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Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Through the screen: online meetings

episode summary

They’re not ‘virtual’ they actually exist.

In this first episode, Helen and Amy discuss the idea that you can break through and make online meetings brilliant, engaging and valuable; even those that span geographic time zones.

When you think about it, humans and their behaviour are at the heart of every meeting, online or not, and it’s human behaviour that’s struggling to keep up.

This warm and open conversation evolves to cover online meetings, working from home, the emergence of tech platforms, playing jazz and hybrid meetings.

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Through the screen: online meetings
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Episode transcript


Jingle music

It’s time to stop ‘going to meetings’. We don't mean never go to another meeting but instead simply choose to have the right conversation, with the right people, at the right time. It's time to stop the routine, it's time to stop having meetings for the sake of it ,it's time to stop wasting time. I'm Helen Chapman and I'm Amy Webb - the rest is over to you. Let's get going.


Amy Webb: So, Helen have you seen the news today?

Helen Chapman: Do you know what I haven't actually so tell me, what have you seen?

Amy Webb: I've been generally avoiding the news but looking at just the COVID related stuff because I feel like it's a bit overwhelming but today was there was an interesting article. I've got it up [one screen] I'm going to read the headlines. Amy reads from article. ‘Almost all of 50 of the UK's biggest employers do not plan to bring stuff back to the office full time’. So, they've done a survey 43 of the firms said that they would embrace a mix of home and office working, with staff at home for two or three days a week. It made me think about us and made me think about the last year that we've all had with COVID and how people have been thrown into working from home when they're not used to it, how we've all been thrown into virtual meetings. 

There's also a quote which I think you will be particularly interested in. It’s from Andrew Monk who … oh no that's the wrong one where's it gone? Sorry I just had it, it was about… oh I've lost it. I'm on the live news page that’s my problem. Anyway there was a quote from someone who works with the NHS and he said that from his point of view the people who are pushing for people to get back in the office full time are managers who like to micromanage and they like to look over people's shoulders, they like to make sure people are doing their job because they don't trust their staff to do their job which I thought was very interesting point of view some. So, I’m kind of bringing that in light of what we're going to talk about today, which is virtual meetings. I think it's really interesting that we're at position where we're looking forward passed COVID to a world where people will be engaging in virtual meetings for the you know for the future now. Not just as a necessity.


Helen Chapman: Yeah. Oh Amy, I mean can you remember, you know we're all going to be doing the ‘can you remember over the last 12 months’ and you know everything that this global pandemic did to us but we actually looked at each other and said ‘Oh my goodness, our business is built on being in the room with people, doing our facilitation. What are we going to do? Will this be the end of our organisation?’ and we had some very fast decisions to make and the truth is I think that not just us, but organisations globally had been up until a year ago had been meaning to get better at virtual meetings for the longest time. I think it was something that we all knew we ought to do knew that we needed to do but there was a nervousness about how to do it well plus an overwhelming desire to be in a physical space with people of course. I mean we are as human beings we are hard-wired to get (this is going to sound a bit weird) but we are genetically wired to get our DNA into the next generation. That's what we're programmed to do.

Amy Webb: You’re speaking to a pregnant person.

Amy and Helen laugh

Helen Chapman: I know, but we can't do that through a screen … well not yet! So we are predisposed to want to be in each other’s company and of course there are so many benefits of that, but this idea of working virtually was something that we'd been meaning to do for the longest time; and then and now 12 months ago we were absolutely forced to do or you know not survive. What that made us do is look at how we do this well. And over the year and if we think about what the article that you've read in today's news about the next 6, 12 months, 18 months, five years but this period of not only have we had to pivot into working online / working virtually but we've also done a lot of learning so I think there's been a lot of articles hasn't there? We've had articles from Microsoft for example they worked out that although the future is unknown in terms of how specifically we might be working, remote working is here to stay and the challenges that it brings includes things that we know like; increased focus on screen time, increased stress, you know as humans it's not as easy for us to pick up on non-verbal clues, we never can work out whose next turn it is to speak.

