How to Set Meeting Context When You Can't Change Physical Place
June 15, 2020
Woman working from home

In recent months, businesses have been scrambling to adapt to the needs of a newly distributed workforce. Video conferencing tools and chat rooms can’t always replicate the experience of in-person communication. Managers need to be intentional about creating digital spaces where different kinds of meetings can take place. With planning, thoughtfulness, and the right tools, we can continue to shape the context of meetings while meeting digitally.

The right space

In-person communication is endlessly flexible and adaptable. Most of us take this simple fact for granted. In an office setting, we’re used to a whole range of different kinds of conversations, from formal meetings in a conference room, to casual chats in the break room. We intuitively understand that different meeting spaces have different purposes. Meeting one-on-one behind closed doors has a vastly different feel to it than meeting in a café for a cup of coffee. In the same way, a meeting around a conference table has a distinctly different flavor from an impromptu gathering in someone’s cubicle. We often strategically choose the setting of a meeting to set the right context for our objectives.

The digital divide

Good managers know how to navigate all of these different physical spaces, so that they can communicate as effectively as possible with their teams. But what happens when everything suddenly becomes digital? Sadly, the default tendency is for communication to become stiff and monotonous. No matter how many times everyone adjusts their Zoom background, most workers are reporting that they feel disconnected and that video conferences leave them feeling drained.

Many businesses are also ramping up the number of virtual meetings they hold, and they’re inviting more and more people into each meeting. The drive behind this is laudable; it’s an effort to connect people and to keep everyone talking. Most of the time, though, the effort misfires and communication dries up. We can do better.

Plan your meeting

Think about what you’re hoping to achieve with each meeting and then tailor the elements accordingly. Take into account both the outcome that you hope to achieve and the atmosphere you’d like to encourage at each meeting. Don’t just default to a zoom call. With some creative thinking you’ll find that you’ll be able to effectively shape context for digital meetings much like you do in a physical office.

First, consider what you’ll need for the most productive conversation:

  • Do you need to refer to documents or other materials while you talk?

  • Do you need to be able to see each other?

  • Do you even need to connect live or can you be effective communicating asynchronously?

If you don’t need to refer to materials, and you don’t need to see each other, then you don’t necessarily need to be in front of a computer. If you don’t need to connect live, you can take advantage of different digital spaces to shape the context of your communication.

Differentiate physically, while staying digital

If you don’t need to be in front of a computer, you have the flexibility to change physical space even if you are in different spaces. Proactively communicate the tenor and nature of your meeting, and you can free yourself and your team from being stuck behind a desk.

If you used to do walking meetings in person, there is no reason you can’t do those over the phone - just make sure to communicate that it’s a walking meeting that you’ll each do in your own neighborhood. Or maybe instead of a walking meeting it’s an opportunity to take a call on your balcony, or patio, and get some fresh air.

If you do need to be in front of a computer (e.g., to refer to documents, or collaborate over a shared workspace) ask yourself if you really need a video conference or will both of you being logged into the shared document/workspace be sufficient? By not requiring a video call you’re also creating some additional freedom for people to change up their own physical space as they no longer need to worry about how their space affects the video call.

If you do need to see each other, you can use different tools and tactics to shape the context of the meeting.

A meeting that would’ve been a coffee meeting out of the office? Have a virtual coffee - communicate that it’s the same as a coffee meeting, just at distance, and you’ll have succeeded in setting the proper context, even if you both are sipping coffee in front of your computers, over a Zoom call.

