Let grownups be grownups (in remote meetings)

In today’s FVC (Facilitating Virtual Collaboration) workshop, the topic came up about how facilitators can engage participants in a remote meeting so that they don’t check email, tune out, stop listening, and fail to … well… participate. My unusual and occasionally unpopular advice: It’s not entirely your problem.

screen shot of a sticky note board

Part of our discussion about the challenges of remote work

 

Let me clarify. As a facilitator, and especially as a facilitator of remote meetings, it’s my job to create a space where people can do their best work. It’s my job to work with the group or the meeting sponsor to clarify the work’s outcomes. It’s my job to design a process that will lead to those outcomes, and it’s my job to select tools that will support each process I want the group to engage in.

It’s not my job to entertain people. I’m actually quite bad at that and nobody would pay me to do it. Looking at my actual job, here’s what I’m responsible for:

  1. Create a space where people can do their best work. I need to answer the five key questions people have when they get together to do groupwork (why am I here? who are you people? what are we doing? how should I behave? when can I leave?) so that each person can set aside those pressing questions and get down to work. I need to help the group establish norms or operating agreements that will prevent common problems in meetings. I need to provide the tools, whether physical or virtual, that will let them get the work done, like paper and sticky notes or the digital equivalent. I need to hold the space for them so that they can fall apart in the chaos of the groan zone (Sam Kaner’s term, explained very well here by Jeannel King).
  2. Work with the group or its sponsor to clarify outcomes. Both before the meeting and when it starts, I need to help the key stakeholders be clear about what they want to get done in the time that we have, what’s in scope and what’s out of scope, and what’s likely to happen after the meeting.
  3. Design a process that will lead to the outcomes. I need to select and sequence activities, design them so that participants can be effective, vary them so that people don’t get sated with the same thing — and that’s the part of engagement that falls on me. My process needs to be engaging, which means I don’t talk very much. I ask questions, set up a process for people to explore them, and get out of the way. Then I help them work with the data they generate.
  4. Select tools to support the processes. I need to choose tools that involve participants in creating their own work. Sometimes this means I’m recording what they say on a chart. Sometimes this means they’re working with sticky notes or cards. Sometimes they’re talking in small groups with video. My tools need to make it possible to participate fully in the processes I’ve outlined.

At no point do I need to draw people’s attention by being entertaining. I go in to a meeting assuming that everyone there is a grownup with a job to do, only part of which happens to be taking place in the meeting I’m running. If they need to attend to something else, that’s a choice they can make. What I do is to make sure that when they are involved in the meeting, they are actually moving the work forward. Most people who care about their work find that pretty engaging.

We had a really good discussion in class about this, and I appreciate how everyone contributed their points of view and shared their own circumstances and experiences. The conversation helped me crystallize my feeling on this topic into words.

I know your mileage may vary on this one. I know you probably have to host meetings where the primary purpose is to share information and it’s hard to get people do really do things. My question to you is this: what’s the highest and best use of your group’s time together? Especially if they are meeting remotely, what can you remove from the synchronous part of the work and handle asynchronously instead? If people come to a meeting, understand and value its outcomes, see how it connects to the job they need to get done, and understand how their participation will make a difference, then they can choose to be engaged or not. I find people usually choose engagement.

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