Amy laughs


Amy Webb: That’s why you get people doing this. Amy waves at Helen

Helen Chapman: I hate that hands-up. I mean I'm sorry for Teams and others, I value you all dearly but as a facilitator I really hate that hands-up feature because…’

Amy Webb: ‘It makes you feel like you’re in school’

Helen Chapman: ‘It makes you feel like you're in school, but also when you're trying to track a conversation it's really hard to know who put their hand up first, and by the time you get around to the hands up the moments passed. But also, the other thing is that there is an innate human condition where we are able to read the room, you know if we’re in a physical space with each other we sort of checkout the chemistry and we checkout the shape of each other’s heads. You know, it's like how we feel, how are we feeling being in this physical space and that's difficult in virtual terms. Also the idea of screen sharing; we've gone with it for the past 12 months but it's quite difficult when somebody shares screen even though there's really cool stuff on there quite often, the size of the screen share means that you can't really read it and its strains your eyes even more and so Microsoft have and - will put this into the show notes - it's a good article that calls out why it feels stressful and though we’re learning and we are getting better at it and there are lots of things that we can do to really nail this I think.


Amy Webb: I think especially, acknowledging how everyone's had been having to live and work over the last, you know, it's not OK that people have had to be doing working from home, be in meetings and also have their kids at home from school, for example. That is not feasible for people so there’s the stresses and the challenges of virtual meetings themselves and then also what everyone's been having to deal with - mentally, practically as well which in theory, moving forward, virtual meetings won't be happening with people also having to home school children, being in lockdowns. And it being a choice for companies rather than it being forced on them I think it will be quite empowering that they’re choosing to work in this way; choosing to make it work for them and work out the best way to do it to give people a bit more of a work life balance and all of those positives outside of the pandemic life. Which we've kind of all come to associate with virtual meetings the stress of the pandemic.

Helen Chapman: That is such a good point, when you think of anchoring and one thought triggers another …  you know the sound of a particular piece of music triggers a memory or a smell creates a nice thought, I hadn't actually considered the idea of associating online meetings with the stresses of dealing with a global pandemic and all of that. So, I think there is a patern interrupt to create here where, to your point, we choose to do these things online because actually there are many efficiencies and cost benefits. 

Amy Webb: You haven't got fly people around the world, put them up in hotels they haven't got to be away from their families for days at a time. There are loads of pro’s, it’s just kind of looking for those and then figuring out what we do about the cons.


Helen Chapman: Yes. This whole thing about working online made me smile because over the past few months people have called out,  “don't call it virtual’ you know the truth is that online meetings are real they're not virtual they actually exist so and people have called that out as a pet frustration over the past couple of months which makes me smile. But online meetings advice and the tips that are going around are really helpful. For example, people would say ‘turn your videos on’, ‘don't just go on mute’ and they are they are really good and practical elements of advice that we're learning as we go. But I think that the advice that is going around about how to do online meetings well for me is almost looking in the wrong place. Because I still facilitate meetings where a really well intentioned team leader might welcome the team the group and say thank you all for being here and then typically will say and ‘I know it's not ideal, we've got to make the best of it’. So even after 12 months plus of working online there is still a mindset, I think a deeply ingrained mindset, that online meetings are second best and I think that is where we need to start. My sense is that with the advice and the tips about online meetings which are all good and we can go through the practical things about how to do them well, the thing I'd like to offer here is I think we're beginning in the wrong place, we've got the wrong start point because if the mindset is that they are second best well, guess what, that mindset will drive behaviour, behaviour will get a sub optimum outcome, and always feel as if we're in a second best environment and that won't get the best out of all of us. So, the very first thing for me is switch that mindset. Experience for us, and I know we've both shared this in the past 12 months, is that with some online meetings that our clients are doing without us now - are fantastic. Oh my goodness - the agility in the resourcefulness that is bringing forward in people.


