Don’t let measures against COVID-19 disrupt your work collaboration
Day after day, my phone pushes more and more new flashes about the measures being taken to fight the spread of Coronavirus — in Italy, France and Belgium, in the UK and beyond. Infection rates started to rise, press conferences were announced, large-scale events cancelled, quarantine zones declared…
As I began to read into the details of the quarantine zone in Italy (restricted travel, working from home, 1 adult per family allowed to go the supermarket, keeping 1 meter distance from others) and learned of many other companies and countries asking people to work from home, I thought back to the days of being an employee and hearing that remote working was ‘tolerated in some cases, but not encouraged’. ‘What would my former colleagues be told now?’ I wondered as I excitedly read April Rinne’s article where she writes: “COVID-19 had already won The World’s Largest Remote Work Experiment Award.” Two days later, Belgium (where I live and work) announced that it was imposing rules to slow the spread of the coronavirus: schools and restaurants are closed for 3 weeks and companies are encouraged to ‘make working from home possible’.
But here’s the tricky part: most organisations don’t have established practices, let alone a solid structure, to enable remote working. Collaborating online is different than in the office. With so much disruption and uncertainty in our daily lives right now, I want to offer some ideas for processes that can facilitate remote working. Meetings is one place to start.
5 Tips for Remote Meetings
It may sound crazy, but I actually enjoy meetings since I started collaborating on a regular basis with both Percolab Belgium and the wider Going Horizontal community. Working with these groups has really upped my game when it comes to meetings — both online and offline.
Currently, about 90% of my weekly meetings are online: I meet with a few regular groups of people, attend online courses, invite people (often complete strangers) for Zoom chats to exchange ideas or see if there’s potential to collaborate, and more. What I’ve learned can offer guidance for others who are new to remote working — especially conducting remote, multi-person meetings. So, here, a few tips on the practices we use to get you started:
1. “Check-in before jumping-in”
This is one of my favourite one-liners from Samantha Slade’s book ‘Going Horizontal’. It is a reminder to check-in with your fellow meeting attendees on a human-to-human basis before jumping into the content of the meeting. It is a common-sense practice for on- and off-line meetings (and yet so often overlooked), though will be particularly helpful during this time when people are adjusting to the realities of working from home. A check-in is similar to the quick conversation you’d normally have when arriving to work or over an afternoon coffee — and can be as simple as asking: “How are you today?” or more work-related: “What ideas have you had about this project since we last talked?” Read more about check-ins.
Spending just a few minutes at the start of a meeting hearing every voice can help everyone focus on the work to come. (Bonus tip: checking-out at the close of a meeting with questions such as: “What (new) idea are you leaving with?” or “What is your next step?” is equally important!)
2. Clarify purpose
Another straight-forward, but often overlooked, practice is clarifying the purpose of your (online) meeting. Depending on if you are conducting a team meeting or a status update of a specific project, the purpose of your meeting will change. Make sure the purpose and outcomes of your remote meetings are explicitly stated either before or just after the check-in so that everyone is on the same page. Ideally, the purpose (or framing) is also included in the invitation to attend the meeting, so people know why they are showing up in the first place. This is especially relevant in times of change and when trying new practices.
3. Create the agenda together
During our weekly Percolab Belgium team calls, we spend about 5 minutes creating an agenda together after our check-in. Unlike teams who create and send around meeting agendas in advance, this allows us to be agile and autonomous. Each person is responsible for adding the points they want to share or have a conversation about.
Since we use Slack to organise most of our work, there are dedicated channels for our weekly online and monthly in-person meetings. Anyone can post a small reminder of any topic they want to address when we all come together (either online or in person). We find this is an easy way to help create the agenda once our meeting starts and it is a good practice in transparency since anyone can see what’s on a colleague’s mind. Of course, there’s always the possibility that a point which was not included on the Slack channel is added to the agenda. Our go-to meeting format is the Agile Agenda (I’ll post more on this soon) which adds structure to our conversation.
4. Share note-taking responsibility
Online meetings call for online note-taking. We use a running document that everyone can access and edit during our remote meetings. Some group calls I attend use Dropbox to store the notes, for others we use GoogleDocs. What’s important is that everyone has read-write access and that there’s more than one person who takes notes. I’d recommend 2–4 people take on this role, depending on the total size of the group.
5. Make decisions visually
Visuals and hand expressions can bring a playful — yet very useful — aspect to remote meetings. For instance, when a colleague has formulated a proposal which we will decide on, we opt to show visual confirmation (a thumbs up) to do a quick check that everyone is really on board. This is helpful after clarifying questions and comments have been expressed. If someone does not show a thumbs up, we know there’s still more to discuss.
With another group I meet with, we use a gesture that means ‘applause’ in sign language to show that we agree with or can resonate with what the person speaking has just said. It is a small sign of solidarity that doesn’t require verbal interruption.
Turning Disruption into Discovery
In my line of work, we work towards system change — often in small steps. Now we are in a truly rare situation: when in a matter of days and weeks — all across the world — we are asked to leap. Our dominant, centuries-old system of work has been turned upside-down, yet I am convinced of the creativity and determination of humans to collaborate through this disruption. This is a wonderful time for discovery — of new human potential, technologies and ways to collaborate. The 5 practices described above are a good place to start (re)connecting in a time that may feel like it is pulling us apart.
How will you approach your next online meeting? I am curious to see what new practices and structural patterns (perhaps even new work systems) will emerge through this world-wide leap into remote working. So I invite anyone with insights or questions to start a conversation below and/or share this article among your networks.
Finally, if you liked this article, please clap (you can do it up to 50 times!).
Marina Lynch — Exploring participatory leadership, collaboration and co-creation off- and online.
Special thanks to Nil Roda-Naccari Noguera, Ria Baeck and An Baert for feedback on the draft, and to Tine Willemyns for the beautiful illustrations.