“So, how was everyone’s weekend? “
Pause, silence. Did someone say something? Ah no, that was a cough.
One of the big challenges with COVID-19 and the move from working in an office environment to isolating at home is the lack of face-to-face interaction with colleagues. While the beauty of Zoom and Google Hangouts means we are able to replicate meetings and, in some cases, be more efficient – less chitchat, more focus – there are insidious side-effects of moving to the virtual world to collaborate.
One being, the morale-busting nature of awkward silences.
On a call of 20+ people, it is no easy feat to be the one to speak out when questions are opened up. You’re on a call with your whole company, you can’t read the room and there’s a danger your hastily assembled words will be released into dead space and you’ll get nothing back. You fear the awkwardness but, more than that, the micro-humiliation of not quite getting it “right” or meriting a response. For some, it takes us back to childhood, to school, to any group situation where the brave thing to do is pipe up and claim space for your voice, but that takes vulnerability and courage.
At HomeHero we’re facing this challenge as a team that thrived in the office when it came to energetic, open conversations and debate. In real life we feel empowered to share thoughts, we love to challenge ideas in meetings and we’re supportive of each other.
However, when faced with full company team meetings coordinated digitally we find it difficult to retain that energy. It bothers us. So much so we even witnessed a team member come up with a Google extension to allow us to share emoticons of encouragement and hand-raising during meetings. [Coincidentally the extension, called Nod, now has almost 2 million downloads globally as lots of people shared this pain.]
It helped, but there’s more to be done to open up the flow of communication at the point at which collaboration is vital.
So. Here are some other things we’re experimenting with to energise team meetings and add some pace back to things.
First though, please caveat everything you do to impact productivity during this crisis with the following important distinction, as we try to just do our best:
“You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.”
1. Give People The Floor to Speak
It’s all very well throwing out a question to a large team on a Monday morning to ask about their weekends. That is a gaping conversational chasm you just opened up right there and it takes considerable guts to fill it. It will likely be the same people who step in to move that conversation forward, which means the diversity of voices in the team will not be represented.
So what’s the alternative? If you’re leading the meeting, pick out THREE individuals to take the floor, using an inviting – not demanding – tone. It’s a small change but these conversations work better like this:
So, how was everyone’s weekend?
How about you Sarah? 
And what’s it like over in the Netherlands Sam? 
If the meeting is a large one, don’t feel the pressure to work through every person – that would feel like a colossal waste of time. Just stop after three people to informalise things and make a note of who you asked so you can rotate it each time.
Even better, as a busy leader, ask the team member who is taking minutes to note down who you spoke to and brief you for the next call. It may seem forced but it opens up the conversation and reminds the team who is actually in it – and what they are up to.
2. Recap Shared Experiences as a Team
Colleagues are different from friends in that you’re not expected to open up and share every detail of your innermost thoughts and fears. It tends to be the stimuli of shared team activities that give you topics to chat about.
This is why it’s important to make sure you keep up the staff socials and shared experiences. In fact, increase them. We used to have monthly socials. Now we have an optional virtual activity every Wednesday evening – from poker night to a film screening – as well as Friday drinks. It gives us a shared experience to bring up at the beginning of a big team meeting to provide some light relief before we dive into the work.
Right, who’s joining our team quiz this week?
Peter, I heard you won big on poker night. Did everyone have a good time?
Open up the floor to people who participated to share their feedback with the team. Not only does it give you something to talk about, but it also gets social buy-in from team members who missed the event and encourages them to join in the next time.
3. Call out Multitasking
We’re all busy, we get that. However, with virtual meetings, it’s possible – and pretty common – for people to carry on with their work during the meeting and simply “show up” by joining the call.
If colleagues are in the meeting but not engaged, it makes for a fruitless conversation. So what to do?
If you suspect that rampant multitasking could be behind the silence, simply point it out and ask for attention.
I’m sensing you all have a lot on and other work to get done. [pause].
However, this meeting is important because of XYC, and I need everyone’s full attention for the next 10 minutes to make sure everyone understands what we’re going over today. Is that fair?”
4. Give People Time to Order Their Thoughts
Not everyone can come up with something valuable to say on the spot. Nor is it always helpful to have people chip in just for the sake of saying something.
In the case of meetings that involve a long presentation, try sharing the slides in advance so people can get ahead and start to ruminate on the kinds of questions or comments they may have for you. Let participants know that you’re expecting them to review it in advance, so the bulk of the meeting is interactive rather than a detailed talk through of the slides.
As they’ve had time to prepare, feel free to go round the virtual table to get input from every person in the room. This also sets the expectation for preparation before future meetings and makes sure nobody feels like they need to give kneejerk responses.
If a presentation isn’t being given, you can pose a few questions at the start of the meeting that you will be circling back later to get people’s thoughts on. Again, they have the space to think it over and you’re less likely to be waiting on silence.
5. Create A Culture Code
As a company, you’re likely to have written down a mission and values that drive you as a business and team. But do have you established a “culture code”?
This is a list of values you abide by as a team when it comes to upholding your culture, community, and collaboration. They are separate from your company values as they deal primarily with communication and ownership when it comes to contributing to your company’s culture.
We wrote our culture code in the wake of COVID-19 to make sure every person on the team felt a responsibility for keeping our great culture going. This certainly includes braving the silence in virtual meetings and chipping in.
6. Reconsider the “Why” of the Meeting Itself
One of the reasons the room may feel dead is because the team either doesn’t see the point of the meeting or doesn’t see their individual contribution in it. You need to keep on eye on the temperature of your remote meetings because if the energy is going down or they are getting quieter it may be an idea to look at restructuring them, making them less frequent or cut out specific ones altogether.
In cases of virtual meeting where some participants may feel peripheral to the conversation, you may want to address this openly to show awareness:
“I am sensing that some people aren’t contributing because they may feel the conversation is not relevant to them. If that’s the case you can reach out to me after the meeting as I’m conscious your time is precious!”
In the case of whole company meetings, keep checking the temperature of the room. When COVID-19 broke we decided to do a CEO brief every morning, to cover a business update, a virus update, and wellness tools. It worked really well in the early days of the crisis. However, as we all started to adjust to working from home, meeting fatigue started to kick in. We read this quickly and responded by dropping to three meetings a week, and now we’re onto two strong updates a week. The point is to continuously assess why you are having virtual meetings, how they are going and assess if edits need to be made.
Being flexible and responsive with your processes is at the heart of great remote work.
Finally, I’ll leave you with the following Rs to help you check in on the health of your virtual meetings each week:
- Reach out to the team individually to open up conversations
- Read the temperature of the room regularly
- Respond with frequent tweaks and new tactics
Now, let’s look forward to some chatty meetings.
HomeHero is a digital home manager, taking care of your chores, bills, maintenance and admin, to free up your time for what matters most.