Amy Webb: ‘and brand new ways of working for teams. We've worked with teams where they would traditionally have had one annual meeting for a couple of days and that's the only time they touch base, but now because it's online able to spread that contact over several weeks or months and keep those points of contact. It's completely shifted how they work with each other as a team. Which you couldn't do before. They’re global teams. You've got people in Asia and people in Europe and people in America you couldn't do that if it wasn't online you couldn't do it that regularly because getting everyone physically together is such a big headache.’


Helen Chapman: ‘and you know what that makes me remember is; our very first and it was Ben Robinson actually that did this meeting and I will forever remember what he did as the icon and the beacon of ‘ahh this could be brilliant’ and I'll tell this story for a time to come I think. The pandemic hit us and the online meeting was the only way to go and he has/we have got a global client that Ben works with regularly, that said ‘Oh my goodness we were about to bring everybody together from Asia, from the US, from Europe we can't bring people together but we've got to have the meeting’ and the client said to Ben ‘but the problem is to find a time zone that we can all do it in. So that the guys in the US don't have to be awake at three in the morning, people in Asia and Australia don't have to be staying up. Because people’s welfare and well-being is just so important and sleep is an important part of that. ‘How do we do it?’ And Ben did the most amazing thing, he said ‘okay let's take a different mindset’ which is ‘we can do this - we just need to find out how’. And what he did with the client was he created a meeting where if you think about global time - the guys and girls in Asia were waking up first and so what they would do is work on a particular topic for this global team, they’d start the work and then as time zone opened up across the rest of the world, the topic got passed a bit like a baton in a relay race across the time zone so that people as they were waking up and coming to work were adding to it. There was a point at the middle of the day if you like in Europe, central Europe, where it wasn't too late for Asia and it wasn't too early for the US where everybody - it was a small window maybe of an hour 90 minutes - the whole team could come together. Then would continue the baton pass as Asia went to sleep. It was genius - I mean I've got goosebumps now remembering that. You talk about innovation and necessity driving innovation, that was the point at which for our organisation we thought ‘we can do this’ and ever since then we have continued to work. Not just us, other organisations as well to think creatively and innovatively. So, this goes beyond the sage advice about all putting cameras on and all have the audio….

Amy Webb: That’s kind of like the tip of the iceberg

Helen Chapman: It's sort of like the, ‘yeah, yeah we know what we know now’ we know now where possible not to have anybody in an online call for any longer than three hours I mean keep the meeting short. We get this stuff now that's almost a given. It's the stuff on top of that, the creativity on top of that that really brings the potential of online working to life and that's what excites us.

Amy Webb: And the ability to make it personal to what that organisation needs for that meeting, at that time, using the tools we've got available to us flexibly. Because there are so many tools that we can use, like Miro. We use we used in so many different ways for different clients and it’s just amazing to see how you can really make a personalised experience based on what the client needs. 

Helen Chapman: Yes, I agree. I made a list, I just did a quick list before we got onto this call of all the stuff that's out there to use. There’s  Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Miro, Mural, Mentimeter and more and more and more. The tools and the technology are again necessity drives invention they’re coming at us thick and fast.

Amy Webb: There's going to be more isn't there, there's going to be more innovation coming.


Helen Chapman: Yes. Now here's another angle for us here is … and even though those tools are brilliant I think people are looking in the wrong place when they're using them. So for example I spoke with a lady just last week who said to me that they are using Microsoft Teams really well which is good. I think there's a function on Microsoft Teams to be able to add information obviously there's a chat function, but I think there's a way of using Microsoft Teams in an interactive way. But predominantly what they're doing is using Microsoft Teams to show PowerPoint. So, the base of the meetings that they're doing - which they are enjoying and I think they're doing well which is good - is a PowerPoint deck will be created by somebody, will be shown on Microsoft Teams and people will share their screens and then you can add and annotate and put comments in the chat and an all of that, so that there is a layer of interaction. The problem for me is, to your point earlier, is because there are now more opportunities for people to meet because we can do bitesize sessions more frequently, is if for example in this instance PowerPoint is used each time, and the same process is used each time, then the fatigue that we all feel by looking into a screen is exacerbated I think because you also on top of that get process fatigue. The example that I would give in a non-meeting sense is if you think about playing a keyboard which I know you can do or is it guitar?

