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Lights, Cameras, Action: The Tragedy of Meeting Drama

Think like a scientist: Do a test. Record your next video meeting of three or more people. Afterward, transcribe the recording. Then, with a printed copy of the transcript in hand, watch the recording. As you do, add notes to the transcript of who said each line. And—this is essential—note the non-verbal cues you observe. You will then have something very much like a screenplay.

Review that screenplay. See how each person (including you) assumes their roles and acts them out. Observe how people strive to comply with the social rules and rituals of in-person meetings plastered onto virtual work. Detect their attempts to adhere to scripts assigned long ago by those who write the rules:  leaders. Perceive how they strive to appear credible, confident, capable, reliable, trustworthy, engaged. Note how the outcome of their efforts falls short because they are visually boxed into tiny video frames and mostly on mute. You will begin to feel a little sad because what you observe is a tragedy unfolding.

Non-Credible On-Camera Performances

Inarguably, video meetings can be exhausting, as demonstrated by a Stanford labs study. Cognitive overload, eye fatigue, and lack of physical mobility erode workers’ energies. The good news: Employers can address these ubiquitous strains through adjustments in technology and scheduling. 

However, there is a far more challenging issue for Human Resources professionals. How do you ensure that organizational norms for virtual meetings promote employees’ abilities to perform credibly, confidently, capably, and reliably? Participants in my 2021 study poignantly raised this issue. They expressed how, despite tremendous investments of personal energy, their on-camera performances fail to meet expectations.

Consider this example:

“As an executive and salesperson, I am often ‘On Stage’ presenting some idea or explaining a product. That takes more energy via Zoom because the audience is not as engaged or interactive. In person, there is more give-and-take, even from a large audience. With Zoom, the interactions decrease in logarithmic proportion to the size of the audience. After four or five people get in a Zoom room, it gets really QUIET…. exactly the opposite of an in-person meeting. That silence is hard for me, and I feel I have to make up for it by ‘performing’ or ‘wearing a mask.’” 

Performing in such a way is risky business because people are highly sensitive to others’ facial expressions. Audiences easily perceive inauthentic on-camera performances. In turn, such inauthenticity erodes the psychological safety necessary for high performance virtual and hybrid work.

Uncertainty, Dread, and Drama

As actors on-screen, virtual workers are today’s improvisational actors. Such is congruent with Goffman’s 1959 theory of dramaturgy. Before the pandemic, workers came together in a well-known playscript entitled The Team Meeting. There, they knew how others expected the action would take place. They were familiar with expectations of their roles and the scripts they were to follow to create a pleasing performance. 

Now, they perform amid high uncertainty for far longer hours, in a far greater number of meetings, without the benefit of appropriate norms. As demonstrated in my study, they hunger for interaction with their fellow performers to co-create a compelling on-camera performance. However, their co-actors often feel “dread being on ‘display’ and looking and reacting perfect” and compelled to “act interested and focused the entire time.” Their interaction “doesn’t mimic in-person interactions, in which people look away from time to time.” And “the expectation of focusing on the screen 100 percent, which is not normal in regular human interaction” is untenable.

On-Camera Performances Must Be Heard and Believed

Like professional improv artists, those who perform in video meetings also need audience feedback. Verbal cues and body language indicate the effectiveness of their performance and can encourage them to believe that, yes, you are credible. But those giving on-camera performances in work video meetings don’t get enough feedback indicating that they are heard and believed due to thumbnail images, muted microphones, and some cameras being off altogether. According to my research, at best, they may get, “blink, blink, stare.”

Because they cannot hear listening noises or see heads nodding, they cannot discern whether what they say is received as intended or what the audience is thinking or feeling in response. As a study participant says, “Videos make it hard to read energy, and that is frustrating for me. I also feel drained because I can’t read body language or tell who is really engaged.” Uncertainty about their impression on their audience, whether they are giving a successful on-camera performance, presents a challenge to their context-specific identity. Am I credible? Am I valued? Do I belong here

Old Norms, New Culture, and Belonging

On the pre-COVID in-person meeting stage, there were (often) unwritten directions. These included tacit understandings about how to facilitate a meeting, what was permissible to say, when and how to speak up, and when to remain quiet. These directions were formed by what the dominant members of the group believed. Adhering to these prevailing group norms could help people create an impression consistent with their goals. They value me. I told them what they wanted to hear. That impression could help solidify their belonging as a competent social actor in those settings. But when someone in a nondominant subgroup spoke up, those in the dominant group were likely to give overly critical feedback based on stereotyped categorizations. The dominant group thereby thwarted the nondominant contributor’s goal of making an impression as a competent performer.

