Virtual meetings and Coronavirus: We need tech know-how but also compassion

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Who would have thought just four short weeks ago, a majority of us would be hunkered down working from home? But in this once-in-100-year pandemic, this is our new normal.

So just how do we navigate this new work world and remain productive? It’s not ‘rocket science.’ We do have the technology, and everyone is learning to roll with it, from organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other world leaders who are conducting virtual meetings, locally, nationally and internationally.

If your company or organization has little experience with virtual meetings, it will take some keen organizers, a few tech-savvy folks and discipline to keep your workplaces ticking as close to normal as possible.

Most importantly, cut yourself a little slack if you’re new to this.

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Our new reality

I’ve been working from home for five years, so I feel comfortable with it. But now that I have to meet with my clients digitally rather than face to face, I’m experiencing some of the challenges we all face in the coming weeks.

Whereas I once had space to myself, I suddenly have more company in my home office with the kids out of school. I find myself asking my 16-year-old son to vacate our shared space (“ Mooommm!!!”) when I’m about to go into a Zoom meeting or a video conference call.

From a client’s perspective, this will certainly change how I work with them for the foreseeable future. What does that look like? We’ll meet online in shorter, more frequent, chunks and there will be more takeaway work for participants.

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“The more you adapt, the more interesting you are.” – Martha Stewart

We will all have to learn how to adapt and we will evolve as we do so. I’m finding myself doing that every day. This will force us to elevate our remote working game, that’s for sure.

On March 12, I began the first of a four-part series of discussions with a client. On that day, everyone was in the room. It was business as usual.  By March 17, 40% of the group was remote. By the third meeting a few days later, 75% of participants were remote. The final two meetings were larger groups and 100% remote participation.

What were some takeaways?

  1. Virtual meetings require more planning: In addition to typical process planning (establishing objectives, building supporting process), we also need to think about how technology supports and disables.  What tools do we use for co-creation? How will we create breakout groups work when people are both inside and outside of the room? How will groups capture their content?
  2. It takes (at least) 2: It is really important to have someone running the technology – addressing microphone issues, feedback challenges, video cameras, screen shares, poll launches, and breakout rooms.  The other person is managing process, conversation, the chat box and capturing notes. It’s overwhelming for one person to try to everything.
  3. Arrive early: Let participants know the room is open 15 minutes early so you have time to troubleshoot technical issues.  The most common phrase we hear in a virtual meeting is …“can you hear me?”
  4. Use a common platform: In the third meeting, I had voice participation, video participation, and in-room participation. Managing sound and creating breakout rooms is much more complex. I tweeted a comment “hybrid meetings are almost more difficult” and had a flood of responses from facilitators who said, “almost?? no ALWAYS”.
  5. Level the playing field: To balance participation, ask everyone to use the same mode of participation. Everyone is on a conference call, or everyone is on a video call, or everyone is in the room. In my last set of meetings I had a few folks gather in a meeting room to participate as a group. I sent them to their individual work spaces (totally not what I would normally do) to join the call individually to ensure the same experience for all.
  6. Leverage breakout rooms: Breakout rooms create intimate discussion spaces where participants have more opportunities to share. Decide how you will capture their input. If you are in a hybrid scenario, match people in the room with people outside of the room to balance participation.  In my second meeting (conference call participation), I had my in-room people fire up a Skype meeting with the remote people so they could conduct their break out session.
  7. Consider co-creation tools carefully: To the extent possible, use platforms that your group is familiar with. For example – if they are accustomed to working in Powerpoint, asking them to shift to Google Slides will create some discomfort and cost you time.  If you are using a platform for creating content that is new, build in time for the group to learn it.  It often takes longer than you expect.

I admit that I am finding it a bit exhausting, never mind my tech helper who had a tiny meltdown after our third meeting where we had so much complexity. But I’m determined to make this work.

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For those of whom working from home is relatively new, we are all on a huge learning curve, so how do we need to be?

For one, we all need to have compassion for one another. We all have different home setups. Some people may be working from a cluttered kitchen table with an older computer, while others have an aspirational, eye candy office and impeccable tech. (Jealous!) Pro tip: If you’re working with the popular Zoom online tool, the virtual background feature (Click on the up arrow beside the camera icon in lower left hand corner, select virtual background, choose your background) allows you to have a bucolic background like the Golden Gate Bridge. Thought you might appreciate that!