Amy Webb: No, I used to play piano I used to play a bit of guitar and then I married a musician who is stinkingly talented at everything and it makes you feel a little bit inferior, so now I just sing while he plays.

Helen and Amy laugh

Helen Chapman: Well in that case you know exactly what I'm talking about here which is … if you sat down at a keyboard or you stepped up to microphone to sing and all you did on the keyboard was hit Middle C, or all you did when you were singing was ‘La La La La La’ it becomes very boring very quickly

Amy Webb: It's like what toddler does when they're given a musical instrument.

Helen Chapman: Exactly, and they are the fundamentals of learning to play, but if that's all you ever stick to and using PowerPoint in showing it through Microsoft Teams or Zoom is all you ever do, fatigue of being on those calls will you know; so advice from us to all of our listeners is stop repeating the process. Learn to play a bit of jazz, mix it up 

Amy Webb: Improvise

Helen Chapman: It’ll probably take you out of your comfort zone, you will be forced to learn something new but that's alright we've been forced to learn stuff and we've survived. Don't get stuck in a groove now, improvise.

Amy Webb: Helen, do you think these habits have been formed because people have been forced into this way of working and they've just taken what they were doing in person in a meeting room and tried to translate it onto an online space, and potentially what they were doing in the meeting room was already habitual and samey and this is just what we do; and then they just essentially picked it up and moved it onto their computers. Because again, I think we've got empathy for everyone, we've all lived through this very stressful year and it's not a criticism because as you say overnight people we’re like ‘go home, we're not in the office anymore, we're going to have it all online’, so people have had to just go ‘okay, we’ve gotta do what we do there but online’. Now it kind of feels like a time to pause, reflect and then go, ‘OK we can't just keep on (as you say) showing PowerPoints’, do you think it's those old habits. It’s like the old habits die hard thing.


Helen Chapman: I think that is a really wise, I think it's a really smart observation; and my answer is maybe and I think that through any period of instability as human beings we look for the thing that we know, don't we? We look for this stability out of chaos, and so in some ways you might be right picking up what we were already doing and importing it into the online world feels safe and it's the thing we know to do. But what your question brings for me is … how I feel about using PowerPoint in in-person meetings or anywhere because it harks into a world of where people would bring people into an in-person meeting space and to your earlier point is sometimes they’ll have travelled thousands of miles to get there. 

Amy Webb: They’re jet lagged 

Helen Chapman: To be treated like an audience when they get into the room, so why do that? Why present at people when actually you've got some assembled brains either in the in-person environment or in the online environment. Use the brains. And if sharing PowerPoint is helpful - to set up a conversation go for it, but don't think that it's the only way and please don't assemble people around a screen or in a meeting room to treat them as an audience. Get full participation and expand that repertoire.


Amy Webb: Yeah. Because there are times where a bit of a show and tell are necessary to impart information, but it's when the whole meeting is show and tell - that's the problem. So would you maybe have a like a rough rule of thumb for people if there does need to be some information sharing percentage-wise. Are we talking 30% of the time spent on that, or less, or is it as little time as possible spent talking at people. What would your kind of rough rule of thumb be? 


