels underpaid — a recurring theme whenever compensation is discussed. After a brief conversation about the immediate need to reduce costs, Samantha is ready to bring the discussion to a close.In person, Samantha might say, “So what do others think? Are we good with the 20% pay cut or not?” and then glance around the table for subtle visual cues that other team members are also hesitant — a turned head, a tapping finger, eyes to the ceiling — and call on them. In a virtual meeting, she can only scan the postage-stamp-sized images of her team members and wonder what people are thinking.Another option is to take a vote. This works as effectively in person as it does virtually. But let’s say that Samantha does the poll online and the result is one “no” (Kathy) and nine “yes” votes. That doesn’t get her any further than asking the group would.There is a better solution that online meetings enable. What if after hearing Kathy’s concerns, Samantha takes a different kind of poll, quickly asking her team: On a scale of 1 to 5 (1=no, 3=maybe, 5=yes), should we impose a 20% across-the-board pay cut?One executive (probably Kathy) responds with a 2, while six select 5 and three select 4.

We call the executives who selected 4 “Yes, buts”: They agree but have some reservations. Sharing the results with her team, Samantha says, “Looks like we’ve got some hesitation here. Why the 4s?” Now people other than Kathy feel bolstered in their ability to air their concerns. The CFO points out that they have talked about funding a bonus pool for service techs working at customer sites, which would create an exception to “across-the-board” cuts. It’s a fair point, which leads Samantha to realize that maybe Kathy’s team could be treated differently too.Of course, Samantha could have used this type of polling before her team switched from in-person to virtual meetings, but managers rarely did so prior to the current crisis. Now it’s easily and quickly deployed and allows people to vote anonymously or publicly. Polling lets individuals see that they’re not the only ones with a concern.

Restructured “Offsites”Brian, an executive at a $3 billion global manufacturer, recently described his organization’s annual leadership meetings: “We kick off our new fiscal year every November. The CEO  and his nine direct reports run a series of regional two-day offsites, with roughly 90 top local leaders attending each. We review plans, discuss strategies, talk about new products and key initiatives, conduct some leadership training, and do a lot of informal team building. These four two-day meetings in four cities over four consecutive weeks — Sao Paolo, Shanghai, Munich, and Las Vegas — are our most important of the year. How do we convert them to four two-day virtual meetings?”The answer: You don’t. Multiday offsites became the norm because when you’re meeting in person, it’s not feasible to have everyone fly in, check into a hotel, conduct a half-day session, and go home. Even when the events were lengthy, companies sometimes limited attendance or hosted regional meetings to reduce the time executives spent away from their local markets.But airfare, travel time, and hotel costs are not factors in a virtual world. So why not change the offsite format? You might schedule four focused half-day sessions across two or three weeks. You could meet not only by region but also by function, level, topic, or hemisphere (assuming that a global meeting might be hampered by time-zone differences).You could decompose the whole meeting structure and put it back together in entirely new ways, like Lego blocks. Perhaps this November a safety engineer in Malaysia — who would not have attended the in-person meetings — might take part in a half-day Asia-Pacific regional session, a half-day operations session, a half-day session on safety, and a half-day session for all attendees — all from his laptop at home.

Better Brainstorming

Andrew, the CEO of a $500 million manufacturer, needed to pivot. His company’s largest and most reliable revenue sources had suddenly dried up as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, and it didn’t appear as if they would flow again anytime soon. He thought that major changes in focus were required. His team would have to sell a different mix of products to different customers just to survive the year and would need to move quickly to capture whatever limited spending was happening before competitors did so.Andrew set up a videoconference with his 12 direct reports and asked for their help in identifying pools of opportunity. With the press of a button, the executives found themselves in one of three virtual breakout rooms. Each group was tasked with highlighting five pressing market needs the company might be in a position to meet. Andrew had assigned people carefully and appointed leaders for each room; for example, he put the three most opinionated, extroverted leaders with the most forceful facilitator and left more-reserved reports with one another. Each team had a virtual whiteboard for capturing ideas. Andrew moved from one virtual room to another, spending a few minutes listening and commenting before providing some brief coaching points and moving on. After 30 minutes, the attendees were transported back to the main session.As the spokesperson from each breakout read out the group’s top five potential opportunities, a master list of customer needs was captured live and appeared on everyone’s screen. A brief question-and-answer session ensured that the ideas were understood. Similar ones were consolidated. Some were refined.Within an hour of starting the meeting, Andrew was staring at a pretty good list: nine potentially promising areas for growth, four of which had never occurred to him. He shared his screen, displaying a three-by-three matrix of boxes, and asked team members to use the annotation function to initial the box in which they thought each new idea should fall. For the first idea, everyone landed in one of two boxes, as illustrated below.

Andrew called on a few people to explain their placements, and after a quick conversation, the group agreed that the idea was “medium-high” — something they could do well, but for which customer willingness to pay seemed difficult.Andrew then read the second idea and asked, “Relative to the first one, where should this idea be placed?” Team members again cast their votes. They repeated the exercise seven times, spending five to 10 minutes on each idea. If team members differed in their views, Andrew asked them to argue their preferences before determining a consensus placement. The result was the following chart:

After a 30-minute breakout, a 30-minute reporting period to refine and consolidate ideas, and 75 minutes of discussion, Andrew and his team had pinpointed the three best opportunities to pursue.Could Andrew have held the same brainstorming session in person? Of course. But it would have been by far less efficient. Just getting team members to and from breakout areas can take 10 or 15 minutes, and discussions can easily meander over an entire day without a clear conclusion. Three virtual meeting tools — the whiteboard, the breakout rooms, and the annotation function — combined to give Andrew more control, speed, structure, and clarity than he might have had sitting with his group around a conference table.Those are just a few examples of the superpowers that virtual meetings enable, regardless of which software your company is using. It is by no means an exhaustive list. In fact, executives we talk with are discovering new techniques, capabilities, and ways to deploy tools every day in a continual effort to make their online team interactions more effective.Accept that some aspects of work are more difficult than they were before — if not impossible. But consider all the new things you can now do, and what you can do better, faster, and at lower cost than before. Embrace and explore the new world in which we find ourselves. In our opinion, we’re going to stay here long after Covid-19 recedes.