Remote Working: 5 tips for Meetings Don’t let measures against COVID-19 disrupt your work collaboration

Remote Working: 5 tips for Meetings

Don’t let measures against COVID-19 disrupt your work collaboration

Article by Marina Lynch — Exploring participatory leadership, collaboration and co-creation off- and online.

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?” are 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.

A recent team meeting. Not pictured: Joke J.

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.

An illustrated ‘thumbs up’

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.

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.

 

 

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Horizontal Science: How to build inclusive, participatory practices into research and teaching

North of Montreal, nestled amidst the rocky, forested outcroppings of the Canadian Shield, a group of ecosystem scientists are conducting a series of non-traditional pilot studies. This time, their experiments focus on improving workplace ecology, practicing how to work together in more fulfilling, inclusive, productive ways.

The Laurentians Biology Research Station, a leading-edge field research facility affiliated with the Université de Montréal, conducts teaching and research in ecology, ecosystem science, sustainability, climate change, and conservation. Long recognizing the urgency of applying high-quality research to environmental problems, Roxane Maranger, station director and professor of aquatic ecosystem science, saw the need for a more inclusive, generative work culture among her team members. 

To address this challenge, Maranger and Nicolas Fortin St-Gelais, a postdoctoral researcher at the University Montreal participated in a training by Samantha Slade, founder of Percolab and author of Going Horizontal. The training posed the following questions: How do we accelerate the transition to more participatory leadership? How can we invite in more humanity without losing productivity?  What if we really got at the root of the issue of engagement? 

Roxane Maranger, PhD and Nicolas Fortin St- Gelais, PhD of Université de Montréal’s Laurentians Biology Research Station Photo credit: Samantha Slade

Participants had the chance to practice new ways of working together across seven distinct areas of practice found in any organization: autonomy, purpose, meetings, transparency, decision making, learning & development, and relationships.

What shifted?

For Maranger, the training offered new perspectives on what was possible in science and scientific stakeholder engagement. Lab meetings offered a place to try out meetings that are co-managed in a lower-risk environment, where an agile agenda emerged on the spot and brief initial check-ins could help diversify participation at meetings. “As the meeting started, we checked in by inviting people to talk about how they read scientific papers,” she said. “By starting with a shared practice everyone does a bit differently, everyone could then contribute. It immediately increased participation in the meeting.”

The team then moved on to check in around something more controversial, and increase comfort in discussing such issues. “We discussed our own gender biases when it comes to science,” Maranger said. “And people had already learned to contribute in this way, so we are seeing group norms begin to shift.”

From there, Maranger says they practiced depersonalizing feedback into their efforts to improve the quality of draft articles for scientific publication. Through the Going Horizontal workshops, they learned the importance of letting purpose be the leader over ego. “We focused on the idea feedback serves to improve the quality of the scientific article,” she said. “You may have put heart and soul into producing it, but you are not your article. We could see how our deeply rooted fear of ‘hurt feelings’ gets in the way of surfacing our collective wisdom.” By naming this as a core principle, Maranger said the group could then practice new feedback skills: “It is helping us shift toward more effectively communicating our best ideas.”

Tips from Maranger and Fortin St- Gelais for going horizontal in your workplace

Introducing new practices? Start in a low-risk environment.

Remind yourself that meaningful changes take practice and time. It may not be “just right” the first time, and that is normal.

Take on one new practice at a time. Make your lessons explicit, and share credit.

Think about “everyday” routines that might exclude people from participating. How could small shifts improve the quality of interactions and relationships in your workplace?

Come back to purpose. By making clear, explicit connections to the “Why” of how things are done, it becomes easier for teams to commit to changing “How.”

It is not easy for a group to get beyond “politeness” as a collective culture. “Feedback can and should be actionable, specific, and kind,” says Slade. Over the past decade, Slade has co-designed and tested the practices with clients, building on participatory methods shared through the International Art of Hosting community. “So many of the interactions and beliefs we take for granted get in the way,” says Slade. “It turns out these are learnable skills. We must be far more specific about how to change interactions to build more generative working relationships. Then we change culture.”

In the longer term, the lab plans to bring in more participatory, generative methods of decision making. They recognize that shifting to a more horizontal culture can take time and will create feelings of discomfort. “Culture shift can get sticky,” Maranger said. “But given the degree of impact we have seen for our team, our students, and our communities, it is worth the effort. Together, we stand to gain a lot.”

 

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