Differentiate digitally

There are a plethora of new remote work tools out there that are looking to facilitate digital substitutes for different physical experiences, so you don’t always have to default to a Zoom call. For example:

Loop Team runs an AI-enabled “virtual office” which can facilitate easy communication on a few different channels. The technology makes it easy to find out what your colleagues are up to; when someone is at their desk, it’s possible to invite them to a “drop-in” video chat, in much the same way as you’d drop by someone’s desk. They also support virtual rooms - similar to Slack channels - but as persistent video conference rooms. Loop Team’s system allows for team members to see who is meeting with whom, and even to “overhear” the topics of conversation via text summary, so that they can join the meetings if they’re interested, in much the same way ad-hoc meetings occur in the office kitchen, in the lunch room, and in open-floor plan offices

Whereby hosts a permanent video chat room that people can pop in and out of at any time; the goal is to replicate the atmosphere of an office’s watercooler, where people can swap ideas on a casual basis.

Medium matters

If you don’t need to connect live, be thoughtful about the medium of communication.

A text message dense with emojis conveys a different mood than an email; a Slack notification prompts a different response than a ringing phone. Comments in Github are usually about code, comments in Figma about design, and comments in Nodabl about growth and development.

Use all the different channels available to you and be consistent in your use of each channel so that your team knows what to expect when they see a message. Once you’ve figured out what works best, it’s a good idea to formalize some guidelines for communication. For example, a chat function might be great for exchanging quick, preliminary ideas, but it’s probably not the best way to send out documents or key dates; too much can slip through the cracks of a long chat. Email is probably the best medium for sending information, unless that information relates to work that exists in a separate collaboration platform.

Google Docs is great for collaboration on docs, Figma for design, Github for code, and Nodabl for growth and development. By attaching your conversation to the work or topic as it exists in its own digital space, you both keep your conversation in the context of the subject and the area which it concerns.

Setting out these guidelines lets employees know what kind of interaction to expect when their phone rings or an app pings. Clear expectations reduce stress and make for more effective, smoother communication. It’s the digital version of inviting someone to take a walk with you vs. ushering someone into your private office.

Model the behavior you expect to see. Your team will take their cues from you - if you’re constantly crossing across email, Slack, Google Docs, and Nodabl, all about the same topic, then they will do the same. If you’re defaulting to Zoom calls for everything, they will do the same.

Is less more?

If offices sometimes seem to run on the old tried-and-true precedent and habit, then maybe switching to a distributed workforce is a great opportunity to re-examine some of the ways we do things. Do we need to meet as often as we do? Do we need to meet in the same ways as we have been?

So far, that kind of healthy questioning has not been happening. If anything, we’ve seen a tendency to double down on the mainstays of corporate culture. During shutdown, most businesses began holding more frequent meetings than ever before – and most of those meetings were also more crowded than ever before. While in lock down, people are having more, larger meetings. According to Time is Ltd, the number of meetings with more than eight people attending grew by 14.4%. At the same time, more meetings became recurring, meaning that they were locked into the schedule regardless of any immediate need or changing circumstances.

Virtual meetings may, in fact, serve a real need for distributed teams, and it’s certain that employees will feel more disconnected without regular contact with their team. But serious thought needs to be put into evaluating the form that these meetings take, and the kind of input employees have into them. True communication, that meets teams where they live, is invaluable. On the other hand, the static, one-size-fits-all meetings format can make team members feel more disconnected than ever.

Final thoughts

Effective management means taking into account the unique needs of every employee. In a distributed team, that requires more effort and attention than ever before.

Invite your more introverted members to smaller meetings, or set them up in one-on-one calls. Make sure that text-based communication is available as an optionMake sure your team has opportunities for video chats and for regular phone calls, both with their managers and with other team members.

You’ll want everyone to understand that communication is not a one-size-fits-all approach and that your goal is to get everyone talking in the most effective way possible. If anything, remote work should foster stronger and more varied communication styles than are possible in a traditional office. This will require some investment at first, but it will pay off in spades.

Written by
Kate Prengel

Kate Prengel is a writer based in New York City. She is fascinated by the intersection of work and technology and by the impact that digital tools can have on our daily lives. She has written about the potential and the limitations of modern tools like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and new software applications. She continues to explore the ways that new technology can be applied to improve the human experience.

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