Working at home: Being productive in virtual meetings

A recent Harvard Business Review article about meeting participation, “How to Get People to Actually Participate in Virtual Meetings,” reasons that there are “four broad reasons to hold a meeting: to influence others, to make decisions, to solve problems or to strengthen relationships.” These reasons for meetings provide a good guideline for organizing your thoughts about the virtual meetings you are participating in from home. Even if you are not in charge of the next virtual meeting, it’s worth reflecting on these meeting dimensions to get the most out of time spent.

1. Influence others

Unlike an email, a virtual face-to-face experience can provide some insights into what’s going on that doesn’t come through in an email message. What is actually said may be very different than a string of bullet points.

For example, there is a Plan A and a Plan B for adapting to the current crisis. But in face-to-virtual-face it may be clear that Plan B is really not a decent option and the meeting organizer wants to influence the buy-in to Plan A. This visual value in the current crisis was evident when New York Governor Cuomo reiterated the state’s need for ventilators and demoed the Plan B hand pump version that is also on order. It was visually clear that while Plan B was in place, it was time to go all-in on the ventilators.

If you are in charge, what is it that you want meeting attendees to understand and do during the meeting and then afterwards when working on their own? Is your message clear? As a participant, consider what the meeting leader is really seeking and if it is reasonable and actionable by you.

2. Make decisions

If this virtual meeting requires some decision making, it is important that everyone understand what decision is being made and why. To move towards a decision, those involved need an opportunity to express objectives—the clear measures of what you want to achieve. In Kepner-Tregoe Decision Analysis these objectives are expressed as Musts or mandatory objectives. For example, in choosing a new vendor, a Must could be: Offer 24/7 Service. Objectives are also expressed as Wants, those objectives that, if fulfilled, help compare alternatives. In this same example, a Want could be “Reduces Current Paperwork”.

The decision-making process must clarify: To what purpose? Which? and How? Clearly stated objectives provide the basis of comparison among potential choices. They provide the reasons for choosing one alternative over another and justify the final choice.

3. Solve problems

For rapid problem-solving in a more informal setting, the critical thinking basis of a more structured process still applies. Whether you are leading the problem solving or an active participant, the first steps should determine if a problem exists and if the cause is unknown.

During a time of crisis, many decisions that need to be made are disguised as problems. If the problem presented is, “There is no way we can meet our project’s deadline with present staff,” we already know why this is happening: no one is leaving their homes. This “problem” is actually an indication of decisions that need to be made around project objectives, deliverables and staffing. To resolve a problem—that is to find cause—the cause must be unknown.

Facing mounting costs and time sensitive issues, you can mitigate a problem enough to work around it; you may not need to solve it now (although that can be risky) and you can just work around the problem and move on. But if there is a problem and you must know the cause, it’s useful to find agreement on what the specific problem is and to avoid over-generalizing it. For example, a problem might be seen as, “Service was down last night” or more specifically “Service was down between 3 and 4 am” or even more specifically “Email service was down between 3 and 4 am.” The more specific you can get, the closer you are to cause.

4. Strengthen relationships

Even people who always work at home are feeling the strain of “stay home.” Suddenly the table at the corner coffee shop or the camaraderie of the dog park are sorely missing. Virtual meetings will not fill the void of social interaction when they are overrun with PowerPoint slides. Turn the video on and don’t rely on group audio calls alone. If your big group meeting and technology can accommodate smaller breakout groups, provide these more engaging opportunities.

One of the best ways to strengthen relationships and maintain a more natural momentum is to take the time to really listen. Your virtual meetings provide an opportunity for some input from outside your bubble. What is your talk:listen ratio? Are you fashioning a response instead of really listening to the person speaking? It’s not enough to allow others to provide some input, you need to pay attention and not just wait for your turn to speak again.

We know the current situation is temporary, but it sometimes feels like forever. You can make the most of your Zoom time by clarifying or getting a read on why a meeting exists and acting accordingly. Whether you are involved with making decisions, solving problems, influencing others or building relationships, virtual meetings are the new normal for working effectively in groups.

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