“Become a student of change. It is the only thing that will remain constant.” — Anthony J. D’Angelo, American author
How can leaders adapt to a rapidly changing environment?
According to D’Angelo, we should learn to embrace the turning of the tide. And there’s perhaps no better example of this than the present.
In the coming years, the business world will no doubt be affected by continued periods of crisis that will make remote/virtual work part of our daily lives.
The scale and scope of organizations asking employees to work from home so quickly is unprecedented, writes Harvard professor of business administration, Tsedal Neeley. “It’s not that people are going to permanently adopt this new format of work, but this experience will expand everyone’s capacity.”
Still, when in-person meetings with teams are likely to be canceled for days or weeks at a time, how do you adjust? “These days it’s hard to get people to pay attention in any meeting, but when people aren’t in the same room, it can be especially difficult,” co-authors Justin Hale and Joseph Grenny write in a story for Harvard Business Review.
“And it’s particularly annoying when you make a nine-minute argument, pause for an expected reaction, and get: ‘I’m not sure I followed you,’ which might as well mean: ‘I was grabbing a cup of tea and didn’t realize I would be called on’.”
I think we can all agree that virtual meetings are no walk in the park. I, for one, am someone who thrives on face-to-face interaction. I hold walking meetings and demo days where my team is encouraged to share their thoughts, discuss ideas and decompress. It’s a working arrangement that’s proven effective over the 14 years I’ve spent growing my business, JotForm.
Since founding my company, we’ve done away with unnecessary status update meetings and focused instead on innovation and problem-solving. What isn’t working? I often ask, and then work my way backward to the answer.
It’s important for me to always be questioning how to improve — how to hack away at the inessential.
But I believe part of our success is rooted in our ability to embrace change and evolve with our circumstances. While there’s no way of replicating the level of social engagement in live interactions — we can still make the best out of our virtual meetings by planning ahead and encouraging a positive remote culture.
A healthy and productive guide to virtual meetings
Virtual meetings will be part of life for every leader at some point or another. And as D’Angelo expressed, we’d be wise to approach these interactions strategically. I’ve learned a few tricks from my own experience and research that have proved helpful to us at JotForm, and that I hope will work for you.
1. Set ground rules.
Firmly and politely let your team know that they need to turn off their phones and refrain from checking emails while videoconferencing. Studies have found that while most people think they can multitask, they really can’t. Doing more than one task at a time takes a toll on productivity.
But more than that, devices are especially distracting to others. This is true of both live and virtual meetings. If someone is presenting or sharing an idea with the group, it can feel particularly disrespectful to see someone looking down or seeming distracted.
2. Connect first.
Without a doubt, one of my favorite things about building a business has been creating a culture that allows people to bring their best selves to work.
You want to strengthen these ties when working remotely, and you do this by using the first few minutes of your videoconference to check in on everyone. Ask how everyone is doing, and be thoughtful about it. Research shows that loneliness is one of the biggest struggles of working remotely, so encouraging positive communication is critical for ensuring a productive meeting.
3. Make it engaging.
It’s hard enough to demand attention when you’re giving a long, passive lecture in person. Now imagine that on a screen. Can you really blame people for dozing off mid-sentence?
That’s why it’s crucial to captivate people in the first 60 seconds. Personally, I’m a big fan of starting out with a provocative statistic or anecdote where I share something I’ve learned. What you want is to help your team understand the problem at hand before coming up with solutions.
4. Avoid mind-numbing data.
Keep this in mind: Jargon is the enemy of connection. Going through a list of talking points and endless slides is the best way to ensure that people zone out. “It doesn’t matter how smart or sophisticated the group is, if your goal is engagement, you must mix facts and stories,” Hale and Grenny emphasize. They encourage leaders to pick the least amount of data needed to inform and engage your team, and not adding a single slide more.
Whenever I organize a meeting, I think back to one of my old college professors, who told us to make our presentations as translatable as possible to the average person. “Don’t become a slave to the data,” he’d say.
5. Create meaningful involvement.
One of the biggest mistakes many leaders make is droning on about a problem without reading the room — in this case, the virtual space created between different team members who have an array of distractions at their disposal.
Before setting your agenda, come up with two to three opportunities to create meaningful engagement. This can be in the form of polling people for their opinions, or giving them a few minutes to discuss solutions among themselves.
The point is to keep people feeling engaged, valued and connected.
It’s a lesson every CEO of every organization should continuously strive for — to embrace the changing tide and be willing to quickly adapt. Or to quote classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein: “Of course there is no formula for success except, perhaps, an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings.”