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Reflections of a novice thinker in a virtual world...

It’s been interesting seeing how we have evolved over the last few weeks as a business community. For me personally, it hasn’t been a significant change. I often work from home and am a regular, paid-up member of the Zoom virtual fraternity.

I know for a lot of people, including many of my clients, there is a big shift in the way they work and it has required a significant mindset change. There is much talk about how this time will materially affect our working practices going forward and maybe businesses will rethink remote and flexible working models. I hope this is true and that we allow people to work in a way that is more beneficial to them.

An increase in the number of video calls that make up our working day will be an inevitable legacy of this current time, wherever we end up working. We have a window of opportunity right now to focus on how we are most effective using video calls.

I am a qualified Facilitator in Thinking Environment and, being an extrovert, it has taught me much about how to ensure equality in meetings, how to give everyone a voice, not just the loudest or most senior, but everyone, so that we all contribute. These are simple techniques which, when applied to virtual meetings, immediately improve the effectiveness of those meetings. I’ve outlined some of these steps below:

1. Before the meeting, agree an agenda with a limited number of items and ensure it is sent out prior to the meeting so that people have an opportunity to consider the items in advance. The agenda should include approximate times of each person’s turn per agenda item if there is more than one item to be discussed.

2. Ideally, the agenda items (and not too many of them) would be phrased as a question, the outcome of which relates to the issue/problem you are trying to solve by having the meeting.

For example, sales are down and there is no clear reason that you can see for this change in consumer behaviour [your issue], so you want to get some insight into why this might have happened [desired outcome] from some other people in the organisation. So your agenda item/question might be “what insight do you have as to why sales have dropped in this quarter?”.

3. At the beginning of the meeting, create the virtual table. Draw a circle of names of attendees. Tell the group who is next to whom so that they understand the order things will flow in.

4. Establish some rules and eliminate all forms of distraction.

a. Ask participants to put all digital devices to sleep (not just on mute), unless they are in active use for an agenda item.

b. Remind people that their attention for the person who is speaking is to be as seamless and generative as it would be face-to-face and that this can be particularly challenging when no one can see each other.

c. Remind people also that checking emails can be sensed by the speaker.

5. At the beginning of the meeting, you may wish to do a short presentation to supplement the knowledge of those attending, presenting them with information on the issue you have to help their thinking.

6. Then go around the room and ask each individual in turn to state their thinking about the issue, without interruption. You can time each individual to ensure that no one takes up too much of the time. Whilst this sounds odd and potentially rude in that we might cut someone off mid-flow, people very soon become accustomed to it and get their points across much more succinctly. Ask people to time themselves if it makes you feel more comfortable, as that way they will stop when their timer goes off. Oh and by the way, the most senior (in terms of grade/position in the organisation) person should go last.

7. Once everyone has had a turn, go back to the group and have a discussion but again stressing that it should be on the basis of: freshest thinking based on what they have heard (rather than a recap); consideration of everyone having an opportunity to speak (so no one hogs the time – we all know that some people love the sound of their own voice) and the leader speaks last again.

8. If it’s a long meeting, schedule a stretch break after the first hour and keep the total meeting time to two hours, if possible. It’s difficult to maintain focus for too long whether in person or virtual!

9. Finally, make a decision (if you need to), agree any action to be taken and by whom and agree next steps.

I have been working with the Thinking Environment for several years now. It is based on the epic book 'Time to Think' by Nancy Kline and has been a bit of a revelation for this extroverted thinker! Learning some of these techniques are a little uncomfortable at first but you can make it your business to encourage a change for the better by introducing a new way of doing things. You'll be pleased you did.

I believe, longer term, this time will have an impact on much more than how we conduct meetings. I have loved the change of pace, the fact that I now walk the dogs and do yoga practice every day. I enjoy spending more time with my family and feel more connected to some of my family and friends as I take time to speak to them now, much more than I did before when I was rushing around. I have even enjoyed not putting make up on every day (which I never thought would happen) - although I try and remember when the video call is face-to-face! I think we'll take many lessons with us - I just hope we remember them!

Happy virtual meetings everyone!

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