In December, the video communications company Zoom boasted 10 million daily users. In March, as the coronavirus lockdown went into full swing, the number rose to 200 million.
Virtual work has gone mainstream. True, some of us will return to a physical workspace in the coming weeks and months. But virtual work isn’t going anywhere. Twitter, for example, recently announced that its employees will be allowed to continue to work remotely on a permanent basis. Many companies will follow suit. Karen Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, reports that “seventy-seven percent of the workforce say they want to continue to work from home, at least weekly, when the pandemic is over.”
And yet—what we’re hearing from our clients is that there are still serious challenges with working virtually. Zoom meetings can still feel flat, awkward, and not engaging. And they often don’t produce the sort of connection, transformation, and collaboration that are possible with in-person conversations.
We at The Granger Network have done remote work for a while now and have learned over the years how to elevate video conferencing to facilitate engaging, even transformative conversations. So, we thought we’d share with you five of our top tips:
Tip#1: Begin with a “Mood Check”
Zoom meetings often begin with tentative, awkward chit-chat as participants get their microphones set up—and then it’s off to the races. At The Granger Network, we take a beat before diving into the agenda to start with a “mood-check.” The idea is to get a sense of what folks are bringing with them into the meeting. Are they ambitious and energized? Anxious and overwhelmed? Somewhere in between? There’s a lot going on in the world right now—which means there’s a lot going on in our internal worlds.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, each of us brings a whole host of moods and feelings into our meetings. The process of acknowledging some of those moods and feelings allows people to feel seen and heard—this, in turn, enables them to focus better on the topic at hand, as well as feel more connected with colleagues.
This doesn’t have to take a lot of time. You can go around the horn and have each person share just a few reflections. Or, you could simply have participants type into the chat box one word that describes their mood. The point is, taking even a momentary pause to check in with folks transforms the Zoom room from a cold virtual environment to an open, inviting, human environment.
Tip #2: Consider Hiding “Self-View”
When you used to sit down to an in person-meeting (back in the good old days), you saw the faces of the people sitting around the table. When you sit down to a Zoom meeting, there’s now a new face looking back at you—your own. You don’t have to be the mythological Narcissus to give in to the temptation to check out your own virtual reflection, on constant watch to ensure the room is kept tidy, your hair is coiffed nicely, and that there are no poppy seeds lodged in your pearly whites. Of course, you’ll want to get set up at the beginning of the meeting and make sure that you’re framed properly on the screen and that nothing particularly distracting is lurking in the background. But afterwards, consider switching off “self-view” so that you can focus on connecting with others and engaging with the content at hand.
Tip #3: Forgo Virtual Backgrounds
Many of us have learned the trick of switching out our backgrounds. We can go from floating in space, to diving underwater, or to scaling the Great Wall of China, much to the amusement of our fellow conference participants. This is harmless enough as an occasional gag, but in general we advise against virtual backgrounds. When it comes to fostering a felt connection between humans on Zoom, we’re already fighting an uphill battle.
Living, breathing human beings are never taken out of context – they are always in some kind of environment, surrounded by a world. Being reduced to a small box on a grid is unnatural enough but taking out any depth to your world (even a blank wall behind you) makes it even more difficult to connect with you.
It may seem like a small thing, but the natural background of your living room or even your laundry room door provides some important humanizing context. It creates a sense of space. We know the virtual backgrounds can relieve the pressure of showing your messy house or your dog wandering around behind you. Still, wherever possible, keep your background as is. It will have your colleagues and clients experience you as a three-dimensional human being instead of a talking 2D cut-out.
Tip #4: End Meetings 5-10 Minutes Early
Most of us instinctively adhere to an unwritten rule to use up all of our meeting time, stretching our meetings to the last available minute, and often well beyond that. While this likely stems from a desire to be as productive as possible, the result is that we often get whiplash bouncing from meeting to meeting, with no time to take a breather and orient ourselves to what’s next. And since there’s also no allotted time to check our texts and emails, we often do so during the meetings themselves, further fracturing our attention. We highly recommend you make it a custom at your organization to end meetings 5-10 minutes early. This gives everyone a chance to recharge, tie up loose ends, and show up to the next meeting ready to listen and engage.
Tip #5: Hear from Every Person on Every Call at Least Once
We know by now the importance of muting ourselves when not speaking. But when some participants never have a chance to un-mute themselves, we lose the opportunity to hear each other’s voices, which is one of the primary modes of connection available through video conferencing. There are many ways to accomplish this. One way is to pause at various points throughout the meeting to elicit reflections from less vocal participants. Have a meeting with over 100 people? Try at least asking everyone to come off mute at the end of the call to say “goodbye.” Believe it or not, these little moments of connection go a long way.
At the end of the day, each of these tips is about bringing deeper, more focused, more authentic listening and engagement into our virtual meeting rooms. The new virtual environment we are swimming in now is new for many of us. At best, it requires some getting used to. At worst, it can be downright daunting. It can be hard to collaborate, perform, and lead well with that pressure in the way. With these techniques, we can shorten the learning curve and harness the power of these extraordinary technologies to connect with our colleagues and forward our work, no matter the distance.
What best practices have you come across in your virtual work? We’d love to hear them and share them with others.