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Sorry, couldn’t find the unmute

And then suddenly, just like that, we had no choice. Digital meetings are no longer an unusual (and often unpleasant) trial, but for many of us homeworkers, the only way business happens.

“Necessity,” noted Tik-Tok devotee Plato 2,400 years ago, “is the mother of invention.” The reverse is equally true: without necessity, it’s amazing how much rubbish we can put up with.

Put your hand up if you’ve ever run a dreadful virtual meeting. Put it down if you went back, changed all your working practices, and made sure that future meetings were completely different. I can still see a lot of hands.

Having better conversations is at the core of what we do at Kaleidoscope. So what have we learned that can help us (quickly) get more value out of digital meetings? Five points.

1. Humanity over technology

We help lots of people design networks across health and care. Pretty much first on the network cliche bingo sheet is the desire for tech: user forums, sharing platforms, and such like. These aren’t bad ideas. What isn’t helpful is the common mismatch between the attention given to whizz-bang technology, and the somewhat less sexy culture to go alongside it.

So it is with digital meetings: they’re only ever as good as the experience people have in using it. “Nothing is so painful,” wrote Mary ‘love a bit of Insta’ Shelley, “to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” Underestimate at your peril the amount of help people are going to need to navigate a different way of working. Invest less in debating the merits of which Zoom package you should buy, and far more on how you’re going to use it when you have it.

2. Simple rules

This isn’t rocket science. There are some fairly basic rules to dramatically make your meeting a more bearable place: everyone on mute unless otherwise required, when going round for comments the chair sets out the next three people they’re coming to so they have time to unmute, being clear what comments you’re taking by voice compared to chat. What matters most is that everyone knows the rules, and sticks to them.

Agree your team’s rulebook and paste them into every calendar invite until they stick. Have fun if you need to; our Kaleidoscope morning check-in has to have a chair agreed in the first two minutes, decided on by who had the nicest breakfast.

Let’s cut to the chase: the teleconference is dead, the digital equivalent of everyone wearing paper bags on their heads.

3. The whites of their eyes

Just turn your camera on. I know you’re in your pyjama bottoms, no-one will see. Everyone’s front room looks messy. Going audio-only massively limits a meeting’s value by the complete absence of non-verbal cues (estimated at being up to two thirds of all communications). “Why do our facial expressions of emotions take the particular forms they do?” that keen WhatsApper Charles Darwin wrote 150 years ago. Answer: because they’re packed with millennia of shared understanding as to what a nose wrinkle, frown, or smile, all mean.

Let’s cut to the chase: the teleconference is dead, the digital equivalent of everyone wearing paper bags on their heads. Or at least, if you insist on keeping webcams off, go the whole communication-stunting hog and only use words beginning with vowels.

4. Don’t linger

We’re used to face-to-face meetings being a ‘thing’. There’s a room to book, travel to be made, biscuits to be scrounged; all leading to 60 minute time slots just to justify the sunk cost in having it at all. Digital meetings don’t have any of this.

If your chosen technology is good enough, you should be able to hop on as many digital meetings as you like with the click of a button. This means if you only need seven minutes, just have seven minutes, don’t drone on for 60. (And just because it’s only quick don’t see this as a reason to ignore tip 3. Leave your phone on the desk and give them a quick video-call instead.)

5. Truths eternal

Besides showing off my Wikipedia skills, there’s another reason for quoting Plato, Shelley and Darwin. Yes, you do need additional care to get the most out of digital meetings. Yet there are also basic truths about getting value out of any meeting: stating the purpose at the beginning, having a clear agenda and a chair who actually chairs, sticking to the time scheduled.

There’s also something even more fundamental about what’s needed for human connection and relationships. As I’ve written about before, we know from our personal lives the need for trust, respect and knowing people as people. The trick is to transfer these intrinsic truths from the personal realm to the professional.

That’s more than possible. Even over Zoom.

Rich Taunt30 March 2020


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