Increasing team engagement during social distancing 

The quarantine due to the COVID-19 outbreak did not only have a major economic impact on companies due to the biggest shut down in history but also because of the loss of effectiveness of teams as a result of home-office, home-schooling and a sense of loss that is spreading faster than we think. 

Some years ago, while doing some management coaching and consulting for a company in the IT which was running its complete business in a home-office environment, we came to the conclusion that there was a loss of effectiveness due to what we called “loss through non-friction”. Although there were of course other findings, the “loss through non-friction“ was the one that we prioritised to be tackled first. Once the company set up its new headquarters and people coped with the change and their mindset really transitioned to the new environment, effectiveness levels arose and staff started to be grateful for the new office. We of course kept home-office as a company policy and also allowed people with longer distances to the office to keep working from home, however the change sunk in and also reluctant staff started to use the new headquarters more and more.

Now please do not think that I am against home-office, I personally recommend since many years to include home-office as part of the company wide policy. It simply helps people to keep a balance of mind and sometimes it helps to get a different view on issues and solve problems that you might not solve if you are in the “middle of the battle during office hours“. However, now that we are in the middle of Covid-19 measures and people are starting to think about a possible second wave and that we actually need to change to a “new normal” I started to think about that time and compare it to the current situation. Maybe the decision at that time would have been different if we have had the online tools that have become a continuous part of our working life today. They are just amazing. There are so many options out there to make your team active during a remote session. If you combine online tools, pep up your presentations and include some out-of-the-ordinary thoughts in your sessions, you definitely will not only keep the attention of our team high, they will fall in love and give their best for the team. 

So, how about some crazy ideas, that some people already use and the vast majority may know but do not use?

I. Make it bright

“Mere color can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways“ Oscar Wilde

It really helps to have something for the eye, not only the faces and home background from your team members and yourself as beautiful as they are. So prepare a presentation upfront to guide people through the topics to discuss during the meeting, but do not just list them in one slide. Most of us aren’t accountants accustomed to lists, – most of us are graphical people. 

Make your slides beautiful and appealing. Make use of animations in the slides and transitions from slide to slide. Depending on the topic or topics of your meeting you could use 1 slide per topic of your agenda. Use pictures that match the topic and include graphs if necessary and possible. Remember the “use of colours“. This is something on which we at 3E put a lot of emphasis during our facilitation trainings.. People tend to underestimate the “use of colours”, but it makes your presentations merrier and catchier. Use more pictures than text. A slide full of text is just boring an unappealing. If you need to deliver a message, do it with graphics. You can send the text in a document afterwards if it is intrinsically necessary.

So yes, web-conferencing tools are cool because we see each other and they have some fancy functions to help the conduction of the meeting, but it is also your presentation and facilitation skills that keep the team awake and active. In the end it is the combination of both that gives the soup the delicate taste. 

II. Include LIVE participation

Personal participation is the universal principle of knowing.” – Michael Polanyi

One big question in virtual facilitation is: How to include everyone in the meeting without having to go the full round and asking person after person the same question and giving all the space necessary for them to answer and gain from the wisdom of the many? 

So here is the thing. Instead of doing that during the preparation of the meeting ask yourself at which stages in the meeting you need answers from everyone in the virtual room. Once you define those points in time and the questions you want your participants to answer, dedicate the space in your presentation by creating per question one slide with your question and include the questions in the powerful tool of „Mentimeter“. You can add questions, polls, quizzes, slides, images and many other things. During the meeting you ask your people to go to, you give them a code for them to type in and they will be able to answer the questions you prepared on Mentimeter. The results of their answers are shown instantly and LIVE for all to see on your shared screen. Now do not worry, I am not being paid or commissioned by Mentimeter but it is definitely something you want to use. You do not even need a paid subscription to use it and it will not only impress your participants, it will ensure participation and you will get the answers you need to hear. Think out of the box and engage them.

III. Rattle them and put them temporarily somewhere else

The beginning of greatness is to be different, and the beginning of failure is to be the same.” – Roy Whittier

 If the people I have lead all these years would say something common about me I think they would say, “he really new how to rattle us when we where struggling and put us back on course”. Either as a manager or a consultant, I have found that people need to get out of the cage in which they are when the discussion starts spiralling or moving in circles. 

It is a matter of just some seconds or minutes depending on the gravity of the discussion and the number of people in the room. And there are tons of methods on how to get people out of the discussion, think about something completely different and then return to the topic at discussion. You will be astounded how this simple and crazy idea helps people find solutions where there was only discussions minutes ago. 

So if you see that your virtual team is discussing and not finding solutions get them out of there. Just out of the blue ask someone in the team what was the best thing that happened to him/her during the weekend? Depending on how heated the discussion was ask another member the exact same question. Once you feel that the tension has eased, make a recap of the issue at task and resume the discussion. You also can ask the team to look at the issue from a complete different perspective…ask them for example to stand up and distance themselves from the screen 1 meter, share your screen and write the issue down, if you can add a picture to it do it. Then resume the discussion. Even crazier but also effective, ask your team members how would the problem taste if it was edible? Let everyone answer and then ask them how would the solution taste and resume discussion. Think about other crazy questions yourself and make a guide of questions for future meetings. If your problem is how to keep your people active and effective in virtual meetings and the problem could talk to you, what would it tell you?

IV. „Brevity is the soul of wit“ – William Shakespeare

Prepare the end of your meeting upfront and ensure that you really come to it. It is proven, that shorter virtual meetings with one or two objectives are more efficient than a long everlasting agenda.

Meetings don’t have to be endless to be eternal.” – James E. Faust

Use guiding questions for your topics on the agenda in order to move along them and make people clear what is expected from them instead of just writing down bullet points. You will get faster to the point if you ask the question upfront rather than giving an explanation to the bullet point in your agenda and then asking the question you actually wanted to solve during the meeting.

Combine all the hints given above and make sure that your agenda is short and concise. Make sure you only have 1 or 2 objectives for the meeting and define from the start on when the meeting is going to end. Be the police of your time and ensure to move along your agenda at the pace defined previously and end the meeting at the planned time.

Be specific when you ask questions into the group. If you want answers from all, prepare upfront and see if a tool like e.g. Mentimeter could help to gather input from the team. If not, then direct your question directly to a single person at a  time. You are the master of ceremonies and therefore the „distributor of the word“, which means you decide who speaks next. Ask people to be specific and make sure they do so. If someone asks to the group, make sure you give the floor or ask the person posing the question if he/she needs an answer from someone specifically…and keep tracking the time – always!

It does not matter which web-conferencing tool you are using, just please do yourself and your team the favour to get accustomed to it. You really should not only test if it works on your device, you should know by heart how does it function.

So seek for the eternity of your web-meetings but not in the length – rather in the brevity. Make them long lasting and inspirational experiences for your team. Be the „ever after“ hero of meetings.

Home office is now part of almost everybody’s life. The pandemic made sure of it. As long as there is no vaccine, we will have to live with it, which means the way of collaborating through virtual channels will become the new normal. We at 3E offer support and coaching for organizations which introduce or develop their home office capabilities.

In our group we deeply believe in the importance of ensuring that PEOPLE, PROCESS, CULTURE and SYSTEMS are in sync. I hope these recommendations will help you to synchronise all of these aspects in these challenging times. 

Do you agree with these insights? What else do you do to ensure effective collaboration in your remote teams? 

Please leave your thoughts in the comment section.