The rapid spread of the Coronavirus has had – and will continue to have – serious health, economic, and social implications. The pandemic is creating levels of uncertainty that haven’t been seen for decades and is causing unprecedented levels of disruption to the workplace.
In a time of so many unknowns and significant isolation, people are more susceptible to fear, which in most cases undermines performance. One of the roles for leaders in these times is to acknowledge the chaos in the environment. Another is to provide stability and structure and to be deliberate about creating space for teams to connect. We are encouraging our clients to continue their meetings and to communicate as much as possible. An optimistic stance allows leaders to frame this as an opportunity to creatively explore new operating models and ways of working. While a calm presence is vital, leaders should take care not to downplay what’s happening (this article provides a great perspective on the long term impact of this upheaval).
One clear, immediate impact of social distancing is a move from face-to-face to virtual meetings. Given the volume of complaints we often hear about time lost to unproductive meetings, this may genuinely be an opportunity for organisations to find efficiencies that they can build on when things return to ‘normal’ (however that may look). Transitioning online requires patience (the technology and connectivity issues can be frustrating initially) but teams that show resilience, build in space for reflection, and bring an attitude of curiosity to unpack which elements are working and which are not, stand to learn and grow from this experience.
This note is intended to help our clients navigate the transition online as smoothly as possible. Some of these points are obvious but not attending to them can leave team members exhausted before a call has even begun. In a time of chaos, the call is to get the basics right.
General thoughts on Life in the Time of Corona
Working in an office provides a shared environment which creates the impression of sameness. During isolation, differences between colleagues may be more evident, for example the degree of privacy available in the home, different access to internet, other responsibilities like looking after children, and how individuals are affected by the lock down (risking oversimplification; this will be more difficult for extroverts than for introverts). Be mindful of these differences to avoid them becoming points of frustration. Leaders of teams should spend some time to test their assumptions about the new working conditions and what’s possible/desirable for their team.
Understand that people react differently to this type of situation; some thrive in this uncertainty (it’s an adventure), while others find it incredibly stressful.
Be careful with too much email communication; when stress is high (which it is for some) things can more easily be read the wrong way, which will escalate tension. A few phone calls – preferably with video – can help build connections and calm things down. Also remember that some people dislike unscheduled calls (send a message to ask when would be convenient).
For starters, it helps to be aware of the significant chasm between those born communicating digitally, and those bewildered by it! There will be vastly different levels of comfort and skill with the technology, and those teams that take the time up front to get everyone acclimatised will reap the rewards down the line.
The most frustrating issue with an online meeting is a poor connection, which results in stuttering, voice dropouts, freezes and people speaking over each other. The connection is a function of two things: internet connection and the device. If your connection is poor, here are a few things to consider:
- If using wifi – make sure you’re positioned where there is a strong signal (if in doubt – go close to the router)
- Any other device on the network will take a share of the available bandwidth. Turn off devices that aren’t being used and put phones on airplane mode (and make sure children/partners aren’t streaming cartoons or playing online games)
- It’s worth trying the cell phone connection (3G/4G) if the wifi is poor
- Any software is constrained by the hardware on the device. Try to use the most up to date hardware available (mobile phones may be newer than laptops)
- Mobile phones/ipads often work better than laptops (with smaller screens they’re not carrying as much data)
- Wired headphones can work better than bluetooth. The bluetooth protocol in most laptops can interfere with the connection and cause audio delays. Wired headphones take one potential issue out of the communication chain
- Audio from multiple devices can interfere and cause echo. If there is a group of people in a single location, (keep your social distance and…) use 1 device
Choosing a platform
The most common technology platforms are Skype, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts/ Classroom, Circles, Jitsi, Whatsapp and Zoom. The products are very similar and any will work, although in our experience Zoom is slightly better in low bandwidth situations. Note that some government offices may block Skype. For those concerned about data privacy, take a look at the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s article (TLDR: Zoom has fairly lax privacy protocols and has received much media attention recently related to security concerns). Note that the free version of Zoom limits the time for meetings of 3 or more participants to 40 minutes.
Important: software updates are coming thick and fast these days – make sure you’re running the latest version!
Much of how we communicate in normal circumstances is non-verbal. In an online environment, the only non-verbal clues come from your face, so it’s important that people can see it! This means being well lit and appropriately framed. If your laptop is against a wall and there’s a bright ceiling light behind you, your face is in the dark (which means your colleagues are too). The best positioning is to have natural light in front of you (lighting your face) and a plain colour background with the room light off.
A few things to consider:
- Show up (on time!). Test everything is working before the call to avoid spending the first 5 minutes for people to restart laptops trying to get their microphone to work.
