Mastering COVID-19 video meetings with Asia - tips from business
Adapting to a different culture and picking up on the subtle signals is much easier when done face-to-face. But with video meetings likely to be required for most of this year, the art of digital communication remains a challenge, and a key skill.
We’ve talked to five exporters to Asia — from tech, education, food and local government — to uncover how they have managed the impact of COVID-19 on their business partnerships.
The availability of a range of video call platforms has proven instrumental in maintaining communications for business, but it’s required a different kind of effort to stay-in-touch and be effective. Many businesses and organisations have had to keep current contacts informed via remote calls, connect with potential customers, manage projects and sometimes even navigate new markets.
It’s not been easy! So we thought we would check with the Bisnis Asia network to see how the professionals were handling it, especially in the sometimes tricky space between cultures.
Who we spoke to :
- Megan Cockroft (Business Development Specialist at City of Melbourne)
- Adam Kilburn (Head, English Language Centre at Holmesglen Institute)
- Wesley McLaren (Channel Development Manager at Jalna Dairy Foods)
- Susanne Sperber ( Director Marketing & Engagement at Arcitecta)
- Garry Embleton (Operations Director at Ausfine Foods)
Some exporters found that a tendency in some cultures to have more people on the video call at the same time and resulted in variances in the quality of conversation.
Wes McLaren said he had to account more for delays in discussions, variable internet connections, accidental interruptions and accepting the fact that you might not be able to get through your entire agenda.
Adam Kilburn said it was important to remember that some areas had less digital capacity.
“We were lucky with Holmsglen as we had the infrastructure in place for digital communications however at the other end they were not so fortunate and that means we need to be patient.”
For some though the lack of face-to-face meetings opened up new channels to meet people faster.
The City of Melbourne has been working closely with the City of Bandung in Indonesia, and Megan Cockroft has found that the reliance on digital tools (video calls and messaging apps) has created closer collaboration and more frequent interaction.
“I guess a lot of those conversations that maybe would have been put off before, for a visit, we have to have digitally. So, I feel like its actually leveled the playing field a bit, whether you’re across town, or in another country, we’re actually all connecting virtually.”
Susanne Sperber of Arcitecta said the team did not find the transition to digital only communications as sharp as others as it had already adapted due to a commitment to minimise air travel for environmental reasons. She said that ultimately it’s been a reminder that virtual meetings can be refined by using professional cameras and lighting.
“I think the cultural differences don’t matter that much when you are focussing on the solution of the problem and looking at the things that you have in common rather than the things that might be different.”
Garry Embleton says the imperative to learn how to meet in a different way has created a new skill set around the globe, so that companies are not trying to adopt something that is being resisted elsewhere.
“The ad hoc conversations and the capacity to have your conversation go off on more of a tangent is probably what’s a little bit lost out of the video call, but it’s been a very good substitute in the circumstances.”
- Casual conversations
Don’t underestimate the importance of informal conversations even in the digital era to build meaningful business relationships.
“We’re trying to push for more frequent casual conversations,” Mr McLaren said. “So those are questions that are important and that you might talk about in a casual setting… but they get lost when you’re following a structured conversation.”
Ms Cockroft said using COVID-19 is a great icebreaker for conversations. “It’s a common thread, that everyone has an understanding and experience and that unites people.”
Ask about the other person’s experience working from home, how they’re coping, and how the situation is wherever they are.
- Preserve structure & have an agenda
“If you have a lot of people in the meeting, it pays off to have one designated moderator,” said Ms Sperber, “and casual conversations are important as well as introducing people and their roles.”
Greet people as they enter the virtual meeting room and introduce them to each other to avoid awkward silences where people do not know each other.
Mr Kilburn said it’s important to check beforehand what others want to discuss to form an agenda that is acceptable and can be moved through.
Garry Embleton says Ausfine Foods has set up a structure to generate consistency of conversations.
“One of the things that we’re adapting to that is making sure that we actually schedule regular calls. Sometimes weekly, sometimes fortnightly, sometimes monthly, with our key trading partners and having an ongoing agenda to talk about.”
- Diversify your communication methods
For some businesses, it’s not the norm to take significant actions over video calls. You may need extra communications over email or ensure to follow up on a messaging service like Whatsapp to fill in any gaps, according to Ms Cockroft.
- Consider cultural differences
Ms Cockroft has found that some formalities have been dropped while people work from home. However, she said to be mindful that hierarchy in Indonesia still impacts conversations.
“The people that I’m talking to will usually have to ask their supervisors, even if the supervisor’s not present, and they won’t make a decision in a meeting.”
She has also found that while there is an upside to her calls with the opportunity to have more informal conversations, “You’re dealing with Indonesia, you often have the challenges of people being interrupted, or the hierarchy.”
Adjusting to a digital way of keeping in touch has to often be aligned to the culture that you are dealing with.
Wes McLaren said Australian meetings are easier to schedule due to people being used to familiarity with internal time zones, and will usually be more informal with fewer people.
This compared to his experience with meetings with Singapore which were more structured and ended abruptly on time.
Face-to-face interactions are still proving to be important, with businesses keen to get back-on-track.
“As something that has gone for a year it has been manageable but I can’t sustain the positive line for longer as it is the face-to-face interactions that count the most,” said Adam Kilburn.
The future of business travel
Exporters agreed that the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine in Australia would be critical to when business people could travel more freely. Also as critical was how other countries respond to the pandemic.
“I can’t see it (travel) happening this year, the government says the vaccines will not be rolled out before the end of October and there are different timetables for different destinations,” Adam Kilburn said.
Susanne Sperber said the norm for business travel will have changed.
“A lot of people will also not be keen to go back to previous levels of business travel,” she said “and this is a good thing for the planet.”
Wes McLaren said even if travel restrictions were lifted in Australia, businesses would need to consider how they plan their trips.
“So, typically for us, we wouldn’t spend more than two or three days in the country that we’re visiting. If we had to do a two-week quarantine into and out of, into that country and into the next one, that wouldn’t be feasible.”
Adapting to COVID-19 has required a new level of skills and discipline and these will still be needed for most of 2021, and for the future, as business incorporates these new ways to operate.