Now, Covid-19, massive global social unrest, and growing intolerance of racism in the U.S. workplace upend dominant group norms. The roles and scripts for leaders and other attendees in video meetings are less clear. Cultural uncertainty abounds. Workers are less willing to painstakingly comply with social norms to fulfill their role requirements and meet their context’s shifting political and social expectations. They now choose whether to sustain or challenge power relations.

As they make these choices, norms continue to evolve. How are leaders and other attendees to perform their roles together, collectively? Workers’ sense of belonging is at stake, as are their energies. As some feel that the power and control status they previously enjoyed in meetings is threatened, they may feel ungrounded. As others with less power (i.e., representatives of nondominant groups) attempt to contribute, they must typically work harder

Belonging and Inclusive Virtual Practices

Virtual workers who contributed to my 2021 research suggested practices human resources staff members and other leaders should adopt. These simple practices help promote greater inclusion and help relieve the unsustainable social-performance anxiety workers across the organizational hierarchy experience. They make video meetings more beneficial for the casts of millions who show up daily to do their best. They, thereby, enable organizations to reap greater rewards from diverse knowledge and talent. Here is what virtual workers say their leaders should do.

1. Invite those who are off camera to speak.

My research shows leaders make many negative assumptions about workers who are off camera: They are hiding, overly multi-tasking, not listening, disengaged. However, off-camera attendees say, “Some people seem to assume that if your camera is not on, you don’t care. It’s actually physically exhausting to stare at the screen meeting after meeting.” They say, “Visuals distract me from meaning/content, so having to look at the camera and people means I’m not getting as much content/meaning, so I turn my camera off.” They are “waiting to be called on.” So, ask them to chime in instead of assuming they are disengaged. I regularly do this and have not once found an attendee unresponsive. Indeed, the contributions they make are well-considered and solution-focused, perhaps because they are spending their energies thinking rather than acting. 

2. Tie the camera-use rule to the meeting purpose.

If camera use is necessary to achieve the intended meeting outcome, say so. If you can achieve the outcome without seeing faces, make on-camera performances optional. That way, those who enjoy seeing faces can see others who wish to display themselves, and those who find videos to be cognitively exhausting can be off camera. For this to work, you must adopt practice number one. Otherwise, you will thwart inclusion: Employees who have cameras on will become the de facto “in” group, and those who are off camera will be the “out” group.

3. Be a good “director.”

When filming, directors famously say “action,” “cut,” and “retake.” But before filming starts, rehearsals happen during which directors give guidance. They convey how the story is to unfold and how the actors must support one another when performing. A good meeting director gives that sort of guidance upfront, in an agenda. A good agenda provides the actors with the storyline:  Who will speak about what, when, and why. Provide an agenda in advance so that your actors can prepare. Include the names of those who will lead each “act” by discussing their topic. Give the estimated time they’ll do that so that they can prepare their lines. Above all, tell everyone the purpose of the meeting in advance, so they’ll know why the meeting and their performance in it matters.

#WorkTrends: Bring Your Human to Work with Erica Keswin

Erica Keswin #WorkTrendsErica Keswin, a workplace strategist who recently published a fascinating new book, “Bring Your Human to Work,” recalls a chat with a CEO who shared how nine people in his company had a seemingly normal conference call.

“After the call they realized that all nine people had called in to the conference call from the same building,” Keswin says on the latest episode of the #WorkTrends podcast. “In other words, they were a couple of steps, an elevator bank, a cubicle, away from each other. It was so foreign from my own work experience, but I began to wonder what would make someone forgo the opportunity to connect with their colleagues face-to-face.”

The anecdote helped move her to explore more deeply why people aren’t connecting in the workplace, eventually leading her to collect her findings in the book, which offers offers 10 ways to transform your workplace by honoring human relationships. It’s an important discussion that encourages us to look beyond the HR technology we so often focus on and give the human aspect of HR its due.

Listen to the full conversation or read the recap below. Subscribe so you never miss an episode.

