Communication, Organization

Remote Teams and Virtual Facilitation

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I have my own biases,  having seen co-located teams work very well and having struggled with “dislocated” teams, I often recommend my clients to reconsider “dislocated” teams.  And by “dislocation” I am not saying you cannot have teams ten time zones away.  What I mean by a “dislocated” team is when three team members are in one time zone, but in different locations and other team members are in different locations and time zones. (Technically speaking – it might be better to call them workgroup than a team).  A “non-dislocated” team is one where all team members are physically sitting right next to each other.

Research (here, here, and here) has shown us that the the cost of “dislocation” is way too high than the cost of “co-locating” the team. Often times, the team members are dislocated from wrong reasons (and I won’t go into that here). My suggestions usually get brushed off because (a) the clients have far more important problems to deal with (b) the decision maker is way higher up in the totem pole and my message does not reach them or (c) clients would rather run behind a tangible cost saving (e.g. cost)  than looking at the intangible loss (e.g. loss of high bandwidth communication between dev. team members due to time zone and technology challenges which ultimately increase the cycle time of features).

One of my friends challenged me to attend a workshop last Thursday on “remote facilitation”. I know many of my students and clients struggle with this and  I accepted the challenge. The content of the workshop blew me  away (Note: – colocated teams are still better than dislocated teams, I have not changed my mind on this. I am merely sharing a few ideas that I learned so that you can find them beneficial).  Here are my few major takeaways.

  • Facilitator tip – Rather than merely trying to replicate a technique that works for  in-person meetings, try to deconstruct why that technique works and reconstruct that technique for virtual meetings
  • Participate in the virtual meeting with the same level of attention (or more) and engagement as though it is an in-person meeting (that means no multi-tasking)
  • There is a self-fulfilling prophecy with regard to virtual meetings  – you experience poor virtual meetings, you expect bad meetings, you get bad meetings, and the cycle perpetuates itself
  • Set expectations upfront – very clearly and this is how you break the self-fulfilling prophecy
    • Ban phone only meetings, use videos for ALL the meetings.
      • People get a lot of cues when seeing face and having a video helps in non-verbal communication, not to mention that it actually engages people
      • Have you heard the toilet flushing sound when in conference calls(because someone forgot to mute their phone)? Bet you will not hear that when you have your participants turn on the video.
    • You got to be on the video, else we close the meeting right away. You join on video, else you don’t. Period.
    • You got to join the meeting from a quiet place, not “dial-in” it from the bus when on you are on your way home . And you must be on the video. Period.
    • Even if one person breaks the expectations once, we close the meeting right away. We break it once, it is an excuse to break it the second time and we are back with the self-fulfilling prophecy of bad virtual meetings
  • Normalize the communication channels – One person is remote? Then everyone is joining remotely using their own video from their laptop.  Two people cannot join using the same video. Don’t have a camera? GET ONE !!
  • Facilitator and participant tip – try having the video right below the camera (than having the video in different screen) in your laptops/computer. It creates an impression that you are looking into the camera when you are looking into the video
  • In-person meetings and co-located teams work because we “socialize” quite a bit. Try having some “social” time in virtual meetings as well. Try “bring your own cider” (the choice of drink will depend on the timezone of the participants)
  • As a facilitator, you got to have everyone engaged – here are a few tips
    • Get everyone on video.
      • This minimizes the participants’ tendency to multi-task
      • This also prevents people from anonymously snooping in. Have you had people join a conference call and not announce themselves?  Will you let someone walk into your in-person meeting with a mask on? If no, why would you have someone snoop into your virtual meeting?
    • Avoid PowerPoints – it is just one way broadcast. Use tools that support “virtual” break-out rooms.
    • Increase psychological safety (more on this in a different blog later) so that people can actually speak up.
  • Facilitator tips –
    • Like my friend Mike Dwyer says – use the NOSTUESO rule – No One Speaks Twice Until Everyone Speaks Once.  And the participant has the right to pass.  This creates space for people to speak up.  Also, if participants speak up in the first five minutes, they are much more likely to speak again.
    • Hard to pass a talking stick and figuring out who should talk next in a virtual meeting when facilitating round robin discussion – try this idea –  Have a participant speak and then nominate the next person. And repeat till everyone speaks
    • Prepare… prepare… prepare. You cannot wing a virtual meeting. You need more preparation. And you need a Plan B as well. What if the internet connection fails? What if your laptop crashes?
    • Pay attention to discomfort – participants can only sit in once place for so long
    • Bring psychological safety and engagement from everyone into the working agreement.  What might be the few ways that we damage psychological safety (sometimes unconsciously)?
    • Have someone paraphrase what a speaker said. This makes people pay more attention and also ensures that the speaker’s message landed as intended
    • If appropriate, use tools like https://www.mentimeter.com/ or https://kahoot.com/ to increase engagement during the meeting by having participants answer questions.
  • When women speak first, the probability that other women speak is higher.
  • Remote meetings are a lot smaller than in-person meetings. It is hard to have more than 12 people in a virtual meeting (and then expect them to be engaged). If you are new start with six, then build up.

I hear what you are thinking, “But… But … But…. in our office, we cannot do…..”.  If, you expect different results, you need to change. Because someone once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

My question to you is, “What is possible for you to change (and keep improving) to get better results?”

What other tips do you have?  Please share it here

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