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Staying virtually connected across the globe

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Making long distance business relationships work.

Harvard Law School recently wrote about a start-up with offices in both the UK and US which ended up failing because the interaction and negotiation between the teams was virtual, meaning they didn't feel they knew each other. 


It’s a cautionary tale. We may think that technology can fix everything, but while it can facilitate some activities, it can equally add complications that must be managed carefully for us to be successful. 

Effective negotiation

One of the areas in which a move towards virtual can do real harm to a business’s ability to operate effectively is negotiation – how people or teams navigate and influence a situation to a desired outcome, both internally and with clients or prospects. With businesses becoming more global than ever, it seems likely that recruitment and HR practitioners will increasingly conduct negotiations at arm’s length that they would have once done face-to-face. And, as well as becoming skilled virtual negotiators themselves, HR professionals also need to be giving negotiation skills due prominence when devising training programmes for their organisation.  

When negotiation is taking place in channels in which parties can’t see each other – such as phone and email – the communication skills of the negotiating team become hugely significant, determining whether the interaction succeeds or fails. In many instances, the same best practice behaviour that exists in the real world is relevant in the virtual space. The same skills and techniques should be demonstrated – it’s simply more important that these are exhibited in virtual environments.

For instance, if it’s not possible to see whether everyone is engaged and following sometimes complex interactions, a skilled negotiator needs to know when to summarise the discussion. This is important in a face-to-face interaction, but at least there you might have a flip chart in the room outlining all points of agreement. While some virtual platforms offer this, not all do. This means that “so we’re all agreed that the project could begin in March at a reduced rate for the first three months if…..,” becomes less a rhetorical flourish and more an essential test of whether genuine progress is being made, agreement may be closer and if it’s the correct time to move on to the next item on the agenda. 

These summarising statements are often more effective in a virtual environment than questions. The distinction is important because questions are important during a negotiation – they create doubt and doubt creates movement. However, a constant stream of question marks in an email or instant chat forum, for instance, might come across as demanding. Making use of summarising statements – “so we’re all clear on contract length” – rather than constant questioning, can be an effective alternative approach. 

‘Labelling behaviour’ means flagging what is about to be discussed in advance, “I’d like to outline our proposition,” for instance. It’s worth doing this in any interaction, but in a virtual environment in which you can’t see the participants, don’t necessarily have their full attention and don’t know whether they’re following the conversation, this plays an even more important role in focusing the group on what’s being discussed. 

An exception to this rule is in moments of disagreement. “I’m going to have to disagree with you on that” will only cause people to switch off and ignore the rationale behind your disagreement, particularly in a virtual environment in which there is less obligation to remain obviously engaged. It’s far better to explain the rationale to an engaged audience before flagging any disagreement. “We’re offering a significant discount in the first six months, so we can’t reduce the contract length to just six months, and therefore I’m going to have disagree with you on that,” gets the point across without losing the listener in advance. 

Similarly, understanding and acting on the difference between preparation and planning – with preparation being the gathering of facts, figures, variables and options; whilst planning is the careful choreography of the arguments, behaviours and personalities you are going to deploy once you get into the direct engagement whether in the real world or virtual space. Of the two, planning is much the more important.

All this is to say that businesses don’t need to overhaul the way they interact and negotiate internally and with prospects, but they need to be doubly sure that their teams are trained in and can demonstrate well-established best practice. Effective negotiation needs to be a prominent consideration for HR teams devising training programmes across nearly all industries. The result will be far fewer examples of businesses running into difficulty – and ending up on the wrong end of the deal.

Tony Hughes

By Tony Hughes

Tony is the CEO of Huthwaite International

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