COVID-19 has forced organizations to adopt virtual decision-making via video conference platforms. This is not a trivial challenge. How can you organize virtual meetings successfully — and without the pain?
Zoom meeting fatigue
A school superintendent recently confided, “I’m in Zoom meetings all day long. It’s awful. I feel totally exhausted and ineffectual.” Indeed, a recent New York Times article catalogs the deleterious effects of video conferencing:
“Psychologists, computer scientists and neuroscientists say the distortions and delays inherent in video communication can end up making you feel isolated, anxious and disconnected…
“These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble subtle social cues. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why.”
Faced with the challenges inherent in virtual meetings — and the necessity of having them — how can we optimize their effectiveness?
Simply put: managing virtual decision-making requires thoughtful pre-planning and lots of off-line preparation. It’s definitely not just a matter of scheduling a meeting, gathering your team in Zoom’s tile view, and diving into the problem of the day — with or without funny hats.
Virtual decision-making: Rule #1
Complete the bulk of the work independently and asynchronously in a series of timed, self-directed, offline tasks using collaboration tools and management best practices.
Many of the inevitably messy initial steps in decision-making can be completed far more efficiently and effectively off-line:
- Define the opportunity or challenge
- Research and propose solutions
- Assess the proposed solutions against multiple criteria
Example: offline decision-making using Google Forms
Just prior to the COVID-19 crisis, I was working with a strategic planning team. We adjourned our last face-to-face meeting with dozens of unresolved issues related to their mission, vision, core beliefs and set of strategic performance targets. The thought of working through those issues with 19 people in a Zoom meeting was overwhelming.
Instead, we resolved the maze of issues by narrowing them one at a time in a series of Google Forms surveys. The total commitment per team member was under 60 minutes — less time than we would have spent in that very challenging virtual meeting. Participant response rate to the surveys exceeded 95%; the degree of agreement to each issue’s resolution was very high.
Virtual decision-making: Rule #2
Because of Rule #1, you can keep virtual meetings as short as possible. Restrict your Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Skype Business or Zoom meeting to a tight, focused agenda intentionally limited to
- Clarifying key information
- Sharing well articulated options or alternatives
- Weighing trade-offs
- Resolving critical issues
- Making final decisions
Example: a focused Zoom agenda using Google Docs
Elmsford UFSD superintendent Marc Baiocco faced a difficult dilemma: In light of the COVID-19 disruptions to his staff and students, how should the district grade students in the 3rd and 4th quarters?
A previous post described how Marc’s team followed Rule #1 and used Amazon’s press release and FAQ protocol to propose detailed grading policies for his PK – 6 and Gr. 7 – 12 buildings. Marc scheduled a Zoom meeting with 22 participants to evaluate and seek buy-in for the proposed grading policies as presented in the press release/FAQs.
We designed a tight, focused agenda and decided to use Google Docs rather than Zoom chat to capture participant feedback. Why? Google Docs is far more robust a word processor than a chat box.
Elmsford Zoom meeting agenda:
- Begin with silent reading of the written grading policy proposal (i.e., the PR/FAQ)
- Ensure understanding: elicit questions and clarification
- Seek constructive feedback: participants respond to three questions first in a silent brainstorm captured on a Google Doc and then in discussion:
- Please list all the PLUSSES of the proposed grading policy
- Please list all the MINUSES
- Please list MODIFICATIONS — that would build on the plusses and mitigate or eliminate the minuses
Exceptional meeting results:
The grading policies received rich, comprehensive feedback. Instead of having 22 people speaking over each other awkwardly, participants contributed 79 responses in a matter of minutes on the Google Doc. After they were prioritized, there was ample opportunity to discuss, clarify or amplify any response.
The meeting concluded with a Google Forms consensus vote that revealed unanimous support for the proposed grading policy and plan, now modified to incorporate the group’s constructive feedback. In addition, meeting evaluations were remarkably strong.
Avoid seduction by slick technology
Let’s admit it. Post COVID-19, virtual meetings are novel, and therefore, sexy. Twitter is overrun with screen captures of Zoom meeting participants in funny hats or showing off their custom virtual backgrounds. Even my sister, who was previously reluctant to FaceTime with me, has announced she is eager to Zoom.
But the goal is to get the work done, not play with technology. To optimize the effectiveness of your virtual decision-making meetings, don’t be seduced by virtual conferencing tech. Use it thoughtfully. Follow virtual decision-making rules #1 & #2.