Are we sick and tired of Zoom yet? I sure don’t want to be because it’s here to stay and we’re all finding out how much time we save by not having to commute. Plus, many experts tell us that much of our educational and business systems are going to make heavier use of this tool, as working from home becomes more prevalent. It’s convenient, useful, and brings people together across vast geographical locations.
So Why the Grumbling?
I’ve been asking meeting facilitators about their online experience, specifically with Zoom. Most of them have been at this online meeting thing long enough to fairly assess both positives and negatives, and however one feels about the results of online group interactions, it’s clear that a successful online meeting requires heavy advance work. Facilitators cite individual employee interviews, getting other resources onboard, where possible, like tech help and someone to watch the chat function, distribution of materials in advance, room re-arrangements, video background decisions, agendas, agenda updates, and final agendas sent out in advance. When compared to in-person real time meeting planning, the professionals I’ve talked to say the advance work required is way more comprehensive.
And while the convenience of the virtual meeting platforms are appreciated, everyone I spoke to made it clear that virtual meetings fall far short of in-person meetings, when something more complicated than status updates is on the agenda. There’s more difficulty in facilitating a meeting that requires conflict resolution, decision-making and authentic input from participants.
My interviews have revealed some terrific work-arounds to tackling online meeting facilitation of complex meeting dynamics, which I’m happy to share here. And the aggregate info I collected made me curious about whether incorporating consistent conventions, in a word – rituals – could be helpful in online meetings.
Rituals, (or protocols, or conventions), are the actions we do repeatedly to reinforce meaning. What may come to mind with the notion of “workplace rituals” may be they usual inductions, celebrations, retirements. But I’d like to explore the use of ritual as a consistent connection tool in meeting protocols. (Although, in trying to find a graphic for this post – a search under “workplace rituals” offered all these photos of guys shaving…really. )
Ever Been Part of A Working Group With No Rituals?
Years ago, I was on the board of a branch of an international arts-based non-profit. We got together to create consistent, organized public events. There was a structure and a production timeline, so the sequence in how things got done was very clear.
In this group however, I became keenly aware of the absence of interpersonal rituals that make people feel part of the effort. It was rather ad hoc; people did things they are used to doing and everyone rallied when problems came up, and then…. it all came together. So the product got produced, but there were no rituals for anything having to do with group cohesion. Those who had been there for some time all got along beautifully, but there were no established protocols for welcoming people into the group and/or assisting them in finding ways to be helpful. Even members with prestigious titles or who represented valued partnerships did not necessarily get introduced or welcomed. No one was acknowledged for doing good work or making a special effort in specific areas, and the “post mortem” after each event was largely focused on what went wrong and what needed fixing for next time. It comes as no surprise that the group had difficulty attracting new members. Who would want to join a board like that?
Ritual – The Missing Link
So far, in my experience, and in much of what was relayed to me in my discovery phase, this lack of engagement is very much a factor in online meeting participation. And I’m starting to believe that this absence of consistent meeting protocols is a key factor.
Research done by Terrence Deal and Alan Kennedy in “Corporate Culture: The Rights and Rituals” illuminates the impact of protocol culture on the profitability of nearly 80 companies determined that the highest performers had in common one clear factor: all of them applied intentional protocols to reinforce a desired company culture.
Four Reasons You Want To Create Online Meeting Protocols
Paolo Guenzi, author of “Leading Teams – Tools and Techniques for Successful Team Leadership from the Sports World” and Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D author of: “Nine Things Successful People Do Differently”, cite four general benefits of workplace ritual.
Stimulates Emotions: Reduces Anxiety: Heading into a nerve-wracking session with a client, making a pitch, asking for a raise, you can help yourself by doing one of Amy Cuddy’s Power Stances, or your team can get galvanized to clinch that deal by creating a ritual like a “group shake” everyone shakes themselves all over. The resulting laughter stimulates breathing and better breathing is good for the brain.
Helps us Focus: Mindfulness practices are especially prevalent in Asian cultures, as well as multiple cultures around the world, because they prove highly effective in boosting individual productivity and decreasing interpersonal stress.
Creates Shared Identity: Inter-company competitions, especially effective for virtual teams at a distance, can be organized for a span of time prior to a meeting, with rewards given for “Most Surprising Fix” or “Best Team Photo”. Prior competitions are particularly effective in getting people to bond quickly as a team.
Reinforces Desired Behaviors: Germany’s Bosch Automotive wanted to spur more innovation and risk taking in their Key Account Managers. But in a largely hierarchical culture, many of the KAMs were notably reticent to speak up much in meetings. In order to engage their input, Bosch put together a color card ritual: If a participant says nothing in a meeting, s/he gains a KAM a yellow card, if the same thing happens the next time, s/he is issued a red card and not invited to the next meeting. The message was strongly reinforced: “Don’t come to the meeting unless you are willing to speak up.” Over time, this ritual stimulated input from some of the most reticent KAMs, who often had the most valuable ideas to contribute.
What’s Your Online Meeting “Style”?
Here’s another take on protocols: management guru Marvin Bower commented on the ritualistic “style” of working companies that he described as “the way we do things around here”. I knew instinctively what he was talking about, from what I know of theatre performance as “Style”. The world of the play gets reinforced through specific behaviors, clothing, pace, and communication patterns. A theatre company worth the price of admission would spend considerable time determining and reinforcing the stylistic rituals of the world of a particular play. Just as that particular non-profit board would benefit from defining the elements of our own group “style” and, even more importantly, how to graciously communicate it to prospective members.
