You’re working from home and you’re dreading it. In addition to the general cabin fever that sets in, and the challenges of focus, so many virtual meetings and online collaborations are just so….
You know what I mean — you’ve been there. On that lame Skype for Business conference call — you’re watching a presentation and you find yourself reviewing sliding back over those unread emails to sort because it’s so boring. Or maybe you’ve heard that awkward silence when a brave facilitator tries to get people in discussion and there’s crickets on the line?
[chirp. chirp. chirp.]
Virtual meetings and collaborations are so bad because they’re not in person where you can scan the room and pick up all those nonverbal cues — facial expressions and body language. Those things build trust and engagement. Right?
But that’s not the full story.
I run an almost 100% virtual business. All my coaching takes place through video call. I work with remote contractors and assistants. I regularly facilitate online group coaching cohorts, and even recently ran a 3-hour training with virtual breakout groups for over 100 people.
And I’ve found that the big problem with virtual meetings and collaborations is not a problem of format, it’s a problem of culture.
Today we have incredible tech — platforms like Zoom, (which I use) which allow us to host virtual breakout groups, screenshare and collaborate live, but we still use those platforms as if they were the tech from six or seven years ago.
We still teach and connect online in ways that preference present at you approaches, rather than engage with you ones.
So the real difference between dynamic, and wildly productive virtual meetings?
You’ve got to set the tone and change the expectations.
I regularly get feedback on how dynamic and engaging my online facilitation is, so I wanted to share my top guidelines on how to facilitate these meetings differently — and shift the culture.
Insist on Video
In my coaching and training work — and even when facilitating leadership discussions — I tell everyone (and warn them in advance) that they’ll need to have their video camera on. Sure, there’s always the person or two who has a tech issue, but when the majority of the digital room can see each other, meetings are automatically way more dynamic.
Why? Because trust is built more quickly when we can see each other and ‘read the room.’
And engagement is higher, because the best way to feel engaged in a meeting is to know that other people can see you… and tell when you’re not paying attention.
When you are engaged, contributing, participating, you have more powerful experiences. In a recent group coaching call for WingCrew, my alumnae group coaching program, one woman in Boston sighed at the end of the call and shared with the other women just how powerful the conversation had been for her. This woman had spent the call sharing honestly about her situation and diving into the situation of a woman across the country — sharing advice and questions.
When we step up for others online, we grow faster ourselves.
Do the Work Then and There
In in-person collaborations, you can chat about something, and then dive into solving it right there and then — whipping out a sketch or pulling up a spreadsheet or model to look at. Because of the limitations of tech of the past — where you might be able to pan through a previously made power point and that’s it — we fall into a cultural norm of discussing the work we will do after the meeting rather than just doing it there and then.
In my coaching sessions I almost always have screenshare on. I’ll have Adobe Illustrator or a PDF that I’m live editing open. And I’ll live build a visual plan of a client’s career or business strategy as we converse. My Zoom app allows me to have both video and screenshare visual at the same time. So we can see each other, and also see the document we’re building together.
How do you set yourself up to do the work rather than talking about it? Join these virtual meetings with a working document or draft in progress open on screenshare, ready to dive right in.
Use First Names to Prompt People
So that awkward silence problem — where the line is silent, and no one wants to be the first one to talk, or to talk too much? There’s a hack. Use people’s first names.
Online we don’t have access to those same cues to know whether it’s ok for us to talk. So sometimes we need to be invited.
“Ok, curious what others think. Hey Zach, what’s coming up for you?”
If you think people might be blindsided by an open-ended question, give them a closed-ended one. “Zach, your project last year was really similar to this one. What are the issues that came up last year that we haven’t touched on here yet?” Or “Charise, what are the one or two most important priorities of this strategy in your opinion?”
And you don’t have to know everyone in the digital room to do this. In a lot of platforms, people have display names. So especially if participants have their cameras on (see tip one), you can scroll through the thumbnails of everyone present, and say, “Lea — am I pronouncing your name right? Have you seen this issue come up? If so, describe it for us?”
That might make others feel uncomfortable. We’re used to being able to be passive in online settings. It might make you feel uncomfortable. But your job is to smile and nod and be encouraging to other speakers, and to be the one to take the risk in order to generate a better conversation.
Changing these cultural practices is hard.
It can feel uncomfortable to be the one to make the change — especially if you struggle with impostor syndrome. Or if you are being undercut by sexism or other authority-challenging issues. Although it may feel vulnerable to run things differently, acting with a confidence in an approach you don’t yet feel — others will thank you.
Poor facilitation leaves conversational power vacuums filled by loudmouths and mission drift.
You’ve been there before as a listener. You know how terrible it is. So while you might be thinking about all the ways you’re doing this poorly, others will think — so glad someone stepped up to do this.
I used to facilitate a program on sexual empowerment for women. I heard over and over again how much the facilitators’ energy and willingness to put themselves out there made a difference. It made people feel safe in putting themselves out there.
If we could do it about sex, polyamory and periods, you can do it about your project management plan.
And while no one wanted a pandemic to force us to work from home, this moment is an opportunity to uplevel your skills — and to change the outdated expectations we bring to online connection.
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