Collaborating with your colleagues from the comfort of your new home office space may at first feel awkward or uncomfortable.
Your once harmonious and maybe even enjoyable (!) meetings are now disjointed. The side bar conversations and inside jokes have become a thing of the past. Conversations feel disorganized and scattered; on conference calls maybe you all speak at once, or no one speaks at all. There are interruptions, people go unheard or perhaps there is that one dominant voice.
The worst part in all this? Because you cannot see one another, words that were once well received are now enormously open to misinterpretation. You are unable to sense the energy, emotions or fear in the room. I like to think of it as “the smell”. And on conference calls, that smell is often undiscernible.
Did you know that nonverbal communication is the single most powerful form of communication? “Nonverbal” includes elements like facial expressions, body language, use of space, gestures. When these are not visually evident, our true communication is compromised. I may have complete control of my voice and my words, but you won’t see my tapping fingers or the rolling of my eyes (two distinct signs of impatience and annoyance). Even the tiniest facial expressions or physical moments, reveal what is truly happening internally.
The good news is that there are multiple opportunities to tighten our communication game and cultivate brilliant team collaboration.
Revisit (or Create) Team Working Agreements
Shifting from in-person meetings to video calls may feel disconcerting. This is now your “new normal” and you can expect to encounter a transitional period, while you’re trying to acclimate. To make for a calmer, more pleasant adjustment, now this is the perfect time to revisit or create team working agreements.
Think of team working agreements as “house rules”. These are guidelines that will define how a team behaves, interacts and achieves their goals. Working agreements are important because it gives all team members a template for what is expected – which is vital when meeting virtually.
When creating working agreements, consider all the dysfunctional and disruptive things you’ve experienced in remote meetings. This could include disruptions (dogs barking, kids screaming), late arrivals, multi-tasking (“I’m sorry, can you repeat that?”) or inadequate facilitation. In these instances, what rules can your team put into place?
Some examples may include:
While capturing these agreements, discuss how you will be holding one another accountable. Keep in mind, these agreements should actually be followed, and not just documented.
Turn those Camera’s ON
Earlier we discussed the importance of nonverbal communication. This can’t be stressed enough! Until we are physically in the same location, the only way we can decipher one another’s subtle facial expressions, body language or gestures is by turning our cameras on.
The obvious must be stated here:
No one cares what you look like on camera (except for you).
Your colleagues aren’t snickering at your unbrushed hair or raggedy old hoodie. Instead, they will experience a sense of connection, of partnership. No longer are they speaking to a black void, unaware of how their words are landing, wondering if you’re listening, if you care. Seeing your face intent and smiling is what connects us as humans. It is what unifies us. And we need this now more than ever.
Here’s something cool - several online meeting tools (zoom, teams) provide the option to switch out your background image, which makes for engaging conversation (and hides what’s going on behind you). Instead of that blank gray wall, you can virtually transport yourself to an abandoned street in a cyberpunk city or smack dab in the middle of a Bob Ross type painting.
If you’re still feeling less than par, Zoom has implemented a feature called “Touch Up My Appearance” which evens out your skin tone, making you look “dewy and well-rested”. (Click here for additional Zoom tips and tricks.)
Lastly, set up your device or camera so that it has a clear, unobstructed view of you. Don’t sit too far from (or too close to) the camera and adjust it to be at eye level (so it appears that you are speaking directly to your colleagues).
Keep the Meeting Flowing
There should be one person designated as the meeting conductor. They are responsible for facilitating the flow of the session; staying on topic and keeping within the timeframe allotted. A skillful facilitator will make sure everyone is heard and feels included in the conversation. They will manage the dominant voices and encourage the quieter ones to be heard. They will also obtain consensus when necessary and bring the group back if the conversation digresses.
Facilitators sometimes find it difficult to get a word in edgewise – especially on remote meetings when the conversation gets extremely lively. One creative option is to use handheld signals (like this MeetingMinders Toolset) to provide visual indicators when a meeting veers off course. These are essential for facilitation, especially if a meeting has taken a nosedive down a rabbit hole or has been monopolized by an overzealous team member. If this happens, simply choose your weapon of choice (Rock n’ Roll rabbit Hole, ELMO etc.) and hold it to the camera to refocus the room.
Another underutilized, yet critical technique is “timeboxing”. Timeboxing is a simple time management technique that involves allocating a fixed time for an activity or discussion and then meeting that timeframe. Using an online tool such as this bomb countdown makes tracking and adhering to the timebox relatively easy and entertaining. If you share your screen, then the time left is evident to everyone, which is a polite reminder to wrap up the conversation.
Of course, no one wants to be the “Time Police”, barking out orders to stop talking once the time bomb explodes. Instead, a complimentary technique is to incorporate Roman voting. This gives the power to the group to decide whether to move on or continue the discussion.
At the end of the timebox, ask the group if they would like to continue discussion. Thumbs up means “Yes, this is fantastic, we still need to talk about it now”. Thumbs down is “I’m done with this discussion. Let’s move on.” This allows you, as the facilitator, to get a sense of whether you need to add more time or move on, without being the evil time keeping villain.
Use Collaboration Tools
There’s nothing worse than minimum engagement during remote meetings. Typically, this occurs when one person is doing all the talking – which leads to observers tuning out, rather than participants turning in. You know this is happening when a meeting mirrors the adults on those old Peanut cartoons (wah, whaaaa, whaa whaa).
To increase team engagement and interaction, try using an online visual collaboration tool such as Miro or Mural, whenever possible. These tools are incredible at helping distributed teams to work effectively together, from brainstorming with digital sticky notes to planning and managing workflows… all in real time! Consider these tools as your virtual thinking canvases thus allowing you to solve challenges by collaborated visually.