12 Protocols You Can Use in Online Meetings Right Now
As promised, here are some simple, effective and user-friendly conventions my subjects utilize on a regular basis:
- Invent a Starting Protocol: This calls for something beyond the meeting agenda. You could get people to share a metaphor or an analogy as a quick way to check in on their progress and experience. Or use the White Board function on Zoom and have people draw their check in. Snapshots sent prior to the meeting could illustrate what each individual feels is their online meeting “superpower”. One trainer I interviewed relayed her experience at a building company. The culture had a huge focus on safety. Every meeting began with a “Gilbane Cares” moment, and the meeting did not move on until someone shared a safety-related story. Why spend precious time on something many will consider silly and peripheral? Once people have a chance to share something authentic of themselves in a surprising way, their stake in the meeting increases.
- Yes, Icebreakers: Incorporate ways to get people to discover something new about each other. These tend to go by the wayside with groups who have been working together over time, but it’s worth implementing them as a protocol as long as you switch them out regularly – it increases group bonding and you as group facilitator get to use the element of surprise!
- Take a Poll: Utilize the polling function as a way to get people quickly sharing on something relatively silly and harmless. “What’s your favorite M&M color?” “What were you doing 5 minutes ago?” The topic of the meeting could be introduced in the poll as well. For example; “What stands out to you about the culture of our company?” or “What negotiations in your life have you been involved in this past week?”
- Utilize speed: When a decision needs to be made, ask for super quick responses in the group to; “We should take this action because” AND “We shouldn’t take this action because”. Alternatives that could apply to any situation: “One thing I’m clear about is…” and “One thing I’m confused about is”.
- Create a “Fixathon”. This ritual is described in a valuable book called Rituals for Work by Kursat Ozenc, Ph.D and Margaret Hagan, Ph.D. It involves clear, fixed goals to solve a specific problem that has been an issue for some time. Using breakout rooms for smaller groups and strictly timed discussions, as well as checkpoints and share-outs, the facilitator counts down the time to the end of each session and the teams then share the “Fixes” they came up with. A positive response protocol is then given to each participating group, whether their idea can be used immediately or not.
- Innovation Prompts: Everyone has their “story” of what is happening in their particular work zone. Using a question like: “Tell me three other stories about that same data” challenges people to use another lens through which to look at what feels like intractable facts and numbers.
- Incorporate Silence: At specific intervals, get people to stop talking and give them a 60 second (or longer) chance to process what has already been said. This is a particularly good way to engage introverts on your team. It’s also a great starting protocol for groups that are familiar with each other.
- Incorporate Response Rituals: Ever had the experience of putting an idea, thought, question to the virtual group and getting no response? Weird isn’t it? A simple silent action like a thumbs up once the person has stopped talking can give a valuable sense of being heard and understood, followed up with a chance for questions or further development, perhaps in the chat function.
- Transition Rituals: For those “in between” segments when waiting for everyone to get back. These can be tricky to position because people who get back on time or early may feel they have earned the right to look at email, check the cellphone, get a snack etc. So PLAN for these times! Let everyone know about a new interesting poll they can access quickly if they finish the breakout meeting early, or invite them to peruse the chat. Also, consider using music to cover these transitions and usher in the emotional feel you’re going for. Robbie Samuels of No More Bad Zoom has plenty of tips and tricks for effective utilization of music in Zoom. In fact, I would highly recommend tuning in to his Zoom instructional sessions each Friday afternoon at 5 PM EST. He’s a highly skilled online meeting facilitator.
- Elephant, Dead Fish, Vomit: (from Rituals for Work); This one was developed at Air B&B and arose from a stated need for more authenticity in group discussions. Introduce this triad of terms at the start of the meeting and note that anyone can call out one or more of these terms when a more candid conversation is needed. “Elephant” is an invitation for people to state the big things that worry them, but they haven’t stated so far, like impending change, or something embarrassing. “Dead Fish” helps people name old issues that won’t go away and explicitly asks the group to move past them as a way to get unstuck in their progress. “Vomit” is a flag for anyone who needs to vent about something that is bugging them. It can also function as a reminder that they have been venting for some time now and the group needs to move on.
- Rituals of Acclamation: These may be some of the most important protocols you can employ in online meetings, and they’re often the first to be sacrificed in the interests of time. But authentic expressions of acclamation and gratitude are some of the most powerful tools for group engagement and productivity. Something simple like asking everyone, at the beginning of the meeting to make sure you express authentic gratitude to another participant at the end of the meeting can make all the difference in how people hear each other, and what registers with them.
- Takeaways: Additionally, when people know they will have to list their takeaways at the end of the meeting (which can be any realizations, discoveries, questions, etc.), they will bring more focus and intentionality into their participation.
Don’t forget to create a protocol for yourself as facilitator. This could be a poll that you send out for responses after the meeting, or clearing some time to assess what worked and didn’t within the timeframe of the meeting. And… a reward for yourself for a job well done!
Many thanks to the following trainers, coaches and meeting facilitators for their input and valuable suggestions; Arthur Fink, Libby DeMille, Peggy Page, Fran Liautaud, Janice Cohen, Katrina Crowell, Janice O’Rourke, Carol Ryan Erst, Craig Freshley, Rahti Gorfein, Samantha Tassone, and Laurie Davis.