About a century ago, last week, I wrote about how to face into virtual meetings in a new way. Since that time, I have been on about thirty more hours of virtual meetings, and so my series continues, with me a little wiser in my self-isolation. You can find the whole suite of suggestions here and a deeper look at the first two suggestions here. There I talked about the importance of setting a solid foundation. But there are also really big differences in how we need to actually hold conversations once we’ve begun. This blog will help with that.
Educate about etiquette
So even after a week or two of meeting virtually, people have probably learned that staying on mute is a good idea unless you’re actually talking (in which case it’s a bad idea). But even after years of meeting virtually, I can tell you that slipping off mute by mistake or forgetting to mute once you’ve finished talking is incredibly common. This leads to little annoyances like chewing noises or big challenges like exposing your colleagues to things you and they would rather not hear (like the fellow who murmured his sharply negative opinion about the current presentation without realizing he had come off mute). If you’re the leader of the meeting, it’s a kindness to everyone to nicely ask colleagues to mute, or to interrupt them to let them know they are breaking up etc. We always need feedback from others, but when we are virtual, we literally don’t know how we are coming across. Make a habit of letting people know. It might it easier to give other forms of necessary feedback too.
Be clear about what you want
Virtual meetings tip more easily into two basins of meeting hell: the-everyone-just-randomly-talks basin or the no-one-says-anything basin. To encourage the more helpful approach, ask people for what you want. “I’m really stumped so I’d like a wide range of opinions about this,” helps loosen the tongue. “I’m pretty clear that this is the right way to go but I need to hear what I’m missing. Can anyone who sees a flaw just speak up quickly?” Watch out here for the mindtrap of agreement and support people to disagree well.
Naming your need once isn’t enough. You’ll have to come back at it again and again. Put a post it that says BALCONY right next to your camera so that every time you glance up you’ll see it. That will remind you to check in with yourself and the group—is this conversation going well? Are a wide variety of people sharing? Are some people checked out? Call attention to the process of the meeting—not just the content—to keep everyone engaged and learning.
Watch faces, not decks
Anyone in a meeting with me will hear my constant request, “Thanks—can you kill the screen share now?” That’s because the habit nature of talking to a slide overtakes us—and then the slide overtakes the people. Often you don’t need the slide at all: use the chat function to put useful content such as directions or agenda items. Flash a necessary slide and let people take a picture of it before you pull it back down. Just remember that you’re always subtlety answering the question: is this slide more important than the people on the line? The longer you leave the slide up, the more your operating answer is Yes.
Basically, my conclusion is this. I lead a firm that is entirely virtual. We have found that virtual meetings can be at least as filled with creativity, connection, and information as any in-person meeting. And we have found that our meetings can have something that many in person meetings lack. Paying attention to the process of the meeting—the way you set it up, the way you run it—can give the meeting a kind of a spirit of togetherness that those of us who are locked in our individual homes around the world are missing. Do this well, and when we all come back to work again, you’ll find that the quality of the relationships and the quality of your meetings have improved while you’ve been protecting your health and the health of others. This generates hope for today and hope for the future, something we should all be manufacturing these difficult days.