You’ve sent all your employees home to stay safe and keep their distance, and now it’s time for your weekly Monday morning meeting. It’s not like you’ve never had a virtual meeting before—you do this all the time. But suddenly, this feels more uncomfortable. Every screen background is different and unfamiliar; you’ve never had such an intimate view into the lives of all of these people before. But in order to inspire a sense of normalcy, you begin this meeting the way you have every Monday morning, by cracking a joke about your weekend and then turning your attention to the agenda slide as you share your screen.
We used to try that too. At Cultivating Leadership, we have been figuring out how a global, virtual consultancy can have the kind of connected, creative culture that this complex world requires. And we’ve learned that most virtual meetings are disconnecting and uncreative. Here are two key ingredients for creating a solid foundation for a creative and connected virtual meeting.
Create a sense of presence
I think the art of arrival is underrated. We tend to rush into a meeting at the office with our mind on the last meeting or on the project that’s due at the end of the day. When we are virtual, that gets even worse. We half-arrive, figuring we can probably get out that proposal by the end of the meeting if things are slow. Or catch up on the latest news that we are frantically consuming in our anxiety. And then we are half-present at the virtual meeting which is, I believe, actually worse than missing the meeting altogether.
In our meetings at Cultivating Leadership, we take three or four minutes to really center, to feel our feet on the floor and to notice our breathing. But even in a short meeting, you can take 25 seconds to help people arrive. Slow down your pace, look straight into the camera, ask people to take a deep breath or two as they put down what they have been doing. Remind them of the purpose of this meeting and what you really hope to achieve over the next X minutes. It is amazing how even that level of request makes people put away their phones, close another screen, and actually be present at this meeting.
Now you’ve arrived.
Check in with everyone
We teach that in complexity, a check in in a meeting is a helpful tool (here’s a video we have about this). In a virtual meeting, it’s mandatory. You have no access to what’s really going on in each person’s world unless you ask them. There might be a crying child just outside the door, a call from a doctor with a diagnosis just after this call, a fight with a roommate about using the only quiet space in the flat. When we are mostly working at home, the boundaries between who we are at home and who we are at work—never that helpful—dissolve. We need to replace what our nervous system would have told us in an in-person meeting. We need to know something about what’s going on with these whole humans who show up as heads on the screen.
Minimally what you want is to get a quick connection to what matters. I think in the spinny, unsettled mandatory virtual world of today, getting a sense of place (where are you?) and emotion (how are you?) are vital. Depending on the meeting, you might ask for a very fast check in (“Tell us where you are and give us three words to describe your day so far”), or you might want something potentially slower and more soulful (“How are you doing with all the unrest in the world right now?”).
As time goes on and your group gets more used to this new totally-virtual world, you might want to check in about a piece of information that might guide the meeting (“What is the most important thing for you to get out of this time together?” or “What has most surprised you about what you’ve heard from customers this week?”). In any case, you want to let every person speak once and without interruption.
If you’re really interested in creating a team that listens well, you might do a second round of the check in, the balcony round: What are the patterns we’ve just heard from our group? What are the outliers? What was missing that you thought might be there? This helps the team begin to listen more deeply to each other and to listen more deeply to the system you are creating together–invaluable pieces of leading in complexity.
By helping your team arrive and check in, you have created the foundation that will make your virtual meeting at least as good as your in-person ones. In the next blog, I’ll offer our ideas about how to make use of that strong foundation.