The COVID lockdown has seen a revolution in the way businesses – and individuals – are connecting, communicating, and collaborating.
While online meeting platforms have proven themselves to be indispensable tools, they come with some caveats. Here are some expert’s valuable tips on getting the most out of your online sessions.
Since COVID-19 I have been getting more and more excited to see the opportunities for our planet and the way we may live and work if we get over this hump of learning how to make online connection sustainable, effective and meaningful for us as human beings as well. I call it the Human Factor Online.
Of course, we are social creatures and we often nourish ourselves through physical proximity with each other. So the question that arose for me was how we could connect as whole people in a virtual environment.
As part of my work as a facilitation skill trainer, my team and I have explored the phenomenon of ‘whole person’ facilitation for many years. Since COVID-19, we thought the best contribution we could make is to teach others how to facilitate online meetings in a whole person way so that our human being is nurtured online, and we can create more effective, sustainable ways of working remotely and virtually.
Testing the theories
Over the last five weeks we have researched how that could work. We moved our experiential training workshop online and delivered five full days of facilitation skills training using Zoom Video Conferencing. There were 12 participants from three different time zones: Perth, Auckland and Melbourne. We chose deliberately to do our training in five full days, 9.30am–5pm, to study ways of overcoming the idea that online meetings must be exhausting and tiring. We completed the experiment this week, and I am pleased to say that we succeeded in proving that online groups and online meetings can be effective and deeply whole person nurturing.
The conclusion was that it is not about how long the meeting is or how many meetings you have. It is all about how they are done.
Following is a summary of five principles that we explored that helped us to manage a sustainable human connection online:
By presence I mean the ability to control and focus all or most of our attention to the upcoming meeting or engagement that we are about to start. Presence can be achieved and significantly improved through the practice of mindfulness, meditation and other personal development methods. To achieve presence, just before a meeting we recommend some of the following activities:
- Make sure you have a break, without screen time
- Go outside and adjust your eyes to nature
- Go for a walk
- Breathe deeply and close your eyes
Depending on your available time, any of the above methods will help you to increase your productivity. ‘The Joy of Work’ by Bruce Daisley and ‘The Happiness Equation’ by Neil Pasricha are some great books to read more about the research of increased productivity through regular breaks and increased mindfulness.
Remember you meet with real people. Even though you can’t always see them, and don’t feel their energy or read their emotions as well, due to the lack of non-verbal clues, remember that you are meeting with people. So, before you go into task mode, connect with the people in the room. This can be done in various ways depending on the purpose of the meeting and the time available.
Here are some examples of how this could be done:
Always start the meeting with a check-in
A check-in process allows everyone to speak. The purpose of check-in is to get present. So you might use a question that is related to the context of the meeting. For example, for a remote team that meets weekly you might say ‘Tell us one highlight and one challenge of working at home’. For a group of managers or business partners who meet for a daily short catch-up, a good opener could be to ask them what they need to say or do to be present.
People before task
Look around the screen and see where everyone’s energy is at. You might need to shift levels before you go to the next task so that the people can engage. Maybe an energiser could work?
If you plan longer meetings, make sure that you include exercises that shift people into a variety of levels. Shifting levels enables us to stay present and energised and not to get stuck. The ‘Aspects of the Whole Personhood’ model below, which was adapted from John Heron, shows some examples of the different levels that we could help the group to shift into.
Consider different learning styles. Make sure you use visual, audible and kinesthetic ways of conducting the workshop to keep the whole person engaged.
Having a clearly stated purpose for the meeting is the key to keeping people engaged. Purpose answers the questions on why we are meeting and what we are trying to achieve. Without a purpose, the meeting will be most likely unintentional. Also if a purpose is not spoken, the people attending will assume the purpose and will bring their own intentions. If they are unknown, they can lead to misunderstandings, unspoken expectations, disappointment, and conflict.
The hard thing in an online environment is that we can’t read emotions as well, as we don’t have the non-verbal clues. Stating purpose for each meeting, as well as for each exercise, is an important part to enable participation and engagement.
By process, I am talking about a structure and an order of how we design a workshop that creates engagement. Process includes:
- Presentations, e.g., webinars
- Q&A sessions
- Creative representations
- Small group work, e.g., using breakout rooms in Zoom to collect ideas or discuss an issue
- Ice breakers
- Conflict resolution processes
- Deep Democracy processes
- Open Space Technology
“Facilitation is the body of expertise associated with leading cooperative groups and cooperative processes. It is based on values of equal worth, full participation, consensus and celebration of difference.” [The Art of Facilitation by Dale Hunter]
Facilitation refers to a large body of work that has been developed and researched over many years.
In simple terms, it refers to HOW you do something. The HOW follows the WHO and the WHY, which is why this is after presence, people and purpose.
Many of you must have ventured into this new jungle of online platforms that enable us to work remotely, have online meetings, and collaborate online. For example, a platform is useful to collect ideas and to brainstorm with post-it notes, design templates or images online.
Benefits of using online platforms
- Videos, chat and online brainstorming can be saved and shared
- Advanced platforms like Mural enable the use of brainstorming templates
- People can edit each other’s ideas
- People can work on idea canvases asynchronously, which means at different times, which is very useful for international teams who work in different time zones.
The biggest learning around using platforms is that you need time to become competent and that everyone is on a different learning curve with them. The more tasks we have to do online at once, the more tired we become. That’s why this is the fifth ‘P’ in this model. The very last thing is to consider the platform to use.
Here are some tips:
Try it out in silence
People write, read silently, and move post-it notes around. People can just focus on one task and don’t have to focus on the voice and face of a person as well.
Keep it simple
If you can translate what you do in a physical meeting into an online environment without using the platform, then do that. For example, use a flipchart, or electronic whiteboard, and get people to use their hands, notepads, or real post-it notes and show them on screen.
Get off the screen whenever possible
For example, go for a walk and talk in pairs or a small group via phone or rather than online.
Mix it up and bring kinaesthetic elements into it. Hold up a picture rather than looking for one online, etc.
There is, again, a large list of these platforms and ways of communicating, and here are just a few:
- Adobe Connect
- Skype for Business
- Microsoft Teams
- Google Drive
- Jam Board
- Social Pinpoint
Connecting in the future
When the world stopped business as usual and after about a three-week adaptation period, we started to recognise some of the positive impacts that our staying at home had on the planet.
So okay, staying at home and working from home is a good thing for our planet. Now what? Has it been good for us as well? Well, some people might agree and some might disagree. Either way, it was a steep learning curve for us all. A steep learning curve in particular in overcoming our lack of knowledge and experience in meeting, collaborating and connecting in a virtual environment.
I see a future where our reach of connecting with people will become larger, more diverse and connected on a global scale. Global business opportunities will become more relevant, possible and available once we learn ‘whole person’ co-operation and to overcome the technical difficulties inherent in virtual communications.
Photos: Simone Maus by T. J. Garvie Photography. Last article photo from Shutterstock. Drawing supplied by author.
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