Yesterday, you got the call of a lifetime. One of your favourite clients was on the other end of the phone. You know the one; the executive that respects your expertise, values your contribution, and gives you the time, space and support you need to create the right outcomes. You haven’t facilitated often for them, but when you have it’s been enjoyable and rewarding; not just for them, but for you also. The preparation is intense, the discussions are difficult and you finish each day drained and exhausted, but that’s mostly in a good way.
They want you to work with them again. They have an important strategic discussion coming up with their executive team, one that will shape where they go in the coming years and how they manage their recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. This is absolutely a room you want to be in, and a table you want a seat at. Except there won’t be a room. Or a table. In fact, there won’t be a physical discussion at all. The company is still working remotely, their executive team all working from their home offices.
This is a discussion that needs to happen now. The conversation can’t wait until they can participate in a traditional workshop. Your client is sure that if anyone can do it, you can. They want to know whether you’ll take it on, and what you need to make it happen successfully.
That is indeed the dream call. But there’s also the risk of it being a total nightmare. Where do you even start?
When I started this thought-experiment, it was exactly with this scenario in mind. Re-entry is happening at different rates, and with different risk tolerances. Regardless of the region they are in and the progress of their recovery, however, there are few organizations that are willing to consider committing their executive team to be in a room with each other for a multi-day workshop.
That raises some fundamental questions about how to make strategically important conversations happen. And while I have been in boardrooms big enough to make physical distancing of participants at least a theoretical possibility (even maintaining two-metre separation), that’s not an option for many, and it’s not necessarily a desirable choice even for the organizations that can make it work.
That means that significant, critical meetings are happening online. To be clear, this is not optimal. In many ways, it is not even desirable. It is, however, necessary. So the challenge is developing new and different strategies to make it work. For extra bonus points, the challenge is to make it work well.
If we’re going to be forced to shift gears and focus, and adopt new technologies and strategies, then how do we do it in a way that is optimal? How do we move away from undesirable, and move to effective? Rather than finding solutions that are a compromise or that allow us to have meetings that are “good enough,” is there a way to use the technology to produce outcomes that are exceptional?
Those are the challenges that will be explored in the next few articles. And while there are technology and process dimensions to consider in how to make online meetings work well, where we need to start first is with the participants.
The bottom line is that people are what make strategic conversations successful. They need to be present, informed, attentive and engaged. We need them to participate, and do so constructively (which doesn’t actually mean that everyone agrees with each other). At the best of times, this is a tall order. It is difficult to keep a group of high-performing individuals in one place (physically, let alone mentally), keep them there on a sustained basis, and guide them to a meaningful outcome.
To explore how we do this going forward, it’s helpful to review and assess the strategies that we employ currently, and how we might adapt those strategies to online and remote meetings.
Managing the attention of participants is probably the first challenge of any strategic conversation. In person, this is accomplished in a number of ways, some of which are entirely subtle (and not necessarily even in the conscious awareness of the facilitator). If you are standing at the front of the room, it is astonishingly easy to assess the degree to which you are being afforded attention or not. There are numerous cues in body language, facial expression and eye contact that relay clearly and quickly whether you have the audience or you’ve lost them.
Attention gets managed by changing things up: shifting pace, speaking differently, physically moving and directing attention. Voice, movement and presence all come into play in guiding the attention of a group. So does our ability to design and structure the conversation to build in a variety of approaches and strategies for participation. Shift gears, change conversational modes, introduce new perspectives and questions; all of this helps to manage and maintain attention.
Translating this online is challenging. Attention is difficult to sense, and more difficult to manage. We are seeing people in two dimensions, and just because their gaze is in the general direction of a video camera in no way means that they are actually attentive. Our ability to draw attention is compromised when we are on video as well. Video discourages movement. The dynamic range of our voice is more limited; we need to be heard.
Now we need different strategies. What we can do physically to manage attention is less. That means we need to think more about structure, content and how we use the technology we have. The consequence of this is that we need to plan and anticipate what must happen; we have less range to adapt on the fly. Building an agenda that is dynamic and moves quickly, using presentations and videos where relevant and strategically appropriate and planning for discussion and interaction are all essential to managing and focussing the attention of a distributed group of participants.
Participation is its own challenge, and one that facilitators have to deal with at the best of times. The desire and willingness to participate lies on a spectrum. There are those that engage freely and often (and whose participation needs to be shaped and structured so that they don’t overwhelm the conversation). There are also those who are far more comfortable watching and observing (and for whom input needs to be drawn out and encouraged).
