The real business class is in front of my screen!

For 15 years, I have traveled regularly to meet clients and colleagues. When I was a young executive in Investment Banking, I can still remember my first business trips: I found it hard to hide my pride at sitting in the “business class” and to be able to hang out in the more high end places, that my own personal wallet could not have got me into. Then, with my Platinum frequent traveller card in hand, I admit to having dreamed of the moment when I would be informed I was now a member of the prestigious “Club 2000”. But very quickly, I bemoaned always being the only woman, and furthermore, without grey hair, in the middle of a crowd of white men between 40 and 50 years old, who may well drink champagne in the airport lounge, but whose life balance is far from enviable.

Today, I am an entrepreneur in the field of collective intelligence in “digital nomad” mode, and also mother to three young children. For me, long-distance connection is the cornerstone of life balance. It represents a real opportunity to escape from the golden cage of “business class” for executives who are in endless pursuit of the famous work-life balance.

Being able to connect several people at once, wherever they are located, for as long as necessary without wasting any further time, being able to share my screen with them instantly, to organise people into sub-groups to reflect on a question and come back to share the results of the reflection in a “(virtual) plenary”, isn’t that precisely what we would like the meetings we all complain about to become like!

And yet, when I suggest a virtual meeting to clients or partners, I feel an immediate withdrawal. First, they hear “conference call” which I believe doesn’t actually create such fertile conditions as a video-conference. When I clarify the difference, I then hear hesitations like “virtual is not the same” or “it’s impossible to stay online for as long as physically”, but would it really be possible to stay productive in a meeting room, sat around a table for hours on end?! Finally, I sometimes hear myths that certain large corporations’ IT services refuse connections from outside the system approved by the company.

My associate Cecile and I have worked for three years in two different countries. We only see each other a few weeks of the years when we are with clients. Our working relationship is the laboratory where the protocols of collective intelligence are born and develop, which we then we help our clients to adopt. Of course, we practise what we preach, so I can confirm that our protocols work long-distance too!

So next time we suggest a virtual meeting to you, before dismissing the idea, consider the following:

1. Ask yourself if business class is over-rated? In lots of companies, long-distance connection is proudly cited in their cost-cutting or carbon emission reduction policies. Far less glamorous than champagne in the VIP lounge at the airport — at least it would seem so!

2. Virtually, self-removal is possible at any time. I particularly appreciate being able to connect with someone, hang up for a few minutes to get on with things on my side, to then pick up the conversation with new input. Of course, whoever said that a short conversation could only be had on the phone?

3. Sort out the technical details in advance: if you aren’t used to working with the application you are invited to use, to be virtually punctual means connecting five real minutes before the agreed time in order to allow for possible loading time. Any connection problems should be weighed up against journey times in the underground or taxis, queues, check-ins and getting through security in socks without a belt or jewellery on, which you won’t have to go through. Ask yourself this question: what more could you do in your personal life instead of reading the press whilst eating junk food in the VIP lounge next time you travel?

4. Invest in quality tools: if the beginnings were a bit chaotic, today, technology is reliable. Subscribe to a good network if you connect from home, and keep a good old landline as a back-up for the days when connection is temperamental (which are rarer than public transport strikes!). For technophobes, go straight for Zoom, it’s the most simple and stable service I have come across (this link is NOT sponsored!).

5. Mind the beginner’s trap: the time-zone adjustment! Agree on the “by default” time-zone you always refer to. I suggest the time-zone where the company is incorporated, so everyone is responsible to do their own maths. Beware of the daylight adjustments that don’t occur at the same time everywhere. The website can be a useful reference.

6. Avoid virtual conversations without a camera: it opens the door for multi-tasking, and can kill off the potential co-creation of the moment.

7. Start your virtual meeting with an inclusion round or “check-in to overcome the natural feeling of distance. Name the discomfort if it is present rather than awkwardly ignoring it.

8. Get out of your comfort zone and widen your professional network: far less formal and committal than a physical meeting, look at the virtual meeting as an opportunity to discuss with a broader circle of people.

When I read about the role that robots will play in our daily lives in the near future, I have the impression that I am reading a science fiction novel from the 1980s. Even if certain technological advances can create some resistance when first tackled, it is high time that executives learn to overcome that so as not to be left behind by the next generations. I recommend attending the next edition of the Singularity University if you want to scare yourself: you will learn that the pace is only going to accelerate. Before that happens, sincerely, it is easy to get over reluctance to connect virtually. I’m not sure that those who miss the boat will be happy when they are asked to meet by holoportation tomorrow. Personally, I can’t wait!

Finally, don’t make me say what I haven’t said yet. It is of course necessary to discuss “in the flesh” from time to time. Still, if you tell me that the cost of a business trip is extortionate, especially in terms of the energy you expend, think about using as many as possible of collective intelligence protocols on these privileged occasions.