Observing the challenges of the new normal
by Kate ZabriskieKate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works, Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team help businesses establish customer service strategies and train their people to live up to what’s promised. For more information, visit www.businesstrainingworks.com.
Some people are in the office, some are home, others are on the road, and they’re all part of the same meeting. Who is looking forward to this hybrid get-together? Nobody, absolutely no one. What makes these blended meetings so bad? A lot of the same factors that cause in-person confabs to go south plus some new complications brought to us courtesy of the virtual world.
What can you do to stop the pain? Identify your ailment and apply an appropriate remedy.
Ailment One: People Come To Meetings Unprepared
Unprepared participants are certainly nothing new. If people weren’t prepared when you met in person, what on earth made you think they would experience an epiphany and suddenly embrace pre-work? What was that; it’s not just the participants who don’t prepare but the person calling people together too? That’s not newsworthy either. Unprepared meeting leaders are a dime a dozen.
Remedy: Embrace Discipline
Workplaces with positive meeting cultures often have rigorous requirements of their meeting leaders and attendees. When a meeting goes into hybrid mode, discipline becomes even more important.
The leader crafts the agenda, assigns ownership where others must contribute, estimates the time needed for each meeting segment, and outlines any required preparation.
People who work in cultures with good meeting discipline adhere to a few more rules too. For example, don’t meet if there isn’t a reason to get together and an email will suffice, and don’t schedule a gathering before you’ve planned the agenda. If you are on the receiving end of an invitation, don’t accept anything that doesn’t come with a plan. If that’s not an option, at least ask if the meeting requires you to prepare anything in advance.
Ailment Two: People Don’t Have Time To Complete Meeting Pre-Work
“I would have prepared, but I didn’t have time to get through 200 pages.” Reading requires undivided attention, and unless a few hours materialize from the ether, people with heavy time demands will often struggle to digest large documents. Consequently, meeting time becomes briefing time instead of collaboration and discussion time. This is not good when people meet in person, and it’s worse when some attendees go remote.
Remedy: Take Advantage Of Your Virtual Platform’s Recording Feature
Virtual platforms have opened a door to a new way to present pre-work. Instead of sending people 90 standalone slides to digest, how about recording 30 minutes that discuss the highlights? People can listen to you talk while they are checking email, going through paperwork, or otherwise multitasking, and you’ve moved your briefing out of the meeting and freed time for discussion and questions. The better job you do making pre-work easy, the more likely people will do what you want them to do.
Ailment Three: Participant Groups Are Not Equal
Often, the people in the room count more than those online, and those dialing in from a distance might as well be on Mars. Nobody acknowledges them, nobody makes eye contact, and nobody asks for their input. Who is frustrated? Everyone. The people together feel as if they do all the work, and those at a distance feel ignored and undervalued: not a good formula for happy times in the workplace.
Remedy: Level The Playing Field
To get the most out of hybrid meetings, everyone should get a seat at the physical table and the virtual table. What this means is having people log in on laptops from the same conference room so everyone can use the chat and creating nametags or placeholders at the physical table to represent those attending virtually. The digital presence will allow everyone to see facial expressions. The physical reminders will help the leader and others remember to address virtual participants more often.
Ailment Four: Conversations Are Awkward And Unnatural Sounding
“Brian, Brian, you’re on mute.” “Patty, go ahead. I didn’t mean to answer at the same time you did.” “I’m hearing an echo. Can everyone mute.” “Bill, turn on your conference microphone. We can’t hear you.” “What’s that horrible buzzing sound?” “Woof! Woof! Buster, get down!” Bad audio is brutal. It stops the flow of natural conversation, causes people to check out, and is generally irritating.
Remedy: Attack Sound Problems From Multiple Angles
Mute master is an essential role for someone to occupy or several people to share during virtual meetings. Mute masters silence those who have inadvertently unmuted, and they do it without a lot of fanfare. With the click of the mouse, background noises disappear just as soon as they occur.
Now that we’ve addressed the sounds we don’t want, let’s look at words we do and how to get them. Skilled meeting leaders build the request to unmute into their narrative when asking for people to contribute. “Brian, could you please unmute and give your report.” With a gentle reminder, most people will do what’s asked.
In addition to those basics, to reduce the likelihood that people will talk over each other when you ask a question, ask for hands and answer stack. “Great. I see we have questions or comments from Larry, Katie, and Greg. Let’s take them in that order.”
To further reduce noise and speed up responses to short questions by leveraging visual cues and the chat function. “Type ‘yes’ in the chat if you have a hard stop at noon today.” “By a show of hands, who agrees we should move forward with a pilot program?”
Ailment Five: People Are Caught Off Guard When You Question Them
“Sam, what are your thoughts on that?” “I’m sorry could you repeat the question?” People can tune out and go on mental vacation regardless of a meeting’s format. When a virtual element enters the picture, the odds of someone missing something increase.
Remedy: Provide A Warning That A Question Is Coming
As a meeting leader, you can take a simple action that will go a long way toward helping your colleagues stay focused. “Jimmy, I’m going to talk through this next slide about credit risk. I’d then like you to add a little color and tell us about trends you are seeing in the southern market.” Not only is Jimmy going to listen to you for the next few minutes, he’s also going to get his finger ready to unmute himself or to turn on a conference microphone. As a bonus, Jimmy will also appreciate that you didn’t put him on the spot and may like you better.
Hybrid meetings offer challenges – some familiar and some new. Regardless of the source of your meetings’ ailment or ailments, with careful actions, you can move these here-or-there gatherings from horrible to healthy in short order.