The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting organisations across the world, leaving many organisations figuring out how they can continue their operations amid social distancing requirements that mean working from home is often the only option.
But given these restrictions, how can people stay connected to colleagues and customers, regardless of where they are working?
At Nous, we have a collaborative and productive culture across staff in 15 locations worldwide. Whether working from home in Tokyo, Hamburg or Toronto, or at our main offices in Australia and the UK, our teams connect successfully. Online tools enable it and an abundance of goodwill assures it.
There are a few important things to remember when connecting with clients at this time:
- People may be distracted and misunderstand even simple requests. You may need to give clients more time to ask questions, to run through agendas or to trial new tools before doing it live.
- People may be more hesitant before making decisions and taking actions. Be reassuring and calm. Help them think through information, risk and mitigation so they can make wise decisions. Keep communications simple, with the least amount of data needed to convey the intended message.
- Survival instincts can override normal behaviour. Be prepared for biased reactions and overreactions. Be calm and patient. Have empathy for the person while also being clear, confident and steady about next steps.
The good news is the basics of engagement remain the same for remote working. Whether you are running a project meeting, an online workshop or in in-person session, the three Ps for any audience engagement remain: plan, prepare and present.
Take care of logistics
Software. Make sure your clients or other session participants can access and use your preferred communication platform, whether it is Zoom, Skype, or another. For hardware, check that your participants have appropriate headsets or hands-free audio that they can use without disturbing others.
Think like a producer. While you might not be emulating the ABC’s Q+A, consider the online experience you want participants to have. What resources will you need to make it succeed?
Get in the zone. Take account of participants’ time zones when scheduling a meeting.
Get on the same page. Share a clear agenda with participants beforehand that includes:
- session objectives
- session structure (what will happen, for how long, who will lead)
- who will attend
- what to prepare or bring (remember power cables so devices don’t shut down part-way through)
- links for the main meeting and any break-out meetings, along with a number to call for support.
Manage the space
Share guidelines on how you will manage the virtual space, including describing how you will check in with people (by location or in alphabetical order are good options). This guards against forgetting someone, helps set the expectation that everyone will be asked to contribute and manages any awkward silences or people speaking over each other. Consider using online breakout groups that make sense in terms of people’s different locations and perspectives.
Hope for the best and prepare for the worst
Prepare a contingency plan in case of technology issues. At a minimum, include a contact phone number and email address in case participants have problems. Collect participants’ contact details to reach them during a meeting in case of platform or connectivity failures. Even the best technical platforms can be temperamental when depending on home internet services.
Allocate some important roles
Successful online engagement requires clear roles. If you try to replicate the fluidity of face-to-face engagement it can result in confusion for participants. Common roles include:
- the meeting lead, who anchors facilitation and manages the interaction between participants
- a local lead, who supports breakout groups if required
- a session producer, who coordinates access to the technology, particularly if a session has many people in many locations.
If you are new to online facilitation, consider asking a colleague to be ready to give you feedback both in the moment (in case of volume or technical issues that you have not noticed) and after the session by sharing reflections on what you did well and possible improvements to try.
Choose the right tools
Whatever blend of tools you choose, remember practice is your friend! Practice with your support team, so that on the day you are relaxed and confident about how things will work.
Consider the interaction you need:
- For most meetings, workshops and other facilitated communication, video-conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Skype are widely used and have many features that bring these events to life. Microsoft Teams is emerging as a powerful substitute for these platforms. Do not forget to record your session as it can be valuable for future use.
- Increase participant engagement with online polling to respond to challenges, identify priorities, submit questions and vote on options. Tools such as Slido, ParticiPoll and Stormboard are proven performers, and available cheaply.
- For working together in the moment, try running the video conference in parallel with collaborative tools such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, Trello or Microsoft Planner.
Brief the support crew
Make sure all participants have access to information beforehand and have prepared. Do not rely on email; if possible, get on the phone and talk through things. Ask participants to keep their phone handy in case the internet fails.
