With the pandemic forcing so many project teams to work from home, no doubt you're holding tons of virtual meetings. But are you making the most of them?
Working from home (or WFH) is quickly becoming "the new normal." The COVID-19 pandemic kicked the WFH movement into high gear, and many experts believe it will continue long after the crisis has passed. But before we can optimize this new way of working, we're all going to have to get proficient at one of the biggest work-from-home fundamentals: the virtual meeting.
"Remote meetings are inherently different from in-person meetings," says Howard Tiersky, coauthor along with Heidi Wisbach of Impactful Online Meetings: How to Run Polished Virtual Working Sessions That Are Engaging and Effective. "If you're not used to running them, you're going to make tons of mistakes. And those mistakes can have major ramifications in terms of how well people perform once they log off and get back to work."
The good news is that well-run online meetings can be extremely powerful, says Tiersky. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, online meetings can be even more effective than in-person meetings when done right. But first you need to be aware of what not to do. Tiersky identifies five common mistakes made in virtual meetings:
1. Neglecting one (or more) of the "big five" success keys of online meetings. If you are seeking to bring people together to share information, come up with solutions, make decisions, coordinate activities, and/or socialize, you will be successful if you:
"If you do all of these correctly, you will have high-impact online meetings," Tiersky says. "If you don't, there's going to be a lot of awkwardness and inefficiency. Worse, bad meetings can lead to bad workplace performance, which is the last thing any of us need right now."
2. Holding voice calls instead of videoconferences. When everyone has their cameras on, you can expect a significant improvement in the effectiveness of online meetings. This keeps people engaged because they know that what they're doing is visible to everyone else. They're far less likely to multi-task, which is one of the greatest obstacles to audience engagement.
3. Failing to be strategic about sequencing. The first item on your meeting agenda should be a restatement of the purpose of the meeting. After that, strategize on the sequence of your activities. For example:
4. Not giving people an active role. It's possible for one person to present content, facilitate questions, ensure the meeting stays on time, and take notes, but why? Seek to distribute the roles of facilitator (responsible for running the agenda), presenter (responsible for sharing specific units of content), timekeeper (watches the clock and alerts facilitators and presenters how to adjust their speed and content), and the notetaker (documents the meeting) among the participants.
"When you give participants something to do, you prevent them from being passive listeners or webinar watchers," Tiersky says. "When people have an active role, they are far, far more attentive and engaged."
5. Failing to take advantage of breakouts. In most meetings of more than eight people, usually most of the talking is done by just five to seven participants. This is one reason why during live workshops Tiersky often breaks larger groups into breakout teams, so they can come up with ideas, work on prioritization, action planning—whatever the work is—in smaller groups and then come back to the larger group and report on the work they did. (Several of the major online meeting platforms including Zoom and Google Hangouts now offer breakouts.)
"We give each team clear instructions for the work they are to do, in writing, and then usually give them a small amount of time to do it, like 20 to 40 minutes," he says. "A compressed time frame forces the group to organize quickly; get to work; and focus on progress, not process or perfection. I've been amazed over the years that sometimes when clear instructions, a small team, and a tight time frame are combined like that, you get work done in a half hour that might have taken days, weeks, or months if done 'the usual way.'"
These are just a few of the mistakes people regularly make. There are plenty more. The good news is most of these are easy enough to correct once you realize you're making them.
"When done correctly, online meetings are an incredibly powerful method of enabling collaborative work," Tiersky says. "It's worth investing a bit of time and effort in learning how to maximize them. Frankly, they have the potential to move the needle for your business, and right now, this is more important than it's ever been."
In an age when nuanced discussion gets lost or distorted by Twitter rants and Facebook echo chambers, is anyone listening to anyone anymore?
Even in the world of project management, where communication skills are highly valued, listening skills don’t get nearly as much attention as they should. But listening is foundational to meaningful communication, and as important as speaking or PowerPointing when it comes to effective collaboration and teamwork.
“Listening is how we demonstrate that the conversation—and the other person—matters,” says Geoffrey Tumlin, author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. “Listening harnesses our attention and sends the message that this person and this interaction count.”
And something remarkable frequently happens when we stop talking and listen: We learn amazing things about the people we work with.
But for a meaningful exchange to take place, actual listening, not just partial listening, is required. We have to let people talk, without interruption, and give them our precious attention. It’s a paradox of the digital age that we are all so busy sending messages that we feel like there’s no need to listen. For better conversations, make listening a priority.
Of course, when we’re constantly distracted or stressed, it’s difficult to listen, let alone to consider another perspective. But that failure is a major opportunity lost, because perspective-taking provides a host of important conversational benefits: It increases the odds of understanding, it shows respect, it keeps our minds open, and it boosts the chances that we will discover common ground.
“When we make it a habit to consider the other person’s perspective, it opens up a window where common goals and shared understanding often emerge,” Tumlin says. “And even when they don’t, people know when you are seriously considering their perspective and it encourages the building of a cornerstone of strong relationships: trust.”
