Effective meetings in online environment & How coaching can help

Posted On Jun 24, 2021 |

There are huge chances that you are frequently on Zoom, potentially sitting at your desk in the dining room, exhausted and without concentration. Also there is a possibility that your cat’s tail or your mother/spouse’s spreading laundry in the back is visible to your boss. Or your kid falls and cries so you have to take a pause to cuddle. Everyday work activities, aren’t they? As a final article dedicated to meetings we decided to explore more how to have an effective online meeting and which role could coaching practice play there. As in previous articles, we are introducing three great coaches which we believe can offer really practical and valuable content to all of us - Bogdan, Rucha and Ivana.

“There are a couple of pointers that are very useful in making the online meetings practical and relevant. Some of these are very experience-based and others are backed up in science. My main self-guideline here is having a clear agenda in advance, plus clear expectations from all attendees. Setting the expectations will direct the attention, and as we are not sharing the same physical space now, it is even more relevant”, shares Ivana and adds that is essential for the attendees to feel included, so having an exchange and the opportunity to elevate the exchange of thoughts and opinions is not just   welcome - it is necessary. “How to achieve that? By nudging the questions after a specific segment and announcement, using tools like Miro or similar where people can express their feedback in real-time or directly address the open questions that remain”.

Bogdan emphasizes that online meetings tend to be a very different beast altogether. They sap your energy much faster and are, at least for me, much more intense. So in the next lines our three coaches shared six challenges this “virtual beast” puts in front of us and how we potentially can overcome them.

Challenge 1: First of all  there is an instant start, touching ground running type of attitude around on line meetings  and that can feel devoid of authentic human and humane contact. Right on time meetings start and unlike in live setup no one cares to come early and get comfortable and catch his favorite seat. 

    Solution: This can to extent be mitigated with the culture of having a 10 minute join window, where could be played some "elevator music" and discuss non-work and non-weather subjects falling in category of life, universe and everything else. 

    Challenge 2: There is a sort of (as Bogdan calls it) unnatural hyper-focus. Everybody is on screen, head on and there is one audio channel where parallel communication is made impossible unlike in real life. 

      Solution: This could be mitigated by technical setup - using speaker view, but more importantly, for bigger groups,  in meetings essentially having people dispersed in smaller groups and communicating more efficiently, later converging and bringing discussion to bigger groups. (Search on the Internet about liberating structures, check “1-2-4-all” and thank Bogdan later :)) 

      Challenge 3: Bogdan names some behaviour -  uncanny valley in normal human reactions caused by lags and delays. He says that this hits him hardest as there is no real way around this one, but to get used to it. The alternative of not using cameras can feel like speaking to a vacuum and praying for response, making the problem worse. 

        Solution: How to encourage participants to turn on cameras? You can try the trick by telling some joke. For example: Trainer meets Santa Clause. Santa offers to fulfill him one wish and trainers asks for unicorn. Santa says: can you think of something easier, more realistic? Trainer ask that in next online training all participants have their cameras on. “Here is your unicorn”, reponds Santa.

        Challenge 4: Everything is happening on the same screen - your meetings as well as your work, emails, chat, etc. That means there are a lot of distractions during meetings when notifications pop up.

          Solution: Switch off or pause notifications to avoid as many distractions as possible. Pro tip: Switch off your own video as it can be quite distracting.

          Challenge 5: With only the person's face being visible in video calls, it's very difficult to read non-verbal cues. So it can be difficult to understand emotions, build trust, etc.

            Solution: Rucha suggests you should be deliberate about getting to know the person/people you're working with. Try and find out their preferred ways of working, their motivations, how they usually react to situations so that you can start picking up on non-verbal cues. Sometimes it's also useful to over communicate rather than under.

            Challenge 6: Too many meetings. With full remote working, informal conversations/discussions with colleagues sitting around you don't happen anymore. If there's anything you need to discuss, you need to be deliberate about it and set up a meeting. There are days when people spend entire days in back to back meetings. It's challenging to constantly switch context from one meeting to another and be 100% involved in each discussion. Another problem caused by too many meetings is that there is hardly any time left to do your own work!

              Solution: Block chunks of time for focused work, with no meetings, recommends Rucha. You can even agree with your team on certain days of the week when, as much as possible, there won't be any meetings e.g. Zoom-free Fridays. It's amazing how much energy you conserve with fewer meetings in a day.

              Rucha has categorized meetings listed in broad categories below along with some pro tips to make the most of each type: 

              (1) “1:1s (with team lead/manager, collaborators, etc.): Have a shared agenda so that the other person can know what you want to discuss. You can use online collaboration tools like Trello boards, Wiki pages - anything that's centrally located and accessible by both - so that you can both go in prepared. This is especially useful for those who prefer to reflect on things before jumping into the discussion. 

              (2) Second category - regular meetings (stand ups/status updates, team meetings, etc.): Experiment with the team to find the best format for sharing different kinds of information. E.g. In my team, we share work updates/top priorities for each week in the team's Slack channel instead of doing this during meetings.

              (3) We use our bi-weekly meetings to give detailed walkthroughs on different projects, have brown bag sessions, etc”.

              How coaching can help

              As we read in previous articles, practicing coaching and advancing coaching competencies can help us overcome obstacles. Here are extracted concussions of our three coaches how coaching can help online meetings to be more effective:

              • Setting the expectations and the concepts behind establishing and maintaining agreements - aligning on consensus on the shared goals and what should be done in the specific meeting is the most relevant competence to be used. 
              • Also, as Bogdan said, coaching helps  him to stay present and actually monitor himself, be aware of the uncanniness of the virtual. That way he can be more authentic and actively listen to participants. Ivana adds that maintaining presence, tolerating pauses and nurturing reflection is crucial because it is hard to notice all of the subtle gestures and non-verbal signals in the online setting.
              • With active listening new possibilities are open and inviting participants to a co-authoring mindset comes naturally and gets better involvement. Events and meetings should provide value to all participants and just stopping and making sure that all participants are on board makes a huge deal.  Bogdan shared: “Another tip from the trenches: Probably the most important in online meetings for me turned out to be learning the value of silence. Even when it feels like everyone just started watching their favorite streaming providers - holding in a bit longer. Coaching mindset not being one to rumble on and on just for sake of filling in the silence is priceless. Giving people space in virtual space requires more nerves than in a co-located scenario”. Overall stepping out of the spotlight and into the coaching shoes actually allows for more collaboration, participation, command distribution and, well - less stress for all involved.
              • Connecting with people online: Getting to know your colleagues when you can't meet them in person can be challenging. These coaching techniques can help you connect with them. Simple things like asking questions to find out more about the person and what they're talking about or using non-verbal cues like nodding shows your interest in them and encourages them to share their ideas/challenges with you.
              • Building trust and encouraging collaboration: Creating a safe space and keeping people's confidence can help you build trust. Also, the concept of partnering from coaching is excellent to encourage participation and collaboration, getting a buy-in and a higher commitment for action as people would have had a chance to weigh in on it.

              “Key coaching concepts like empathy, active listening, asking questions to understand the person/their challenge can come in really handy during online meetings”, thinks Rucha.

              “In conclusion, a coach can utilize his or her skills in the online setting very much - the technology is cutting down "the logistics middle man", so arranging meetings and attending them is getting much more manageable, while the need to gain meaningful insights, work toward a common solution and goals and strengthen the team stays the same’, shares Ivana.