Find the Technology Sweet Spot

Keswin says that while she’s far from anti-technology, she believes it’s important for organizations to find the “sweet spot” between leveraging everything that’s amazing about tech and knowing when to put technology in its place and connect in a more human way. She’s also adamant that technology, when used, should align with our culture and values.

“Unless we are very disciplined and intentional about how we connect with our clients, with our colleagues and even with ourselves, it often doesn’t happen,” she says. “It does impact us as people and the bottom line of our businesses. This is not a touchy-feely, feel-good thing. This has true bottom-line implications.”

Mind Your Meetings

Keswin notes that a chapter in her book called “Mind Your Meetings” details how many workers sit in meetings for hours upon hours, often multitasking. “People don’t even start to do their real work until everybody goes home,” she says. “For me, these meetings are an opportunity to go into a much deeper form of connection with the people in the meeting. However, it’s often the opposite that’s happening — that people come in, they sit around the table and everybody’s multitasking, texting, under the table.

She suggests organizations consider limiting technology in some meetings, a shift she says will have three positive effects. First, meetings are shorter because people are less distracted. People are also generally less likely to be offended because they get sufficient attention from their less-distracted colleagues, which can help improve relationships within the office. And the third benefit to low-tech meetings, she says, is that they generally increase the substance of the conversation.

Be Intentional About Being Real

Keswin says the key to making sure we’re showing up to work and being real-life people every day comes down to being intentional. “We’re not bad people, but many of us really want to get to inbox zero, and we’re prioritizing that over some of these human connections,” she says. “The technology is built to give us this hit of dopamine every time we send an email. I think about being intentional, and in the book I divide it up into these three P’s: prioritize, positioning and protocol.”

She says everyone, but particularly leaders, needs to prioritize relationships and create opportunities for real human connections — even if people think they’re too busy.

“I advise you to ask yourself this one very telling question: ‘Does your calendar reflect your values?’ ” she says. “That one question really pushes people to look at how busy they are, but also what they are doing under this umbrella of business. Is it aligned with their values, the values of their company, and pushing themselves to be more intentional, strategic and carve out time to connect with people in other ways?”

Resources Mentioned in This Episode

Let’s continue the conversation. Join us on Twitter (#WorkTrends) for our weekly chat on Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. Eastern, 10:30 a.m. Pacific, or anywhere in the world you are joining from to discuss this topic and more.

Is Your Communication Style A Drag On Your Team’s Productivity?

Our verbal and listening habits have a direct effect on our productivity and our professional outcomes. These engagement habits can lead to wasteful debates over false choices and choke off relevant business facts. When ideas and facts flow easily and teams engage in authentic business-driven discussions, productivity and results soar.

“Start with a YES and see where that takes you”. – Tina Fey

Try these three magic words to improve communication and increase performance, transparency, decision quality and your team’s productivity:

1.  Start with YES to encourage information flow.

Engage in a way that signals others you’re open to considering their ideas, facts and input. Tina Fey aptly finds it jarring when someone’s first answer is no — “no, we can’t do that” or “no, we don’t have the budget.” While there are instances where there is no budget, sometimes the “instant no” is more habit than business fact. The result is often a dead stop in the progression of discussion. Productivity is further hampered if people anticipate your stance is a “no” and avoid bringing forward information or ideas altogether. Observe your communication this week and see how often your starting perspective is “no,” how often it’s warranted versus habitual and what happens when you shift to “yes.”

2.  Assume AND not OR to reach optimal decisions
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Often people assume each new idea supersedes or displaces those expressed before it – my idea or yours, one option or the other when in fact it’s my idea and yours, one option and another.  Without realizing it, we may pit ideas against each other and shut down consideration of additive ideas. This wastes time on false debates rather than advancing toward goals. More importantly, growth usually requires more than one idea, market segment, revenue source, and initiative so the implicit competition may be undermining your real goal. Try using the word “and” in your engagement this week to see if it enriches the fact base for decision-making and productivity of conversations.

3. Ask WHY to signal and ensure you heard
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In dynamic or intense team discussions, asking “why” in response to an idea or fact has three productivity and leadership benefits. First, it signals to the other person that your engagement is authentic. Second, it provides them with an opportunity to share the logic so you genuinely understand. Third, it gives you a pause to consider the idea’s merits before moving on, to frame your “yes and” response, add another “why” or provide a well-considered “no.” In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t take more management time to be an authentic listener than it does to resolve false debates, dig for facts that people don’t want to share or recover from decisions that were ill informed!