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Meanwhile, here are some tips for making your routine virtual meetings go smoothly.

  • Be patient with each other, we’re all in the same boat.
  • WiFi connections are often unreliable. If you can plug your computer into a router, in many cases you’ll get a more reliable connection.
  • If you’re trying new tools, don’t be afraid to experiment. There are an infinite number of tools online. (See the list below)
  • Ask experts at your workplace for help.
  • Try to be in a place that is distraction-free and let the people in your home know, so your husband doesn’t walk into the room in his underwear. (My family has learned to wave at me from behind the laptop to avoid being in my video meetings).
  • For better lighting, have windows in front of you rather than behind.
  • Buy a webcam if you can.
  • A good headset goes a long way and blocks out background noises.
  • If you’re using Zoom, like so many people are, it has a “touch up my appearance” function in its help centre, which incorporates a soft focus that evens out your skin tone. Yes, for real.
  • Use the mute button as your default to minimize background noise and for those moments when your dog decides to bark, or your kids are getting a bit loud.
  • Shut down email and other notifications to keep distractions to a minimum.
  • Have a Plan B for when technology goes sideways. You can always go back to the dependable conference call.
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Break the ice and acknowledge everyone

Just because you’re not all together in one room, doesn’t mean you can’t set a positive tone, encourage meaningful conversations and establish a sense of cohesiveness.

Because online meetings are asynchronous deliberate attention to connecting conversations is really helpful. Here are a few things you can do to achieve this:

  • Ask each participant their name and a simple question, like how the weather is where they are. I was recently in a video conference with 60 people from around the world, and this technique worked quite well because everyone in the group felt acknowledged.
  • Use a poll tool, like Zoom’s or Mentimeter , and ask a variety of questions of participants on the subject matter. It’s super easy to use. In fact, Zoom has a whole suite of cool functions. (See below)
  • Use a shared document for taking meeting minutes (e.g. Google Docs, Word now allows co-creation). That way, everyone can work on the same document to get better results.
  • Record the meeting if people can’t make it: Zoom also has a record meeting function.
  • Even if you’re a bit camera-phobic or haven’t showered yet today, it’s always helpful to see faces, so please put your video function on, (you can always use the “touch up my appearance” function!)
  • Do something fun, like ‘virtual lunch’ or ‘virtual coffee break’. Schedule a time when everyone gathers just to each lunch, share a coffee and talk about their day. No shop talk.
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Look at the bright side – no commuting!

Working from home is not terrible. Think of all the advantages – no commuting, staying in your pajama bottoms (though you may want to have a decent top for video meetings), and the ability to throw in a load of laundry in the middle of the day and take your dog for a walk.

There’s a simplicity and fluidity that can be beneficial to working from home, even if virtual meetings are on the agenda. There’s a new intimacy to the way we have to work now, and we may just have to be more deliberate in creating cohesiveness, documenting our work and communicating with intention.

Helpful resources

There are infinite online resources for virtual meetings. Here are a few I’ve found helpful

Officeless: This site represents a movement that started in Brasilia. They posted a particularly good guideline for working remotely in our current circumstances.

This CNET article has a long list of Zoom tips, tricks and hidden features.

Co-creation tools

Google slides / Google docs – really great for co-creation. Google was the first to create co-edit docs and they are an easy to use, easily accessible tool.  It’s always fun to correct someone else’s typos as they make them.

Liniot is a free, sticky and canvas service that requires nothing but a Web browser. This is a simple tool for a brainstorm / cluster process. A bit ‘old school’ looking – it covers off a basic brainstorm session.

Miro.com is an online collaborative whiteboarding platform.  Use it for brainstorming, clustering, mapping and diagramming.  I have not used it, but have heard some good reviews from others.

Mural.co has come to my attention.  It is also an online collaborative whiteboarding platform. It seems to support a larger canvas and offers many templates.

Hardware tools:

Jamboard is an interactive style of whiteboard that supports cloud-based collaboration.  From Google, it’s got lots to offer and requires some investment dollars.

What I’m reading

Collaborating with the Enemy, How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, Adam Kahane

Adam Kahane works on complex problems and has discovered that the conventional collaborative scenario where all are aligned to a common vision, harmonious relations and that clarity about who does what is not always possible. Collaboration, in these scenarios must embrace discord, experimentation and genuine co-creation to emerge in conflicted situations.  This book is about his experiences and the model he has evolved.