Since March 2020, many of us have had thousands of virtual business calls. For me, the most challenging aspects have been figuring out how to maintain enthusiasm through back-to-back calls and build relationships with my coworkers virtually. Below are three tools that have helped me facilitate better zoom calls and given me back energy.
Ask how are you
When we went remote, I found we could do our work just as quickly. But, I had a hard time connecting with coworkers. There stopped being informal ways of interacting when I got my morning coffee or when everyone settled into a meeting.
To combat the lack of time to connect, I started using the first 2 minutes of every work call to check in with a coworker if we had yet to speak that week. Sometimes, coworkers would share a struggle and thank me for asking. Other times, we’d laugh over stories about coworker’s children or fur children. On more than one occasion, someone announced that they were engaged.
It may sound sterile to ask someone how they are doing as a systemic part of a meeting, but when we are stressed out and jumping from back-to-back business calls, it can be hard to remember the basic things we do with our loved ones on every call.
Identify meetings where the purpose is accountability
Product managers often hold people responsible by having a meeting to do tasks or give status updates. In my experience, these meetings are effective. However, since meetings are a costly use of time, it's equally important to step back to see if there is another solution.
For example, in the past, I've had many meetings to get feedback on a document since I wasn't getting enough responses to my requests for asynchronous reviews. When I asked coworkers why they weren't reviewing documents asynchronously, I got feedback like my writing was unclear and my coworkers preferred meetings. On my side, I shared how important their feedback was on collateral and how much time we could save with asynchronous reviews. Because of those feedback sessions, I focused on improving my writing and making time to chat live with certain teammates. And in addition, although no one ever explicitly said this, I think some of my coworkers understood the value to me of asynchronous reviews and engaged more with asynchronous review requests.
I also use meetings to hold myself accountable. Product managers are usually held responsible for high-level objectives and have more tasks than are possible in one day. To combat the lack of imposed accountability for tasks and out of necessity in many cases, we sometimes use meetings to work on a task with another team member or as a forcing function to complete a task. Meetings always hold me accountable, but I've also found two other accountability tools that help me avoid over-using meetings. Firstly, I share with a group or person when they can expect something—like an email, "I will target getting X done by Y date"—here, not wanting to let down my team ensures I get something done. Secondly, I add the item with a deadline to my to-do list (more here): for me, just the act of writing something down creates accountability.
Carefully use no video
Having experienced +10 hours of video calls daily, I don't think every call requires video. However, particularly in one-on-ones, it's essential to be careful when using no video.
When we can't see another person's face, I've noticed we speak less socially appropriately. For example, I had a call with an executive team member where they shared how stressed they were in their role despite me being many levels more junior. On other occasions, I've had coworkers berate me with negative feedback. I've also been the party at fault: unhelpfully criticizing work products and expressing skepticism when teammates needed optimism. In every situation, I regretted the conversation immediately after the call ended. I think it's just too easy to forget whom we are talking to when we can't see someone.
There is only so much we can do as meeting owners but there are a couple tactics I employ. Firstly, if I feel someone's feelings might get hurt, I ensure the conversation is over video or in person. In addition, sometimes to hold everyone more socially accountable, I'll change a one-on-one to a group conversation. Lastly, when I'm wondering if something is worth mentioning, I save it. I've regretted sharing before I was ready many times, but I've never regretted sitting on the information for another day or two.
Once on a call, navigating someone else's over-sharing or overly negative criticism can be challenging. When a call goes off the deep end, I'll first ask questions to focus the stream of conscious speaking into something beneficial. If that fails, I will try to get them to table the conversation for later and focus on a safer—and often more critical—topic. If nothing else has worked, I'll tell them something important came up, and I need to join a different call. I'm a believer in not getting bogged down by someone else's unkind words, even if it requires telling a lie. At the end of the day, that person likely will regret the conversation—I know I have—and they might appreciate getting cut off.
For anyone who wants to have more meaningful virtual business calls or get-togethers with friends, I recommend Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. It’s written before the pandemic but the framework is useful for any in-person or virtual get-together.