Why so many Zoom meetings are soul sucking cesspools of doom and what to do about it

A recent story by NPR’s Pallavi Gogoi proclaimed that CEOs want to ‘Ditch those awful Zoom calls.’ Not just any CEOs, either. Big time chiefs:

Satya Nadella of Microsoft bemoaned the transactional nature of virtual meetings, saying that we, as humans, crave contact.

JP Morgan Chase’s CEO Jamie Dimon says that virtual meetings have no ‘creative combustion’ necessary to drive innovation and problem solving.

And so on.

They’re not wrong. If you’re reading this, chances are you realize that virtual meetings can absolutely suck, cause our collective eyes to bleed, and make us lose our senses (hat tip to Jeff Toobin). We don’t need to be a billionaire to know this.

Where they, and we, may be wrong, however, is attributing the pain of these meetings to the platform instead of the facilitation of the meetings. While virtual gathering platforms like Zoom do have drawbacks that are built into the format and design themselves (e.g. the choice to have participants in squares, accessibility issues, etc.), these are not the reason that virtual meetings often sap our will to live. Rather, much of the blame can be assigned to an assumption that we can and should do what we do in person without taking the platform in account. Simply put: gathering online requires a different, and deeper, type of planning, strategy, and guidance than coming together in person.

Here are a few basic concepts and tools that can help virtual meetings be more impactful, connected, and enlivening:

Thresholds.

The act of gathering in person requires that we cross physical boundaries. Each participant leaves one space and enter another. Each person literally move through a doorway, settles their individual body into a new position, and reorients their gaze in concert with the other participants as the group leaves the outside world of their messy desks and constant Slack messages behind. These all signal our bodies and minds that we are in a new space, both physically and mentally.

Virtual meetings contain no such built in transition moments. We may be feeding the dog, taking care of a child, or simply ending another meeting and clicking over to the next. Whatever the situation, we’re not moving from one space to another. As a result, there’s no sense of boundary or division between moments. It all blends together into a homogenous mass of spatially non-specific interaction.

The good news is that we can create thresholds for our gatherings. Something as simple as taking a breath together, playing a brief game, or even acknowledging the reality of the present moment can take the place of a physical threshold. It is also powerful to establish a shared understanding of the guidelines for interaction in the meeting (e.g. ‘We prefer to have camera’s on’ or ‘Please do not private chat each other,’ etc.)

Embodied Presence.

There’s a difference between showing up and being present. Presence asks us to welcome our full selves into a meeting. When we’re in the same physical location, we take this ‘presence’ for granted (whether that assumption of presence is valid or not is a top for another time). Now think about how we appear to each other in virtual meetings: disembodied heads in a tiled Hollywood squares layout. If we spend enough time on zoom, we may start to forget that we have an entire body that contains intelligence and the potential for creativity. This sense of ‘disembodiment’ is one of the primary culprits behind the ‘transactional’ feeling of many virtual meetings.Here are a few ideas to help invite participants into a deeper sense of embodied presence:

  1. Facilitate a brief stretching exercise while acknowledging that we all have bodies (which seems like it would be obvious. . .and is always worth of mentioning.)
  2. Simply acknowledge that we are in challenging times and ask participants to take three deep breaths together to give themselves a chance to settle into the space.
  3. Have everyone stand up and do 10 jumping jacks.

Purpose & Objectives.

One of the main reasons virtual meetings go off the rails is a lack of clearly articulated reason for meeting and a shared vision of success. This is not unique to video-conferences, but the virtual format does make the lack of purpose more painful. If you are calling a meeting, what is the desired outcome? It is to share updates? Brainstorm? Resolve tension within a team? Does everyone understand this objective? And are they all on the same page regarding what success looks like?

Taking time before or at the top of a meeting to review the purpose and objectives saves a ton of time later on and ensures that everyone is both in the same boat and rowing in the same direction.

Right Sizing.

The ideal number of people in a virtual meeting will shift with your purpose and objectives. In person, we have more flexibility. We can simply turn to our neighbor and share ideas or throw a sticky note up on the wall. In virtual settings, these simple interactions require more planning, perhaps different platforms, and a clear sense of your objectives.

Who are the right people and what is the right number of people to achieve your purpose and objectives? If you’re holding an ‘update’ meeting, it may be fine to have everyone on your 30 person team in a single Zoom room. But if we’re problem solving or brain-storming, we’ll either want to limit the number to a maximum of seven or introduce structured breakout rooms.

With all of the above in mind, here’s what an agenda might look like for a meeting designed to maximize connection, creativity, and collaboration:

  • Before Meeting: send out a document laying out the purpose and objectives. For this example, the purpose is to develop a creative solution to a strategic challenge. There are 15 participants in the meeting.
  • Threshold and Presencing (5 minutes)
  • Agreeing on the purpose, objectives, and shared vision of success (5 minutes)
  • Background on the strategic challenge (5 minutes)
  • Solo reflection and ideation time (3 minutes)
  • Breakout group 1, groups of 3 (10 minutes)
  • Share back in full group (15 minutes)
  • Questions and Discussion (10 minutes)
  • Wrap up and next steps (5 minutes)
  • Appreciations and Gratitude (2 minutes)

Does putting together an agenda like this for a regular old 60 minute meeting take a few minutes? Absolutely.

Do those few minutes pay off in a more dynamic, energized, and engaged gathering? Absolutely.

Given that it seems like we’ll be meeting virtually for quite some time (at least in the United States), it makes sense to take a step back, acknowledge that gatherings work differently online than they do offline, and adjust accordingly.

Otherwise, we’re doomed to a year of soul-sucking, transactional, disembodied interactions. And, CEO or not, no one wants that.

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