Since the pandemic began, many of us have been glued to our devices, trying to make the best of virtual communication. The move to Zoom has forced us to scramble and come up with new solutions to keep things interesting — from just mastering the basics to more whimsical methods, like having a llama from an animal sanctuary join the call. But, as great as it is to have a llama at a meeting, how do we really fix the problem of making virtual meetings more collaborative and engaging?
The virtualization of work has generally increased the hours that people spend on the clock, and blurred boundaries between life and work. “Video fatigue” comes from many factors, such as the difficulty of making real eye contact with meeting participants (known as “gaze awareness”). Research by Microsoft shows that concentration begins to fray about 30-40 minutes into a meeting, and that stress begins to increase after about two hours of videoconferencing. These physical issues feed strategic challenges faced by many executives: engaging in creative problem solving or holding contentious discussions given the constraints of virtual meetings.
Even as companies welcome back employees to workplaces, virtual meetings will be here to stay, so how do we make them go from a painful necessity to a productive tool?
Over the course of our work (three of us at management consultancy Innosight, one of us at DBS Bank), we’ve worked with groups to find innovative solutions to virtual-work problems, and, recently, we conducted a LinkedIn discussion in the Harvard Business Review Discussion group for fresh, crowdsourced ideas.
Our goal was to help others find ways to improve Zoom calls, using techniques we’ve used with companies worldwide to build their innovation capabilities, which we also described in a previous magazine article and covered in more detail in our new book Eat, Sleep, Innovate.
The basic idea is to borrow from the behavior change literature and use behavior enablers, artifacts, and nudges (we call them BEANs) to make desired behaviors habitual. Behavior enablers directly help people follow desired behaviors (think checklists). Artifacts and nudges act as powerful indirect reinforcements (consider visual reminders or gamification).
The process to build a BEAN to improve virtual meetings is straightforward and involves three steps.
Be clear about the specific behavior you are trying to encourage by completing the statement “It would be great if we…” For example, a team at one company we advised decided that it wished that members would all be mentally present during virtual meetings, enabling vibrant discussions and creative problem solving.
Identify “behavioral blockers,” or the things you are doing instead of following your desired behavior. The prompt here is “But instead we…” The virtual meeting group talked about how it felt collective minds wandering as meetings droned on, with people getting distracted by emails, turning to other activities, or simply tuning out.
Identifying actionable blockers has some subtlety to it. It’s easy to say that you and others aren’t exhibiting a desirable behavior because it’s difficult, or that there aren’t appropriate incentives, or that people are afraid to do it, but you need to dig deeper.
- Be as specific as possible (“our collective minds wander and we start to multitask” vs. “we get bored”)
- Describe actions, not feelings (“we defer decisions to the next meeting” vs. “we are scared to make a decision”)
- Go beyond the obvious (“we fill meeting schedules with low-value tasks that could be delegated” vs. “we lack time for deep discussions”)
- Ask questions such as “What behavior shows this feeling?” or “Why do we do what we do?”
Build a BEAN that helps to encourage the desired behavior and overcome the identified blocker. The virtual meeting team suggested the idea of appointing a Zoom jester. Jesters obviously played a role entertaining a monarch’s guests, but they also played an important, less obvious role. As the “fool” in the room, they could speak truth to power, saying tough things that would be hard for others to articulate due to fear of reprisal. Similarly, the Zoom jester would have the authority to tell people when they are monopolizing conversations or meandering. The formal appointment of a jester and a checklist detailing their role would serve as the behavior enabler; a fun Zoom background and a crowdsourced set of “tricks” to spice up meetings would act as reinforcing artifacts and nudges.
(it would be great if we…)
(but instead we…)
(so we should…)
|… drive alignment that leads to action through candid discussion and debate.||… bite our tongues, defer to subject matter experts, and delegate up.||… appoint a devil’s advocate in every meeting, noted by a pitchfork icon on their virtual background.|
|… create open space in meetings for unstructured exploration.||… have airtime sucked up by long-winded stories about the past.||… give a 22nd floor elevator pitch where people have to give timed one-minute updates on key topics.|
|… make decisions, act courageously, and be action oriented.||… are socially lazy, ask for more data, and delegate up.||… create a decision rater app that allows meeting attendees to assess the quality of the decision made in the meeting.|
|… transparently share and discuss issues.||… stew in silence as sharing bad news is taboo.||… use a simple app to take the team temperature at the start of each meeting.|
|… could stay present and engaged during meetings.||… have our collective minds wander and we start to multitask.||… appoint a Zoom jester that can provide entertainment and call out meeting monopolizers and meanderers.|
|… tap into our creative juices and productively brainstorm during virtual meetings.||… enter the meeting space fragmented and distracted and jump straight into menial work.||… have a cold open that creates a clear break from the last meetings and spurs creativity by using things like a singing bowl or a gong.|
Virtual meetings can be collaborative, engaging, and even, believe it or not, fun. Run a team BEANstorm (that’s brainstorming about BEANS) that draw inspiration from the BEANs we have collated to develop something that fits the behaviors you seek and the behavioral blockers you are trying to break. Like anything new, it takes a bit of trial-and-error before you get it right, but the payoff is worth it.Read more on Meetings or related topic Psychology
- Scott D. Anthony (@ScottDAnthony) is a senior partner of the growth strategy consulting firm Innosight and co-author of Eat, Sleep, Innovate.
- PCPaul Cobban is Chief Data and Transformation Officer at DBS Bank, based in Singapore, and co-author of Eat, Sleep, Innovate.
- NPNatalie Painchaud is the director of learning at Innosight, and co-author of Eat, Sleep, Innovate.
- APAndy Parker is a partner at Innosight, and co-author of Eat, Sleep, Innovate.