Helen Chapman: Yes. Well, I'm gonna say… you’ll love this Amy. I'm going to say it all depends. It all depends on what it is that – let’s use it in a meeting sense - it all depends what that meeting needs to achieve. And then if you think about a meeting being broken down into topic areas; sometimes you might have the topic that needs to have a bit more tell than another topic that needs to have a little bit more collaborative thinking. So, I'm not going to give a rule of thumb percentage, what I am going to say is be absolutely crystal clear about each individual topic on the agenda, what it needs to do. If a topic is about informing, then keep the tell in the actual session as a minimum and the way to do that is to send information ahead of time that people can read, and then all you do in the session itself is bring out the summary of that and then create space for people to explore the topic.

Amy Webb: Yep

Helen Chapman: The other thing that the question brings for me is different preferences right, so some people really will benefit from going to a meeting where there is a lot of information shared, a lot of tell and then they like to go away and reflect because that's their natural style. Where others would like to come and have tell reduced because they are much better at engaging in conversation and sharing information that way. So not only be careful about what you want for each topic, but really be cognizant of the assembled brains, the assembled people and what their preferred engagement style is. You're more likely to get a good outcome from each topic and therefore from the meeting if you've thought about the people themselves and how best to get the best out of them.

Amy Webb: Yeah. I mean could it be as simple as we've got for example I'm going to share this information for 10 minutes but just mentally saying to yourself about three different points I'm going to stop and ask a question for example.

Helen Chapman: Nice, yeah. So the idea would be rather than go at it as a marathon, do a series of short sprints, give a bit, pause, ask ‘what do you need to tell or ask at this stage’ make those stage gates about getting clarity. So do a series of short sprints, get clarity at the end of each sprint. Which, by the way, if you're the information sharer it gives you chance to get a drink of water or to take a breath, and then at the end of those short sprints then invite the conversation. I think that's a nice way to think about it. And that works. You know we're talking about online meetings here but clearly that works in in-person meeting so to speak. The other thing that your question brings for me about habits or when you said is it because we've just ported in from the physical, the face to face meeting space into the virtual one. I actually think that people’s comfort and confidence around using technology plays a massive part. There are some people I know who don't want to turn their screen on or their video on because they feel very self-conscious being seen on the screen.

Amy Webb: And in their home environment it can feel a bit invasive can’t it?

Helen Chapman: It can, and we know that we can turn on different backgrounds and so on but people in a way can get a bit stage fright, and that's a real thing. It takes time for people to trust that it's okay to turn on the video, and just to be who I am and maybe because I'm in my home environment I'm not suited and booted like I might be in the office and that's alright we're all in it together but just bear in mind that just because some people are happy to be seen through a camera, it's not the same for all. Same with audio. And then having comfort with technology; so, it might, people might feel that the edge of their capability is to show a PowerPoint and do a screen share because it feels a bit scary doing something else.

Amy Webb: Yeah 

Helen Chapman: And so we need to appreciate the human condition for learning and make things as accessible for as many as we possibly can I think.

Amy Webb: I think that confidence with tech is something that I've seen as a TFP Visualiser with The Facilitation Partnership (TFP) that there is a lot of the benefit when you've got someone whose sole role is to do the text. For example, when we're working on the Miro boards. You can kind of see an evolution of people's confidence where the first meeting that I'm in with the team no one adds anything to the board coz they will bit like ‘oh this is a bit new, I don't know what to do’ and then the TFP Visualizer’s adding all the information and then by the time you've worked with that group for three or four times they're all whizzing around; but it is that learning process and sometimes it is and obviously not every meeting will have TFP Facilitator and a TFP Visualizer in but knowing that some people will have skills that other people don't and it's okay to utilise them and maybe just nominate someone to be the one kind of manning the tech, if you like, so that other people can learn and feel confident and the not put under that pressure straight away.


Helen Chapman: Yes, I agree and it's interesting because I'm working with the team where the leader of that team right now is feeling really exposed because he naturally is quite a late adopter when it comes to technology and he's feeling that the team that is working with are galloping away and are getting confident and it's creating a gap, and in his perception quite a big gap between him and his team in the way he engages with technology. I think he's ‘got by’ so far but as he said to me the other day, ‘I've got to get good at this because this is the way of the world going forward and I don't want to be left behind’, and so he recognises that. But for many leaders in that situation there's a consideration about face and about I don't want to ‘lose face’ and therefore I need to be vulnerable, and I need to allow myself to learn, and I need to make mistakes in front of people, and it's got to be alright.

