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Meetings in a Time of Separation

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Having many people in virtual meetings can lead to people who only partly attend and become disengaged. We should question who should be attending the meeting and make information from the meeting available for those who decide not to attend to decrease meeting FOMO.

Michael Lopp spoke about meetings in a time of separation at Stretch Online 2020

These days people are doing a lot of video meetings. The primary issue in virtual meetings is one of engagement, as Lopp mentioned:

How do you show up in a meeting when we’re all virtual? You can hang back and half-listen, but I think that is inefficient. If you are going to a virtual meeting, your job is to engage. Video on. Active participant. If either of those two requirements aren’t achievable, I’d ask yourself, "Must I be in this meeting?"

If people feel disengaged, they could manage themselves out of a meeting as Lopp suggested. Meeting facilitators can support this by committing to making whatever happens in that meeting public knowledge, as Lopp explained:

Capture the notes, capture the decision, and make them publicly available in an obvious place. There are confidential meetings where this is not the right move, but the vast majority of meetings would benefit more from following this practice. It will decrease meeting FOMO, virtual or not.

InfoQ interviewed Michael Lopp about engaging people in virtual meetings.

InfoQ: Now that people are working more from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, how has this impacted meetings?

Michael Lopp: The obvious impact is that we’re sitting in video conferences a lot more and that has a bunch of interesting implications. Once we collectively figured out the MUTE button, the next challenge is that meeting room size doesn’t really matter anymore so we can invite as many humans as we like.

This seems like a good idea from a transparency perspective, until you’re in a meeting that normally had 10 people and now has 50. There’s a bunch of folks with their camera on who are allegedly listening, but who are really half-listening. This means they are half-working. Is this a better set-up than this half-working person getting the meeting notes a little later? I don’t think so.

InfoQ: What difficulties do people have when doing virtual meetings?

Lopp: It’s an issue of engagement. Whoever is running the meeting has an additional responsibility to scan that video grid of humans and figure out who wants to speak. It’s easy in a real conference room because you can see Frank over there fidgeting when he wants to speak. Those visual cues are harder to find in a virtual meeting, but as important to discover.

InfoQ: How can we "read the room" in virtual meetings? And how can that help us to keep everyone involved?

Lopp: If I’m running a meeting, reading the room means starting by scanning the room, saying hello, noticing little things (new haircut, new background, etc.) and then kicking off the agenda. While the meeting is going on and again assuming that the majority of the folks leave the video on, I read the room by regularly scanning attendees for engagement. It’s so hard virtually, but you can see when someone is trying to get a word in edgewise. Ok, make a note and when the current talker stops talking, bring them in.

InfoQ: How can we spot that we’re losing people, and what can we do if we see that happening?

Lopp: Running a meeting is work. My practice to keep folks engaged is to keep a running inner dialog of what is happening in the meeting, how the narrative is evolving, and who I would expect to be jumping in to debate as that evolution occurs. When I find unexpected silence, I call on folks, "Juliet. We were debating this in our 1:1. What do you think?"

InfoQ: What alternative mediums besides meetings can we use to interact?

Lopp: I’m biased as I’m the former VP of engineer at Slack, but I think that tool can serve much of the purpose of a meeting. Get together humans, discuss a topic, make a decision. It’s often better than a meeting because it’s timeless and there’s a clear visible record. I’ve found it takes time for cultures to see this tool as a replacement for some meetings, but once they get it, it takes off. Also, it scales better than meetings.

InfoQ: What have you learned this past year when it comes to keeping in touch when working from home?

Lopp: I’ve been preaching consistent 1:1s for years and my core 1:1 principles are even more important as we all work from home:

  • 30 minutes (at least)
  • Every week
  • No matter what

My 1:1s are not check-ins on status. They are meant to be conversations. We discuss topics of substance. We riff on those topics and see where they will take us. Sure, we have work topics to discuss, but we’re also just connecting as humans and that’s more important than ever.

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