By Cassidy Jones
In the past sixteen months, my organization has adapted quite well to working from home and collaborating remotely with partners. We’re a well-resourced organization with compassionate leadership, patient IT staff, and an abundance of laptops, cell phones and Zoom professional licenses. It follows, then, that my organization, like many, is now struggling with ‘Zoom fatigue.’
In an all-remote work environment, we are, in theory, able to fit so much more in by eliminating travel and transition time, (perhaps you, too, have an online calendar blocked 9 to 5 with neat stacks of hour-long virtual meetings) and yet we end our days feeling very busy and also unsure if we’ve made any progress. We have a persistent problem of too much time dedicated to meeting and sharing information and not enough time for intentionally engaging and collaborating.
My eyes were opened about our highly ineffective meeting culture during a virtual collaboration course with the EDR program. In the course, we talked about the challenges of facilitating collaborative processes in virtual settings, and I learned that most virtual meeting facilitation challenges (and fixes) were the same as face-to-face ones. This discovery helped me reframe my pandemic-inspired work-from-home situation as an opportunity to hone my meeting facilitation and collaboration skills since they translate to in-person settings as well.
After a year of study, here’s what I’ve learned:
- Inspire participation. It’s very easy for participants to check out in large meetings, and even more so in online settings in which participants can make themselves invisible by turning off their cameras or connecting solely by phone. Using structures that get people talking right away (e.g., Impromptu Networking) motivate people to show up and participate from the beginning which changes their engagement expectations for the rest of the meeting.
- Make brainstorming better. Many well-meaning democratic meeting exercises, like brainstorming and open space, are particularly ineffective online. Unstructured virtual meeting space opens the door for half-baked ideas to take up all the airtime and often perpetuate power dynamics. (Who has the courage to unmute and speak up in front of dozens of colleagues? Older, high-ranking employees, that’s who, at least at my organization.) By employing structures that reduce the stakes of speaking up and make space for deliberate thought instead of anxiety (e.g., 1-2-4-All) we get better ideas out of brainstorming and broad, inclusive participation.
- Keep energy high. Any meeting can be boring but remove the perks of physical presence, like pre- or post-meeting socializing, and participants are even less motivated to show up ready to engage. This is especially true for meetings filled with briefings and presentations (my organization has a lot of these). Structures that are easy to learn, enact and facilitate keep a meeting moving at a clip and keep energy high. By switching speakers frequently (e.g., Celebrity Interview, Troika, Wise Crowds) participants can better pay attention and stay engaged with the group.
- Achieve results by invoking a purpose. Finally, one of the biggest benefits of liberating structures is simply achieving results. Each structure offers a why at the beginning, which prompts a facilitator to consider the purpose of the interaction as they are planning a meeting. Far too many meetings lack a clear purpose or intention, and it’s impossible to feel a meeting was effective when it concludes if it didn’t have a purpose to begin with. Shifting our meeting agenda protocol to incorporate structures forces us to identify a purpose from the get-go and let the what of the meeting fall out of the why.
I believe online meetings can build community, achieve results and be fun — but it does take work. Liberating Structures are useful tools for shaking things up, but effective meetings also require preparation and determination of what our meetings are for. I firmly believe that fewer, better — i.e., intentional, structured and collaborative — meetings will help my organization go farther, and so these are my new rules of thumb:
- Consider whether a meeting is necessary and define the objective. Most people are eager to see most meetings disappear, presumably because they feel most of their meetings are not effective. Simply meeting about a problem or project is not in itself an effective exercise unless we state our objective and structure ways to achieve it.
- Employ structure — even if people resist — to set the group free. Our hyper-professional meeting culture prevents us from shaking things up in a way that is more effective. Liberating structures make people participate in meetings in ways that set them free to collaborate and achieve results.
- Create a culture of preparation. Most of the meeting happens before the meeting. In order to achieve an objective, participants must be set up to actively collaborate in a meeting. This requires lots of preparation beforehand and a culture of valuing and prioritizing prep. time and effort.
If you’d asked me two years ago if I’d like to dedicate my training and development time to virtual meeting facilitation and becoming a Zoom wizard I’d have said absolutely not. I’m a capital E extrovert; I draw energy from meeting new people and traveling to new places. But I also work for an environmental organization. As much as I like interacting with many and new people, I really shouldn’t be flying all the time or crisscrossing the Four Corners in a car for meetings. Gaining meeting facilitation skills, translating liberating structures into an online format, and building a habit of meeting preparation and collaboration has made me a happy work-from-homer and convinced me that my post-pandemic reality can be much more home-based, carbon neutral and perfectly engaging and effective.
Cassidy Jones manages outreach and engagement for the National Parks Conservation Association’s Southwest region. Based in Salt Lake City, she works to connect communities to NPCA’s work and build advocates for the parks in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. Cassidy was born and raised in Utah and previously worked for the National Park Service as a ranger in parks in Utah and Massachusetts.