Yes, listening and considering the other person’s perspective will work wonders to improve our conversations and strengthen our relationships. But something quite beneficial often happens when these two communication behaviors become habits: Good ideas start bubbling up all around us.
“We’re often so busy pushing out messages that we completely miss good ideas that waltz right up to us,” Tumlin says. “It’s true that not all ideas are good ideas, but intentional listening and perspective-taking sort out most of the shaky ideas from the valuable ones.”
When we give people our undivided attention and make a serious attempt to understand their point of view, we are often rewarded with the answer to a longstanding problem, with a key piece of information we need to resolve an issue, or with a better way of doing things that we hadn’t considered.
“It doesn’t require a lot of undivided attention to build and maintain strong relationships, but it does require some undivided attention. Good communication equals good relationships equals good life. And that’s why being fully present in our conversations matters so much.”
Relationships take a lot of work. Are you working on your project relationships?
The importance of building productive working relationships with your team can't be overstated. It's a fundamental part of a project manager’s job—as time-consuming and critical as creating the project plan, managing risk, updating the schedule, monitoring the budget, and communicating to stakeholders.
So how do you know how well you're doing it? You might need to evaluate your project relationships if team members...
... voice concern that they don’t know where they stand in terms of roles or expectations.
... don't come directly to you with questions, issues or concerns about the project.
... resist participating in meetings and avoid the project's communication channels.
... seem unenthusiastic about collaborating on solutions to project challenges
WHAT YOU CAN DO
As the saying goes, “no man is an island,” and no project team should ever feel like it is working on an island. As the project manager, you should be the face and voice of the project. You need to make sure each team member can clearly “see” and “hear” you; likewise, they need to know that they will be seen and heard.
You must be fair and consistent in your dealings with the team, it should go without saying. But you also need to acknowledge that each team member is an individual, with different strengths and weaknesses, work styles and motivations. That means you want to try to be flexible and attentive to each relationship as it evolves. A formulaic approach will only garner formulaic relationships. You want more. You want the best that each team member has to offer.
The ultimate goal is to find how your team’s individual talents can best serve the project as a whole, and how you can help them make that happen. This requires honesty, respect and support from you. In return, you can rightfully expect, and should receive, the same from your team.
Define Your Role. Before you can define what you expect from team members, you need to describe what they can expect from you throughout the project. Make it clear that your eyes are always on “the prize.” From project kickoff to closeout, they should be completely confident that everything you say and do is in the name of project success.
Set Expectations. Once you’ve established your role, you need to set expectations for the team as a whole, and for each team member. Some of these expectations will be universal regardless of the project or team makeup—accountability for their work and effort, commitment to the goals of the project.
And some will need to be tailored to each individual’s skillset. This requires time for discussion, questions and clarification with each team member. Expectations can’t just be handed down “from on high.” Yes, you are ultimately in charge as the project manager, but to establish productive work relationships and generate buy-in, you want these expectations to serve as motivational tools, not emotionless dictates.
Be Available. From the get-go, some team members will have no qualms letting you know exactly what they think and how they feel. Others will be less inclined to speak out in the presence of their peers. Whether your preferred managing style is “open-door,” “walk the floor,” or something a bit more reserved, it is critical that you make yourself available to team members for private, one-on-one conversations. These talks can be much more informative than what surfaces in official settings.
Be Appreciative. Diligent team members are bound to bear down on their daily tasks and responsibilities. When they occasionally look up from the work at hand, they should feel that their contributions are being recognized and acknowledged in relation to the bigger picture.
Appreciation can’t really be conveyed in monthly status reports. Make it personally meaningful by thanking them face-to-face whenever possible. In addition, make their contributions visible to the rest of the team and sponsors by giving shout-outs to deserving team members in weekly meetings as well as informal group settings. Recognition is a powerful relationship-building tool.
Be Trustworthy. You can’t expect team members to openly share their concerns about the project if there is any apprehension that bad news will affect their standing or be shared in a detrimental way with peers or superiors. If a culture of fear has existed on other projects in the organization, make it clear that it won’t rule the day on your project. It might be difficult to convince an individual who has been burned before; others may prefer to play politics. But showing that you value honesty over calculation will eventually pay dividends, be it uncovering festering problems or encouraging more realistic estimates and assessments of current risks.
Be Congenial. It doesn’t hurt and can often help to show interest in your team members’ lives outside the workplace. This doesn’t mean you have to step outside of your comfort zone or try to feverishly form friendships with everyone, though that might happen naturally at times. The point is, professionalism and collegiality are not mutually exclusive. In the end, a team that knows you care about them beyond the spreadsheets and timelines is a team that will almost always work harder for you and the project.
Be Yourself. Finally, there is no substitute for authenticity. You don’t want a job that forces you to be someone else. That won’t bring you satisfaction, and it won’t be effective in leading others. Be yourself, and at the very least, your team will know who they are in the trenches with.
Whether you're an introvert or extrovert, building productive team relationships is part of the job. And like all relationships, it takes work. Get to it!