If you are using small groups that require facilitation, pick the right people to facilitate and talk through the agenda with each one. This gives them time to ask questions and for you to get familiar with their style. Follow up afterwards for the normal post-workshop debrief.
Make sure your presentation environment sends the right messages. Choose a well-lit environment without distractions. Think about the impression your background conveys.
Make sure your location will not be interrupted. If you are at home, think about how to curb distractions from pets, lawnmowers or other potential interruptions. Make sure you are not heavily backlit (your face is in shadow and there is a bright light behind you). Avoid getting too close to the camera. Keep your microphone at a reasonable distance so you can be heard clearly without distortion.
Set up and test your technology well before the meeting – just like a sound check before a live concert. This is particularly important if you have not used a platform before or have many people in different locations attending. Run through the main tasks and make sure the engagement design works technically and delivers your objectives.
If you are hosting the session, join 30 minutes before to make sure everything is working and to welcome people as they join.
Keep it nice
Follow basic online meeting etiquette:
- Introduce everyone.
- If you are recording the session, let everyone know why you are doing it and where they can access the recording.
- Remind people of how they will work with each other during the session (they should have seen this already on the agenda).
- Avoid being distracted when others are speaking; be present and listen carefully.
- Make sure your phone is on silent.
- Do not interrupt other people when they are speaking or attempt to speak over them.
- Know where your mute button is and stay muted unless you are speaking because background noise can overwhelm online sessions. Ask others to do the same.
- If you are using a videoconference and need to mute a participant, let them know before you do so.
- Let common courtesy prevail. People want to be heard, seen and respected during an online meeting – just like any other meeting.
Keep it engaging
Many of these guidelines apply no matter what meeting you are leading. But when team members are participating online, maintaining their attention can be a challenge. These actions will raise the productivity of your online session quickly and easily.
Activities that work
Start with a check-in. A few minutes of friendly interaction before the meeting can build rapport for a successful session and keep people engaged. This can also be very important in regular team calls, giving virtual teams some unstructured water-cooler chat.
Do something in the first 60 seconds that helps participants identify with the issue you are discussing – a story about a system malfunction, an analogy about a team working like a cycling peloton or a murmuration of birds to conserve energy.
It is very easy for people to slip into the role of observer, rather than participant. Do not just say, “I want this to be an interactive session.” Give people jobs that require them to contribute to the meeting, so they cannot hide and are not just passive listeners. Jobs can include pairing up to identify key issues in a problem under discussion, leading the work of a breakout group or interpreting the results of an online poll.
Give the group a problem to solve at least every five minutes. Maintain the expectation of continual, meaningful involvement. If you think your presentation will take 20 minutes, have three to four brief engagement opportunities, such as crowd sourcing ideas via polling to prioritise issues.
If you have participants in varying locations, consider playing on local contrasts and have activities tailored to each region.
Managing the experience
Speak clearly. You may need to moderate your delivery for clarity and pace, just as you would if you were addressing a group of people face-to-face. If you are new to running online sessions, ask someone you know on the call to be your feedback partner.
Don’t numb people’s minds with vast slide decks. Keep slides to an absolute minimum, with the least amount of data needed to convey the intended message.
Monitor contributions. Do not let people dominate the airtime at the expense of others — carve out time for less extroverted team members to speak. Encourage people to contribute via written questions if there is a large group and airtime is limited. Make sure everyone can contribute by regularly going around the virtual room during discussions.
Have regular breaks if you are going for more than an hour — just a few minutes away from the monitor and headphones can help people stay attentive.
Finally, just accept not everyone will have the same experience as being in the room, and that you cannot be responsible for everything.
Connecting your remote workforce may be initially challenging, but it offers rich opportunities to discover new ways of collaborating and contributing. Productivity and flexibility improve if you manage the experience well.
Nous has a track record of helping organisations transition to new ways of working, nudge cultures, and transform processes and systems to make real contributions to success.
Get in touch to discuss how we can help your online facilitation during COVID-19 and beyond.
Published on 26 March 2020.