Both tools are intuitive and allow for creative interactivity and collective partnership. However, these can be slightly pricey. If you’re on a tighter budget, try Google Docs as an alternative. With their editing and styling tools, built-in templates, and real-time collaboration features, teams can collectively work on a project simultaneously and track their edits along the way.
Isn’t technology amazing?
There you have it! You now have four new ideas to tighten your communication game. With these tips and tools, you can put yourself and your team on the path to cultivating brilliant team collaboration.
Keep your eyes open for part five of this series, which will provide tips and tricks for remote team building.
You’ve created the perfect working environment and defined your new routine; however, you may still find it difficult to concentrate. Especially if your children, partner, roommates or pets are noisily swirling throughout the day. Don’t worry though! There are several strategies you could try that may increase your focus.
While this blog is being written, my eyes wander over to the dirty dishes before bouncing to the unopened mail scattered on the counter. I remember that I haven’t rescheduled my dental appointment or contacted my insurance company. As my cell phone dings and lights up with text messages and news feeds, I contemplate what time the puppy last went out. I’ve been perched on this kitchen barstool for two hours and my lower back is screaming.
What’s wrong with this picture?
I am not physically located in the office environment that I created for myself. I am not seated at my comfortable ergonomic chair, with the door closed to drown out activity. I’m not surrounded by my productive or calming tools (see blog 1 - Build a Productive Environment) and I’m clearly not in “focus mode”. The surrounding noises fight for my attention and my brain is on overdrive. I sympathize with the animated dog in the movie “Up”, who is continually distracted by squirrels. The struggle is real.
Does this sound familiar to you?
When this happens (and it will), immediately walk – no run! - to your designated workspace. Sit down. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Fill your ears with calming music or white noise. Write down whatever is on your mind; these will be dealt with later. Turn off your devices (phone, watch etc.), or better yet – set them elsewhere in the house. Create an automatic reply for the next hour and then close email, chat and your browser windows. Let your colleagues know you will be off the grid for a little while. Hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door to indicate that you are unavailable to the folks at home.
By eliminating distractions, you will become better at concentrating, but this takes deliberate practice. Eventually you’ll find yourself being able to resist temptations which will improve your focus and allow you to accomplish your goals.
In the morning, prioritize what needs to get done and identify any activities requiring your undivided attention. Review your schedule and block off time in your calendar where you can work without interruptions. This doesn’t have to be excessive; you can achieve a significant amount of work within a 30-minute time block. The key though, is to respect the appointment. Treat it like you would treat any other meeting, by starting on time, being present and ending on time.
Music. Makes the Focus. Come Together.
If you’re struggling to find your groove, grab your favorite noise cancelling headphones and get ready to tune out, by tuning in. The right kind of music (or sound) can help relax your mind, increase concentration and optimize your productivity by reducing distractions. In addition, music activates both the left and right brain at the same time, which maximizes learning and improves memory (bonus!!).
For the best focus music, choose tunes that keep you awake but won't cause you get up and shake what your mama gave you (wait until you have a break for that). Some musical options include:
Whichever you choose, noise levels matter. Ensure the sound isn’t too loud or too soft, so you can receive the maximum benefit.
Just Say No to Multitasking
Multitasking is the practice of doing multiple things simultaneously, such as writing an email, editing a document or responding to slack while attending a conference call. In theory, this sounds amazing. Look how much we can accomplish at once – it’s as if we have 4 different brains, all working in perfect harmony tackling our to-do list at an overwhelming speed! Look at us go!!
Sorry friends, researchers at Stanford University have bad news for us.
Multitasking is doing more harm than good.
According to this study back in 2009, “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.”
It’s all a mirage. Multitasking is less productive than doing one single thing at a time. The American Psychological Association backs this up with their own research. They uncovered that the mind and brain were not designed for heavy-duty multitasking.
Switching between tasks causes a significant loss in time, due to the cognitive load imposed. When you ricochet from one task to another, you need to remember where you left off in the task that you are returning to. The more complex the task, the more time you will need. And the more prone to error you are.
Although these time switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just one second per switch, they can add up to large amounts of time when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Think about it. How many times, in the past 60 minutes, did you switch contexts? Now take that number and multiply it by the number of hours you are awake. That’s a lot of wasted time.
If you want to get things done (and get things done correctly) without losing precious time, then just say no to multitasking.
Define Your Focus Time
As mentioned in the previous post, the Pomodoro technique is a time management method which structures your day based on 25 minutes of focused work followed by 2-5 minute breaks. This approach teaches you to work with time, instead of struggling against it.
Start by identifying the task you need to focus on and then make a small oath to yourself: “I will spend 25 minutes on this task, and I will not allow for interruptions.” You can do it! After all, it’s just 25 minutes. Set a timer and get to it. If a new “must do” item pops into your brain before the timer ends, write it down and get back to work on your task.
When the timer rings, stop whatever you are doing, pat yourself on the back, and grab a 2-5 minute break. Stretch your limbs, get outside, grab a cup of tea or do some other non-work-related activity. Whatever you do, make sure you use your break as a purposeful pause.
Consciously settling into your quiet space, blocking outside interferences (Squirrel!!), and following the Pomodoro technique will go a long way to promoting clarity and focus. This leads you to greater productivity and accomplishment… which automatically lends itself to an overall feeling of triumph and joy. Who doesn’t want that?
Keep your eyes open for part four of this series, which will provide practical techniques to foster amazing collaboration with your colleagues.
Just an agile-dork writing about dorky agile things.