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A new noun has entered the global dictionary over the past few months: Zoombie

Zoombie: noun, Person who becomes the living dead by spending all day on video conferences, especially on Zoom.

I expect most of you will be able to relate to this new state of mind as the proportion of our wake time in online communications increases in both our work and personal lives. For those of us who have worked remotely for some time there is now more of a blurring between work and social interaction with the same platforms being used for both (how many of us have found ourselves launching into an important work meeting with an inappropriate virtual background active in Zoom, for example).

I recently found some off-line time to reflect on my experiences over the recent weeks to distil out some important lessons about how I can enhance and improve these experiences for both myself and my work colleagues, partners and customers. I thought these would be worth sharing with you, as follows.

I first started to think about what factors have contributed to a poor online meeting experience and I came up with the following:

  • Overlong meetings – the amount of time in which we can actively concentrate and participate in an online meeting is significantly less than a face-to-face meeting. The lack of much body language and other stimuli together, with typically less than perfect audio quality, means that our ability to remain focussed and productive in online meetings is severely diminished.
  • Listen, Listen, Listen – it is really hard to actively just listen for an extended period of time. This is the case in all meetings, but I think it is amplified in an online meeting. The feeling of frustration at being ‘in captivity’ at your computer screen really starts to get to me after even short periods and I question ‘why am I here?’.
  • Poor Chairmanship – a good chair or facilitator is key to an online meeting. There is a lack of visual connection and body language coupled with a propensity of people just to keep talking once they have the floor, and it takes a pro-active and attuned chair to be able to diplomatically yet assertively keep the meeting on track and ensure all participants have the opportunity to contribute.
  • No or unbalanced video sharing – in most meetings it seems that who and when video is used is left to individual preference. Video can significantly add to the meeting experience if used correctly, and yet it can also be a distraction or lead to feeling of unfairness if some attendees share video and others do not.
  • What are people doing? – who has not heard the loud clacking of someone’s keyboard whilst in a meeting? Or alternatively, an awkward silence when a participant is asked to contribute but appears to be absent. The physical disconnect in virtual meetings can mean we start to questions what others are actually doing in their personal spaces during meeting time.

Then I applied some route cause analysis thinking to these factors with the aim of coming up with a checklist of things I could do to enhance the online meeting experience. I came up with the following considerations:

  1. Who needs to attend? Think very carefully about who really does need to attend the meeting. Anyone attending must have a role and responsibility in the meeting and you must be able to identify an active contribution you expect them to make to the proceedings. Remember that one benefit of online meetings is that, with attendees’ permissions, you can record a meeting to share with a wider audience.
  2. Do people need to attend for the full meeting? It is much more practical to request part-attendance of a virtual meeting than it is for a face-to-face meeting. Think carefully about each person’s contribution and whether it may be better to invite them to join for only part of a meeting. Of course, managing the timing of the meeting will then become much more critical (see later points).
  3. More People = More Trouble – Aim is to construct a meeting with the minimum attendance required to achieve the desired outcome. Use a combination of the previous two points to achieve this.
  4. Appoint a good chair – Either select someone you know to be an experienced, proficient and appropriate chair, or, take the time yourself to learn the skills of meeting chairmanship and how to apply them to a virtual meeting. Use each meeting as a learning and development experience and take the time to debrief yourself (or ideally with a trusted participant) to reflect on what went well and what could be improved for next time. The chair particularly needs to control the meeting timings and to ensure that each attendee is empowered and encouraged to make their relevant contributions, and firmly but diplomatically stopping the monologues in good time.
  5. Plan the meeting ahead of time – You would not walk into a room to chair a meeting without feeling fully prepared and you should apply the same discipline to all your virtual meetings. Start with a clear definition of the outcomes you want to achieve from the meeting. Create a detailed agenda with realistic but tight timings against each item. If the agenda is getting too long (less than an hour in my view) then you should consider splitting into several meetings. Note which participants you expect to lead or significantly contribute to each agenda item and check that all attendees will make material contributions.
  6. What meeting resources do you require? You certainly don’t want ‘death by PowerPoint’ but think what resources you need to support the meeting. Remember that you are online so you have a wealth of material at your fingertips. One or two slides may be valuable but limit the slides as much as possible. Also think about using photo media and even music to set the scene and tone of the meeting. A well-considered, relevant, and striking visual to start a meeting can get people in the right frame of mind.
  7. Mute policy - Be clear at the start about the meeting policy for the use of mute. Also request that if anyone has significant background noise that they mute themselves whilst the noise is present. If you hear that constant loud clacking of a keyboard then address it at the time, don’t let it disturb the meeting for long.
  8. Video or No Video? Think about how you would like your attendees to use their video and be explicit about this at the start of the meeting with everyone. For example, you may request that everyone who is able turns on their video for their introduction piece but that videos are turned off at all other times. Think about whether you will keep your video on as the chair for the full meeting. Check at the start who does not have a camera on their device so that you know cannot use video rather than just does not wish to.
  9. Time Out - In a Meeting Ask attendees to let you all know if they need to take time out in a meeting by sending a chat message to all and let all know when they are back. They don’t need to interrupt the meeting, just silently send the message.
  10. Ending before it Ended - People can have a tendency to abruptly end their attendance at a virtual meeting in ways that would be considered rude in a face-to-face meeting. Be clear at the outset of the meeting how you will end the meeting and your expectation in terms of attendees signing out.

To support managers and staff within your business, I commend these eLearning resources developed specifically in response to the Covid-19 situation:

  • Future Ways of Working by Marshall ACM; 45 minute dramatised video course to help managers be effective in the new normal. Currently available at 50% discount.
  • Leading People Working at Home by iHR International ; 20 minute animated course for managers. Covers safety for staff at home and key considerations for managing remotely. Currently available at 50% discount.
  • The Remote Working by MicroLearn: 45 minutes; a bundle of microlearning modules covering remote working, managing a virtual team and resilience. Currently free of charge.
  • The Remote Working Lifesaver by iAM Learning: 20 minutes, comprised of a series of short, fun, engaging videos that will help you to adjust to (and enjoy!) your homeworking. Currently free of charge.

For these and other courses related to remote working effectiveness (and also “return to work” support), please visit Course Source. (You can evaluate courses free of charge by registering on the Course Source eLearning marketplace).