By Giuseppe Nespoli, VMA and Megan Chandler – Value Management Strategies, Inc.
How was working from home today? We have entered a new normal for society and business. Some of us are being thrust into an unfamiliar remote work environment, some are still holding the line at essential facilities like hospitals and grocery stores, and some are working from home with children running around us. Although we may be feeling isolated while social distancing, we are not alone.
Working remotely presents a unique opportunity for us to learn to be more productive and intentionally build community with our colleagues. We do not have the same luxury of walking past a friend’s cubicle and asking how their day is going. Just as we are thinking about the greater good by working from home to minimize the spread of COVID-19, we must think about the bigger picture to maximize the reach of communications.
At VMS, we have operated remotely for decades. VMS has built a culture that thrives virtually. Through trial and research, we developed strategies for in-person and virtual workshops that serve our clients and us well. That is why we are successful at connecting with people we have and have not met.
Below are some strategies we want to share with you to add value to your virtual meetings. These techniques can work for one-hour meetings or full-day workshops to engage colleagues, build teams, strengthen trust, and address work topics. The underlying assumption is that these are interactive meetings and not lectures. If it’s the latter, you’re reading the wrong article.
1. Get the Party Started
People are anxious about adjusting to a new normal for work and life. Holding a structured “check-in” with everyone at the beginning of a virtual meeting is essential to create a sense of normalcy and connection among participants. Prepare prompted questions that can be related to the meeting topic or off-the-wall funny and ask everyone to share their response:
- How are you staying healthy during these difficult times?
- Is there anything you need to get off your chest to help stay focused during this meeting?
- What is one thing about yourself that others in this meeting don’t know?
- What would you do if you won the lottery today, besides sharing it with your team?
I promise it is not a bad thing to have your team laughing and in a good mood at the start of the meeting.
2. Put a Name to a Face
Using video in virtual meetings is one way to add value by humanizing the team. Who doesn’t want to see your smiling face? For those who cannot join by video, check-ins are a great time for the technical host* to rename anyone who called in by phone (for platforms where a phone number appears instead of a name). It will be more convenient for everyone to have a name to reference when the team gets into discussions or breakout rooms. Plus, acknowledging people by name, in-person or virtually, adds to the psychological safety and trust within the team.
3. The New Norms
Discuss virtual etiquette by establishing ground rules early in the meeting to normalize the work and communicate effectively together. Norms could be simple actions we may take for granted with in-person meetings:
- Review the agenda before we open discussion
- State your name before speaking to the benefit of those who are only connected by phone
- Mute yourself when not speaking to reduce background noise
- Focus on one topic (unit of work) at a time
It is always good to come prepared with a few norms that you have already established for how your team used to work together in-person. Ask for input from the attendees on other norms to establish in the virtual meeting. Even if there is nothing to add, the opportunity to establish ground rules makes the team own their actions. If this is a recurring meeting with the same team, you do not have to establish new norms for working together online, but it will be helpful to revisit the ground rules each meeting. If new team members join the meetings, the team dynamics will change, so it is important to acknowledge this and see if the norms need to shift in any way.
4. Give Me a Break
Depending on the length of your virtual meeting, scheduled breaks are important. Breaks allow the team to respond to emails, listen to voice mails, check on the kids, and take care of any other personal needs. Be sure to mention when the breaks will take place when you review the agenda. If people can anticipate the breaks, there will be fewer distractions related to participants walking on and off the screen during key parts of the meeting.
5. Go to Your (Breakout) Room
Almost all virtual meeting platforms have the capability to activate breakout rooms (if not, change your platform). Breakout rooms are more valuable in a virtual setting because not everyone who felt comfortable speaking up in person will feel the same way online. Many folks are adapting to working virtually, and there can be some level of discomfort. Having breakout sessions during a meeting creates a smaller and safer environment for all team members the opportunity to share their opinions and thoughts. Allow for the information discussed in the breakout rooms to be shared with everyone when the team comes back together.
If you are planning multiple breakout sessions during one meeting, consider whether you want the same people together or to mix it up for every breakout session. There are pros and cons to both options, depending on your purpose.
Make sure you are intentional about utilizing breakout rooms by asking yourself why you want to use them. If you do not have a good answer, don’t use them.
6. Calling You Out
As mentioned earlier, many people are new to the virtual meeting space. They may not feel comfortable speaking up. Video meetings have the added benefit where you can see everyone’s face at the same time, unlike in-person meetings. Use that to your advantage and be observant about changes, including if someone has stopped paying attention, or is chomping at the bit to say something but hasn’t stepped forward. Scan the room to engage the team by asking each person by name to offer input into the discussion. This is particularly important for those only on the phone because they cannot see everyone nor what is going on.
7. Amazing Grace
Experiment with the features in advance of your virtual meeting until you are comfortable. By orienting yourself with the technology you are using, you can focus on the objectives of the meeting and be fully engaged during the meeting. Plus, you may find different ways to utilize these tools that work for you and your needs. Just remember that we all are adjusting to this new way of working together, so please extend yourself grace. Others will do the same and appreciate you for it.
There are a lot of opportunities to build unity in our teams and organizations as we focus on our humanity in this new world. Now is the time to be hopeful for what can be – and VMS is here to share in that hope.
*Bonus tip: It is best if the technical host isn’t the facilitator. Virtual meetings are most successful when you have someone managing the content and breakout rooms, while someone else focuses on engaging the team, building trust, and managing the discussion.