Clients and colleagues are reaching out about the work challenges they are facing in this unprecedented time. The following represents some of the questions we are hearing and the approaches we are taking.
1) How do we help facilitators and meeting participants get comfortable with virtual meetings?
We’ve found that facilitators who were comfortable with large conference rooms, large sheets of white paper and colorful markers at their disposal, are having various reactions to the switch to virtual meetings. The range is from “I hate this” and “I’m bad at this” to “this is an interesting way to work” and “this might make our work flow more efficient.” The deciding factor we are seeing is one’s attitude.
If there is an attitude of curiosity toward technology and a recognition that practice makes anyone more comfortable with anything, then the reaction will be favorable. We recognize that an unfavorable attitude often comes from a fear of looking inexperienced and a general frustration with technology.
To ease tensions around these feelings, we recommend that facilitators take the pressure off of themselves from the start of a meeting and state that everyone is learning new methods including themselves and to please hang in there if things don’t run as smoothly as they used to with in-person meetings. Setting ground rules also helps keep participant frustration to a minimum. Wording such as “keep an open mind about technology and its flaws, or “approach technology with curiosity” usually helps people roll with it a bit better.
Getting people comfortable with being uncomfortable is no easy trick, but setting up this expectation from the outset of a virtual meeting can help folks be less judgmental of themselves and the technology limitations they will undoubtedly experience.
2) How do we handle virtual meeting fatigue?
Virtual meeting fatigue is an issue that we are all experiencing. It is physically and mentally draining to meet on-screen for long stretches of time. We are dealing with this a few different ways. First, we design shorter meetings—two to three hours is preferred and a half-day is the maximum. If you can’t get through the content you need to cover in that amount of time, then break up your agenda into multiple days. You will find higher engagement when participants are fresh. Breaks are very important. Even a two-hour meeting requires a five-to-ten minute break. Our bodies need to move!
Second, in order to save valuable time, we include pre-work as part of our meeting designs whenever possible. You can get a jump on the meeting by sending out instructions to review meeting content or to begin generating ideas. For example, presentations can be sent ahead of time with a questionnaire so that participants will be primed to bring their thoughts to a session. Visual templates for data gathering can be shared online and filled in by participants before the meeting, with time reserved during the meeting for discussion.
Lastly, in true Grove fashion, we make our meetings visually engaging! We’re not just talking heads. We have transferred most of our in-person visual facilitation processes to the online environment and are finding that we can indeed run creative and effective meetings online. We are teaching many of these practices in our Facilitating Virtual Collaboration workshop.
3) What if meeting participants are all on different types of computers, with different accessibility to applications?
We have heard from quite a few people about this. We have technology preferences for running virtual visual meetings, but we recognize that we may need to “step down” to simpler technology if all participants can’t engage equitably. For example, we are currently running most virtual visual meetings with a combination of Zoom for web conferencing, and Mural, an online application for whiteboard collaboration. Mural is browser-based, so Mac users and PC users can both meet and interact. This application allows users to get in and create content on stickies, move content around, and generally engage like they would in a meeting room. However, this application requires bandwidth and a degree of digital comfort from participants.
Sometimes, it is difficult for participants to connect due to technology limitations and/or company restrictions. In that case, we would have participants work collaboratively in browser-based, shared applications, such as Google or Microsoft applications. If that is too difficult, then we would facilitate the session using the screen share and chat functions in Zoom. This approach requires a combination of facilitation and recording of participants’ words and enables participants to see a meeting process unfold on screen. Although this option is less hands-on for participants, it can still be very engaging.
Getting a sense of the technology limitations for any group we work with is a must in our meeting preparation. Don’t feel that you need to over do it with snazzy tech, especially if it just frustrates people who can’t participate. Simpler can be better.
4) In times of uncertainty, how can we support leaders in our organization who find themselves having more questions than answers?
Right now, things are moving fast and in unpredictable ways. Much of what we used to know about any given situation does not apply anymore. It is not so much about what you know, but how quickly you can learn. This can be difficult in a culture that values having the right answers more than asking the right questions.
In our workshop, Visionary Leadership in Uncertain Times, we encourage leaders to shift their mindset from being strategic leaders to being learning leaders. We support participants in developing skills for self-grounding, asking for help, and working proactively with the unsettling nature of uncertainty and how to let go of the old to make space for the new. Participants also explore the use of visual metaphors to better describe and make sense out of the current context and develop their personal vision for their leadership challenge. A sense of orientation generates confidence in the facing of uncertainty. Once we have a sense of the “what,” the “how” becomes easier to discover.
Finally, we explore creating environments that support collaborating on the future from within and across groups early in the process. This includes working with trusted advisors and allies and ways to tap into the collective intelligence of those involved. Engaging others early reduces resistance and increases the trust and willingness to act when the stakes feel high—especially during times of crisis.
5) How do we approach planning in an uncertain environment? And can we do it virtually?
The question we are all asking ourselves right now is, “What will planning look like in the coming year when there’s so much chaos and uncertainty?” This is certainly something we are grappling with and helping folks navigate in our online Strategic Visioning workshop. (Yes, planning can be done virtually.) Although so much is changing, there are still many things we can shape. It is going to take a complete rethink and a creative imagination to look at things in a different way.
It continues to be productive to start with understanding how you got to where you are today and to take stock of your ability to be successful by analyzing your relevant environment. A crisis brings with it opportunities, and understanding these opportunities can be the first step toward creating something new. Before making any plans, though, we at The Grove find it helpful to have a vision, or North Star—as we call it—that provides a compelling picture of a future in which your organization thrives. An exciting vision is not a plan, in our experience, but can give direction in a time when so much seems to be up in the air.
Some projects are going to be more impacted by the unpredictability of the current environment than others. The key is to stay flexible, be ready to make adjustments often and quickly, and hit the reset button, if needed.
One final thing: it’s very helpful to address uncertainty directly wherever possible. When there are clear answers, share them. When there is a planning process that continues as planned, affirm this. When a project is in process, no matter how emergent the situation is, clarify the approach and how to address pivots. Remove uncertainty when you can, communicate often, and listen to what others have to say. Lack of communication exacerbates uncertainty.
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