Put these words to work this week to reinforce a team engagement model in which ideas are readily shared, facts are transparent and business decisions are enriched with them.

On Tina Fey:

Fey’s Rules for Improv in her book Bossypants, while describing the art of improv, are a brilliant guide to high productivity engagement anywhere.  I highly recommend the book — the improv wisdom comes with full-on belly laughs and insight to Fey’s tremendous career accomplishments as comedian, author, director, producer, and actress.

 

Image Credit: pixabay.com

Collaborative Learning: Web Conferencing Tools Made Easy

Computer technology has progressed in amazing ways, providing a seemingly endless list of tools to make life, work, and even learning easier and more available. In reference to education, electronic learning (e-learning) successfully utilizes electronic media in the pursuit of higher learning. E-learning takes advantage of such media technologies as typed text, imagery, audio bites, video, and animation to teach its diverse lessons.

Although television and audio/video tapes have been successful e-learning outlets, the internet has revolutionized distance learning, mainly due to its interactive attributes. One of the most popular forms of internet e-learning lies in networking through a variety of platforms which allow the advanced sharing of information. Through such means, collaborative learning can occur which places a group together for the purpose of sharing and interacting, thus increasing learning time and effectiveness while reducing costs. 

Web Conferencing Features

Web conferencing technology is the driving force behind collaborative learning. Meetings, classes, and training sessions that used to only be accessible through person-to-person, telephone, email, or online chats are now available in face-to-face settings from great distances over the internet.

The value of a visual and audio presence will always hold its edge in any learning or training environment. The power to drive home a message relies on an acute ability to offer a winning presentation, and the visual and audio capabilities of web conferencing delivers these qualities to its audiences. 

Benefits of Web Conferencing

Web conferencing, therefore, offers a wide selection of benefits for those pursuing collaborative learning goals. A large number of people can get together from around the world to give and receive information. Through webcams and web microphones, interaction takes place in real time so that ideas, solutions, questions, and answers can all be shared with all who are in attendance.

Web conferencing platforms also allow users to interact through websites, pictures, charts, files, notes, recordings, videos, whiteboards, and more to present what is needed–all through a computer screen. These meetings can also be recorded and experienced over and over again to gain more from the information provided.

Both time and money is also saved through web conferencing technology. Great amounts of time are saved by bypassing travel. Meeting can be set up within minutes, shared through email, text, or phone and attended from wherever there is a computer and internet connection. Not having to travel to distant lands or even across town to attend meetings also saves a lot of expense as well as reduces one’s carbon footprint. 

UberConference Makes It Easy

UberConference is a top web conferencing application that allows its users to partake in stellar audio conference calls. Once the application is loaded, connection is made automatically through a dialup feature. Attendees are then selected and receive an email, text, or call to meet. No registration or PINs are required by attendees to be present at the meeting which has been initiated by the original user. The UberConference app is available for iPhone or Androids as well as computers.

Practically every feature necessary to create and attend a high quality web conference is included in the UberConference software. For instance, a visual overview is provided on every attendee so that everyone can be viewed which drastically reduces confusion of who said what. A variety of filtering features are also included so that users can mute, remove, add, or ‘earmuff’ (temporarily block) other callers. Meetings can even be recorded in a popular MP3 format.

The company of UberConference has taken their service to the next level by merging with Google which has a well established video platform, but suffers from limited voice call participation. The merger allows UberConference, with its limited video abilities, access to Google’s powerful video platform while enhancing it with its wide calling capacity (up to 100 people). The two companies integrate their technologies via the Google Hangouts platform which provides a conferencing experience that excels the expectations of any collaborative learning or other web conferencing requirement. 

Conclusion

The power of the internet has opened a wide and beneficial door for those seeking collaborative learning opportunities. By utilizing the latest web conferencing technologies, such as UberConference, knowledge can be obtained and skills honed easily, conveniently, and without wasting time and money.

(About the Author: Norah Abraham has been a freelance writer since 2005. She attended the University of Boston and graduated with a Bachelor in English Literature. She loves public speaking and motivates people in her own comic style. She loves gadgets and techie stuffs. In her career, she has written dozens of Press Releases, Articles, and Essays.)

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