- Those with extensive libraries at home may want to show them off, for the rest of us you can select a virtual background (desktop or mobile)
- For those caught unawares by an early meeting, you may want to try the touch up my appearance feature
- If you are working from a laptop it’s a good idea to raise it so it’s more or less at eye level. If your laptop/phone is on a desk or coffee table the camera is basically pointing up your nose. Position your camera so that you’re in the centre of the image, with your eyes ⅓ down the screen – as shown right
- When not speaking, participants should mute themselves. This avoids unnecessary noise, as well as reduces bandwidth usage
- In meetings with more than 10 people, it’s helpful if participants signal when they want to speak by raising their hand. This allows the meeting host to direct the conversation. There is also a chat function for questions on the fly
Leaders and Facilitators
In this time of significant anxiety (acknowledged by some, subliminal for others), nervous systems are in a state of high tune. People will be looking to their leaders even more than normal for clues on the appropriate way to respond. Leaders need to manage their own energy; retain a positive frame but not in an overdone way that appears dislocated from the situation. Keep teams focused on areas that are inside their span of control and recognise (even amplify) progress, whatever form it takes.
Leaders should be in a position to provide a high level perspective which others might not have. Use this to help people appreciate the positives. For example, there is a view that a seismic shift in the way we work has been coming for some time, and that the crisis brought on by the Coronavirus has simply accelerated it. Many healthcare professionals are now providing online consultations as a first point of engagement. This model obviously has significant time and cost savings and it’s entirely likely that elements of this approach will remain after the crisis.
Given the extra work for teams to coordinate schedules and technology to meet online, leaders must get crystal clear about their intention for each engagement – is it content dissemination, discussion, Q&A, other? In office environments these are often conflated but right now it’s helpful to separate them. If the primary aim is to disseminate content, this can be recorded (see above – it’s also possible to make transcripts of audio recordings) and made available for people to watch when it fits into their own schedules (content heavy Zoom meetings can be tedious). Live, interactive sessions can then focus on questions and discussion, minimising the time needed for everyone to be together simultaneously.
As indicated in the introduction, leaders can provide two things to address the prevailing anxiety: predictability/structure and relational connection (people are comforted by knowing they’re not in this alone). A few ideas for things to do to address these needs:
- Set up a regular meeting structure – one of our clients has an unstructured 30 minute team check in at the beginning of every day which which they’re reported has been very helpful
- On a formal call, tell participants what to expect – have an agenda and set clear expectations
- Provide clarity where it’s possible and where it’s not, be clear about that
- Use words like “we” “us” and “together” to satisfy the relational need
Human beings are sensorial in how we take in and engage with our environments. In virtual work we can use only 2; hearing and sight. It can be tempting to turn off the camera to accommodate bad connections but having a visual connection – even if just at the beginning and end to connect – helps to establish the connections that teams need to thrive. Leaders and facilitators can play with introducing the other senses (how homebrewed coffee can’t hold a candle to your local barista or the pleasure of discovering a nook of the house that gets wonderful morning sun). Bringing something of yourself into the call like this helps make the digital process more human.
For facilitators, it can help to be more directive when working virtually. Tell people that they’ll all get a turn to respond, and tell them the order you’d like them to speak. Make sure everyone gets a chance to contribute! It is important to adjust the rhythm and tempo of the meeting to the context of an online meeting. Participants need breaks – and these might need to be more frequent than in meetings when people are physically present. We suggest a five minute break after 45 minutes of meeting. The facilitator should also explicitly invite feedback from all participants (for meetings of less than 10 people) by name to give a signal or a word as to whether they are all present and following proceedings. This helps participants to stay engaged.
A few technical things to consider:
- Ensure all participants have the login details well before – preferably in the meeting invite (see google calendar plugin)
- For big meetings, have someone to help manage questions so the person running the session isn’t distracted.
- For regular meetings, you can set up a recurring meeting in zoom that uses the same meeting code
- If a visual prompt is needed, make use of the virtual whiteboard which includes screen sharing and annotation
- Zoom can automatically take attendance registers
- When sharing a screen, the speaker is not able to gauge whether a message is landing with their audience as only a few faces are visible. It’s a good idea to check in frequently; stop the presentation and go back to the full group to ask how people are doing, at least every 10 minutes.
- Zoom has breakout room functionality which is great for large meetings when you want participants to discuss an issue. You can arrange the groups manually or ask Zoom to randomly assign groups of a certain size.
This is another great (and growing) resource for those adapting to working from home.
Please contact us for any support you might need in transitioning online.
 Credit to Chantelle Wyley of Baobab Consulting for this input