How to improve online meetings for all
Wow. When you look back (in the UK) over the last 15 months, businesses and employees have adapted to online education, working, shopping, leisure and networking to name but a few. Overnight, businesses who previously wouldn't have allowed so much as a paperclip out of the building for fear of it being a security issue, have allowed employees to work remotely. Other businesses who depend on customers being physically present have either furloughed staff or have pivoted their businesses with the 'new normal'. We're an adaptable species despite craving certainty and we've generally coped with what life has thrown at us lately.
Businesses who've managed to keep their workforce working remotely have kept teams together using various technology and the phrase 'Zoom call' now refers to using any technology to be able to see people over the internet, just as 'Hoover' now just means vacuum cleaner. Managers or team leaders have kept their teams together but they've seen challenges. They have had to be creative to make sure that although the work still gets done, the team stays together because they'll be missing the water cooler or smokers' corner chats in the time they're not working.
How do you still make meetings productive so that everyone feels they can contribute and they feel valued? The first thing is to decide whether you need a meeting. Ask yourself whether a phone call or email will do instead. A phone call is preferable to email ping pong and is more environmentally friendly. As an aside, remember the plea from Prof Mike Berners-Lee to cut down on the number of unnecessary emails and by just cutting out one 'thank you' email a day in the UK, it would save 64 m unnecessary emails and 16,433 tonnes of carbon per year. If a meeting is necessary, managers have had to be creative to make them work over the internet.
Fostering that inclusive feeling in the team takes work and applies to the whole team, not just the favoured few. Don't forget those team members who have disabilities, hidden or otherwise. Luckily technology is on hand and the host can switch on the closed caption function to make sure that team members can follow the conversation. Be careful though, sometimes the translation into the written word isn't always successful and defeated by those using jargon or acronyms although kicking the habit for plain English will do everyone a favour!
Not everyone feels comfortable contributing in an online meeting, especially with the delays that can occur. You may want to say something but your screen has frozen, or there's an embarrasing delay with tumbleweed metaphorically crossing the screen. The time honoured way of making sure everyone can contribute to a meeting, even the introverted members, is to circulate the agenda prior to the meeting, along with any instructions to send in any ideas where it's needed. How many of us do this though? The agenda should also include the meeting's aims to make sure that everyone knows why they need to attend (and that it's not going to waste their time).
The need to think about certain points to come up with ideas prior to the meeting will deliver a better quality of idea because people have had time to think about the issue, the pros and cons and come to a conclusion. An additional point that you could include to make sure the ideas are discussed and judged on their quality is to anonymise them during the meeting. The manager/host/team leader introduces the ideas but doesn't explain who the originator was, the discussion can then be based on the idea and not on the popularity amongst the team of the individual who thought of it.
Occasionally, meetings have to be split between in-person attendees and online, especially if anyone in the family is having to self isolate and is well enough to continue to work. Not only would I use the advance agenda distribution and idea submission but also an approach that's used by HM The Queen for the Privy Council. If your in-person team members are able to and taking into account any disabilities, I would suggest making them stand for the meeting. Privy Council meetings don't last for long! To prevent Zoom fatigue in your home contributors, you need to have something to keep the meetings short and if people are sitting comfortably, they may waffle. So keep everyone alert and aware of the meeting's duration by standing.
Team leaders and managers have been using Zoom for office quizzes, competitions, treasure hunts, games to maintain social contact. Leaders will be well aware that some people have had to self isolate for health reasons and that others may not have spoken to another human being for a long time. These activities are limited in bringing together the team but they are an attempt to keep people connected.
And although Zoom has been wonderful in keeping us in contact for both work and play, I've been surprised to discover that all is not happy in the online meetings world. According to a survey conducted by the Rights Of Women charity and one by Slater and Gordon, sexual harassment has increased since meetings transferred online. Due to home circumstances, some women have had to conduct Zoom meetings from their bedrooms, normally a private space and well away from the office. Some have seen this as an opportunity to screen save images and mock employees. WhatsApp has been used extensively for work related groups, allowing personal phone numbers to be freely available to everyone in that work group, leading to another channel for harassment.
Some managers have forgotten that the same rules and behavioural standards apply to home working as well as the office environment. In the Slater and Gordon research, just under 40% of women said they were targetted when their male colleagues were not.
If people notice inappropriate behaviours in meetings, what can they do? If you're a manager and spot it, remind yourself of the company policy and put it into action. Everyone needs to be reminded of the employment rules and that they still apply in the online world. Meeetings should be recorded and retained so that they can be used in an investigation if necessary. Although HR departments are under pressure at the moment with the administration of the furlough scheme, they do need to make harassment claims a priority. The longer the behaviour is allowed to continue, the longer it takes to sort out.
If it's happening to you, report it and keep evidence if possible. Get advice from a union, HR department or legal provider. It would be a step forward if webinar providers could develop algorithms that can pick up explicit language and remove them from the site but managers need to be pro-active and not allow 'banter' to be used in their meetings. Use the guide 'would you want your customers to see this behaviour?'.
Managers are a key player in keeping their teams together and productive and it's been tough for them during this pandemic. They've had to be creative to make online working work for the company, their teams and each individual. Technology has been wonderful and what would we have done without it, but we have to be aware that there is a darker side and poor behaviour needs to be noticed and dealt with. Meetings should be a comfortable place for all, everyone's ideas should have equal weight so that the business moves forward out of the pandemic. Ash Smith has a wonderful phrase 'does it make the boat go faster?' and in this case 'does your meeting make the business get better?' and it's up to you to judge.