85% of human interaction happens below “the surface”, below reasoning, logic and often even perception.
That’s why – provided there’s some empathy – face-to-face, physical person-to-person interaction is so important. When this is not possible – or not recommended during coronavirus times – make sure you put some effort into “emulating the real thing”: Cam on
Use video calls, make sure every one is visible on cam. Turn on yours to lead by example. In audio-only sessions so much of the 85% is lost.
Also, being on camera is a different commitment to the meeting compared to snoozing to the sound of a telco. It doesn’t have to be expensive gear either. Regular notebook cams are often sufficient, some mobile phones have even better resolution and there are inexpensive solutions for external USB webcams.
So you needn’t spend thousands of Euros on a conferencing system just to get going. Actually you can get the best results out of a remote meeting when everyone uses her own cam and a headset for good audio quality.
Some tips on using a cam:
- Check your background 😉
Consider using a virtual background if needed.
- Be aware of what you’re doing while other people talk in speaker view.
If you can’t see them they still might see you.
- Position the cam at the same height as your eyes
… to prevent the infamous nostril shot.
If you have to use your internal laptop cam you should consider getting a stand, e.g the Kensington Easy Riser stand.
- Find a setup that films your face neither from too far away nor too close.
- While an HD camera is not a must it has some advantages, e.g. for capturing handwriting on a whiteboard. See also “Visualize it”.
- If you use a mobile device please make sure it’s in a fixed position. If you move around with your cam on filming your face then the shaky background might make the others dizzy.
Keep it human
When people have physical meetings they sometimes walk to the conference room together, grab a coffee together and chat about things in an informal way. When the meeting starts this conversation might go on – as a deliberate ice breaker or to kill time while some unlucky co-worker is trying to get the phone/camera/projector/younameit up and running.
Either way, this is the stuff below the surface that gives us a feeling of belonging that shapes a team and its success. Here’s how you can “emulate” it in a remote meeting situation:
Start the tech before the meeting is scheduled to start.
And you’ll need this time ANYWAY because web meetings don’t always work immediately. When things are up and running and participants start joining, let them have time for some informal conversations.
As the meeting’s host you can support this by NOT doing 2 things:
- making it impossible to join before the scheduled start time
- forcing them to be muted before you start the meeting
Get the most out of audio
We’ve been there. Conference rooms with a phone on the table, 8 people sitting around it and more groups of people in remote locations connected to the call. Bad audio quality, low volume, background noise, lagging connection and participants struggling with a language most of them are not native in.
Complete. Waste. Of. Time.
If you can’t hear each other then the whole idea of having a real-time event like a (web) meeting is pointless and sending mails instead or exchanging documents would be more effective (and efficient).
The best audio quality you can get is actually pretty cheap: use a headset, e.g via USB for 10-30 Euros or the headphone+mic combo you got with your cell phone. Encourage others to do the same, i.e. no-one should be using conference phones or similar. (This also fosters the idea of equality which I will talk about in a future post).
Also, when the meeting starts, ask each other honestly how well they can hear you – because only they can judge it. If anyone’s voice is not intelligible then fix it before you start the meeting.
Autonomy in a Distributed System
Let’s go for the next level and talk about autonomy, control and leadership.
In the “good”(?) old days a boss’s job was, among other things, to make sure people start and end their work as desired and keep busy in between. The open plan office has been a favorite as it allows easy control – or at least the ILLUSION of control.
Now the offices are empty, everyone is remote. We form a DISTRIBUTED system and distributed systems don’t work well when there is permanent centralized control for each action in place. I believe that the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for everyone to embrace lean and agile concepts of leadership.
A boss becomes a leader who provides support and meaning instead of controlling work time. People can plan and self-organize their work instead of just waiting for their boss’s next ad-hoc request or instruction. They can make decisions, as they know the details best, and their success is measured by the ultimate OUTCOME instead of reporting their output every hour against an over-simplified reference or outdated plan.
So you have decent audio quality in your remote meetings and you all turn on your cameras so you can react to misunderstandings fast.
But why is misunderstanding still pretty common in remote meetings at all?
Curiously, video meetings rely mostly on the spoken word. In a physical meeting situation one would grab a pen and quickly draw ideas on a whiteboard. In virtual meetings this happens less often.
My tip: visualize thoughts.
Try Zoom’s digital whiteboard or share your screen while you show a digital canvas like DrawIO or similar (see also https://lnkd.in/gh2XYiG). N3rds like me like text-based tools like PlantUML and when all hope is lost even MS Paint can be useful.
If you don’t like drawing with a computer mouse try a tablet+pen combo.
Also, if you can get hold of an HD camera then try writing on a real physical whiteboard. Keep in mind, though, to use a larger “font” and not to block the camera.
Last but not least: be aware of the fact that misunderstandings may happen UNNOTICED.
Summarize, mirror & paraphrase
Visualizing ideas and thoughts is key for communicating effectively – but visual aides are hardly the end of the story.
Let’s get the tough facts over with:
There is no way of verifying FOR SURE that there is mutual understanding between people. Blame it on psychology.
We can only try and FALSIFY our assumptions about being on the same page.
- Reserve time on the agenda to summarize the meeting results. This time slot should take AT LEAST(!) 15% of the meeting’s total time.
- Make sure this summary is not procrastinated to the end of the meeting because we want some time left to go back and work on those misunderstandings. Especially, don’t accept moving the summary to the meeting minutes. (But send minutes anyway.)
- Even better, summarize, mirror and paraphrase as often as you can during the meeting, at least at the end of each agenda item. activelistening
- Still better, make sure that everyone or at least the main recipient of the information gets to summarize their understanding in their own words.
- Be empathetic & build bridges: in some cultures it is deemed rude to point out misunderstandings.
Tips for web meeting hosts
- Begin the meeting before the scheduled start time so you have buffer time to get the tech up and running…
- … and for guests to socialize. When you invite them allow for guests to join before the start time and to be able to un-mute themselves.
- While people should be allowed to un-mute themselves before the meeting starts, they should always join in a muted state so they don’t share their background noise by accident. If needed, forcefully mute all or individual participants.
- Ensure breaks. Keep in mind that web meetings are more exhausting than physical meetings because people need to focus more on what’s being said, cannot move much in their chairs in order to stay on camera and have way fewer opportunities to relax their eyes.
- Monitor if the communication works. There are more and different culprits for misunderstanding in a web meeting. As a solution…
- … be ready to make use of visual aids like online whiteboards or text based drawing tools like plantUML. Have them started in the background so you can switch to them without losing the guests’ attention.
- Send out material beforehand to avoid delays for upload and download during the meeting.