J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution & Organizations; Professor of Management & Organizations; Director of Kellogg Team and Group Research Center; Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences (Courtesy)
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles based on Kellogg Executive Education webinars focused on COVID-19.
A few months ago, video meetings were relatively rare in most organizations: occasional stand-ins when in-person meetings weren’t feasible.
Today it’s all that most of us do. And given the speed of that change, few of us have any idea how to conduct these meetings well.
Each Thursday, Kellogg faculty are offering free webinars on how COVID-19 is impacting businesses, markets, and careers. You can sign up for upcoming sessions, hosted by Kellogg Executive Education, here.
“There’s no playbook; there’s no manual,” explains Leigh Thompson, a professor of management and organization at Kellogg.
So Thompson, who has researched and written about virtual negotiation and collaboration, offered up a number of “hacks” to improve our online meetings during a recent webinar from Kellogg Executive Education. The talk was based on insights from her new book, Negotiating the Sweet Spot: The Art of Leaving Nothing on the Table.
Most people agree that virtual meetings are highly efficient, but they lack a good deal of the spontaneity and creative energy of in-person meetings. So Thompson suggests building in time for that at the start of a gathering.
“Before we get down to business, we should try to do something that’s fun,” she says. That could mean three to five minutes of improv exercises, or telling embarrassing stories, or rotating who brings a joke to share.
Another hack is designed to ensure that team introverts—who may not feel comfortable speaking up to a gallery of Zoom faces—have their voices heard during brainstorms. While there are various ways to use breakout rooms to encourage conversation, Thompson’s favorite technique is called “speed-storming,” which she describes as “brainstorming meets speed dating.” Pairs of colleagues are put into breakout rooms together for a couple minutes to brainstorm, then switched up into new pairs, which keep rotating.
Other hacks addressed the fact that we are not always at our best online. “Your brain changes when you’re not face-to-face, and it ain’t pretty for some of us,” Thompson says.
One way to curtail bad behavior is to establish a virtual-team charter. This could include rules that everyone have their camera on, or that no one should be multitasking, and should clarify whether people speak up by raising a hand or just unmuting and going for it.
“Virtual teams that have structure, ground rules, and norms outperform those that don’t,” Thompson says.
There are also some unexpected perks to meeting virtually, which should be embraced.
Thompson refers to one as the “weak get strong effect.” Many of the signals of who has power in a group—sitting at the head of the conference table, demonstrative body language—are eliminated online. This means people who may have historically not spoken up (a group that might disproportionately include individuals from marginalized groups) feel more comfortable doing so.
She’s seen this among the students in her virtual classes this spring. “The people that I’m seeing emerge as the thought leaders in my own classes are not the usual suspects,” she says.
Thompson acknowledges that people may feel silly suggesting some of her hacks to their teams. But she encourages everyone to give it a try, saying there’s very little to lose.
“No one is going to judge someone who is committed to the improvement of their team,” she says.
You can watch the full webinar here, and see previous articles from this series here. You can also read more from Thompson here about using improv techniques in your meetings.
Emily Stone is the senior editor at Kellogg Insight.
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