In person, balancing participation is an essential part of the facilitation role. Sometimes this is explicit, and other times this is subtle. We may call on individuals for their thoughts. We may direct questions towards specific groups in the room. We may, through our presence and attention as we navigate the room, encourage input from some, or manage it down for others. There can be times where we need to explicitly request that participants allow other people in the room to speak.
This is harder online, often simply through challenges with the technology. The micro-second delay in audio transmission means that participants are more likely to talk over each other. It also means that our cues to guide the conversation may be missed or arrive at the same time someone starts speaking. Building in pauses to wait for facilitation guidance can sound unnatural and can quietly discourage participation.
Overcoming this requires specific strategies to manage and encourage participation. Open questions become more directed. Rather than just speaking, people may raise their hands when they have a contribution, requiring attentiveness as to the optimal order of participation. The facilitator may orchestrate muting and unmuting individuals, inviting them to speak. We may deliberately go around the room, hearing from each participant. A willingness to actively interrupt speakers (which sounds rude in person, but is surprisingly effective online) becomes necessary.
If there is one thing that virtual discussion allows for, it is the opportunity for distraction. Not that this isn’t a problem in in-person discussions as well. Participants routinely bring computers, phones and tablets into the room, not to mention notebooks and reference materials. They also bring whatever thoughts, dilemmas and obsessions that are currently occupying their minds.
Even where there is the best of intention in consulting a phone or opening a laptop—to quickly look up a piece of information, or search for a reference—the internet is all too often a bottomless rabbit hole of distraction.
In an online environment, this problem is exacerbated. People are already at their computers. Their email and messaging programs are probably open, as well as who knows how many web browser tabs and other applications. It is possible to look attentive on camera and yet be focussed entirely somewhere else. Multi-tasking was the norm during conference calls long before the current pandemic, and that situation hasn’t changed.
Managing this is difficult. Again, not impossible, but difficult. One strategy—particularly for strategically important discussions—is to address it through norms, setting an expectation that notifications will be turned off and other applications will be closed. That’s hard to enforce, but it can subtly be emphasized through directions to people that don’t seem fully engaged; the fear of being called on can reinforce the importance of adhering to the norm. More complicated but doable is having participants position themselves far enough away from the computer that their whole upper body is visible. Not only does that improve the ability to read body language, but it makes the act of multitasking both more difficult and more obvious.
Just because people are following the conversation doesn’t mean that they’re excited by it or engaging with anything like interest. Engagement is about actually getting people to care about the conversation. When participants are engaged, they care about where the meeting goes, and actively play a role in supporting it moving in a positive and relevant direction.
Engagement can be assessed by the quality of the information coming into the room. The more engagement, the more appropriate and meaningful the content, and the more attentiveness there is in discussing, shaping and distilling that content into meaning and intent.
In a physical meeting, we support and encourage engagement in a variety of ways. We use periods of brainstorming to generate ideas that we can sift through and discuss. Participants sort and create meaning out of the information that has been contributed. We guide conversations with questions, probing and constructive challenges to the group. Larger group discussions get balanced with small group participation.
With attention, engagement is still manageable online, but not in the same way. If we just consider how a typical brainstorm is managed, we identify a number of practical problems to surmount. After generally discussing the problem, we might get individual participants to capture thoughts and ideas on post-it notes. They may categorize their contributions on the fly, or that might be a second round of discussion. From there, small groups might review, evaluate and build on the ideas that have been contributed, to share with the larger group. The larger group then build on and synthesizes the small group discussions to arrive on an intended direction.
Much of that discussion is physical, and benefits from participants being in the same actual space (not to mention having access to post-it notes and markers). Replication of the exercise online isn’t practical or possible, so some form of adaptation is necessary. We might start with the brainstorm as a personal activity prior to the meeting (or an exercise in-between two discussion sessions). As facilitators, we may need to do an initial sifting, sorting and grouping of contributions, and prepare that input for presentation and discussion. Small group breakouts are possible, but require different strategies also. Bringing the larger group together requires attentiveness to the overall group reactions, and testing for agreement or continued challenges.
Each of the above sections can be expanded on considerably. In upcoming articles, they likely will be. What the discussion so far illustrates is that meaningful discussion online is possible to attain. It requires effort and focus on the part of participants as well as the facilitator. For the facilitator in particular, it requires a great deal more planning and preparation, considering in advance how the meeting needs to proceed and ensuring the input, structure and components are in place to allow the meeting to do just that. With a little bit of thought, we can make online meetings better. The challenge now is to make them exceptional.