Amy Webb: It is a huge thing I think, especially technology over my lifetime right so I'm in my mid 20s so if someone like yourself who's been in a career for 20 years the technology within your working life, doing the same job, has drastically changed. When I was a child we still had that dial up Internet and all you could do was like play solitaire on a computer and that's it, and now with gathering people from all around the world, using all these interactive tools, and it is it is terrifying for some people. And I think that if we are confident using it you can kind of not be very empathetic to that but it's really important to remain humble and you know see the person that actually this can be really scary for them; everything they've ever done in their working life now is just like you said the rugs been pulled out from underneath them.

Helen Chapman: Exactly. Amy, you'd laugh … I remember when a new technology came in called a mobile phone, and I hoped that this new-fangled-fad would go away as quickly as it came…

Amy Webb: Did you really?

Amy and Helen laugh

Helen Chapman: Oh yes; because at the time they were massive things 

Amy Webb: Yes, like a briefcase! 

Helen Chapman: Yes, like a briefcase up to your ear, and the battery pack was even bigger and so there was the clunky-ness of it but I was thinking ‘ahh if just look the other way people will get over this phase and it'll just go away really quickly’ and now I can't live without my mobile phone.

Amy Webb: No, none of us can

Helen Chapman: Exactly I remember that feeling and I think that is still real for many people when it comes to working with tech. A wise old facilitator by the name of John O'Keefe, that I admire very much for his ‘beyond the box’ thinking, on that point that you've just made about the rug being pulled, said to me, ‘Helen if you ever feel like the rug gets pulled from under your feet, well you'd better learn to dance on a moving carpet’, because being able to keep up right when the ground beneath you is moving in that way, that's the only way that you're not just only going to survive but really thrive.

Amy Webb: Yeah

Helen Chapman: I think that point is absolutely valid for now

Amy Webb: Yes, and that's what every business that’s still standing through this pandemic has been forced to do that 

Helen Chapman: Absolutely

Amy Webb: Everyone's tired, everyone is kind of shell shocked, and we're still kind of reeling from it so going back to the first point you made to consciously moving forward with positivity from here is really necessary because it's been for lots of people a stressful, traumatic, negative year of work and then looking forward we need to be starting from place of positivity.

Helen Chapman: And that for me, I'm feeling, my next layer of learning and for us as a business is about this next six months and the reason it's causing me cause for ‘oooh’ a bit of concern is that we're going to move into a hybrid situation where we've got some people who are in a meeting room and a chunk of people who are dialling in. Now that was happening before the pandemic and the technology you can Beam people in but the reason that  I'm just drawing breath about it, and I haven't quite worked out yet how we'll do this well, is that the people in the room have got all of those cues of body language, read the room and so on where people dialling into the hybrid is where we're going next and that I think should be the subject of another podcast, when we figured out how to do it really well that's our next challenge.

Amy Webb: And that will be a big challenge 

Helen Chapman: Yes indeed

Amy Webb: Okay, so what would be your key message, your key takeaway for people listening to this who I have no doubt are participating in virtual meetings and have been for a while now 

Helen Chapman: Yes, I'm really clear. My key messages ‘adjust your mindset’. If you are somebody who is thinking that working online is second best, if your mindset is that, your behaviour and your results will come from that. We can unlock a massive potential online, we can, we do, we are demonstrating it. So, shift that mindset. And then the second point is ‘stop playing Middle C when it comes to the process tools that you're using online’, improvise a bit, play a bit of jazz, stretch yourself about what might be possible. Think creatively a bit like Ben Robinson did all of those months ago and you'll be amazed at what you can make happen.


Jingle Music

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