From the Trails to the OfficeAfter 25-plus years of consulting and 100 endurance races of half marathon, marathon and ultra-marathon distances, I’ve noticed lots of parallels. Here are a few.
9 Lessons Learned From 25 Years of Consulting and 100 Long Distances Races
After 25-plus years of consulting and 100 endurance races of half marathon, marathon and ultra-marathon distances, I’ve noticed lots of parallels. I’ve learned many lessons during my races that apply to my work as a consultant. Here are a few.
Lesson 1: Be thankful you’re able to lace up and go. Not everyone is capable of going for a long run. Some can’t make it due to their age. Some have health problems. If you can lace up and toe the line, you’re lucky.
Try to think that way about work. Sometimes it’s hard to jump out of bed and sprint to work with a smile on your face. But recognize that there are people who would give anything to have your job. Understand that you are blessed. Be thankful for the opportunity and make the most of it.
Lesson 2: You have to show up in order to finish. Lots of people talk about doing marathons and ultra-marathons. Not a lot of people show up on race day. In order to cross the finish line you have to first cross the start line.
It’s just as true in business. It’s critical to “show up” each day. You can’t succeed if you only bring your A Game occasionally. You have to bring it every day, for the duration of the engagement. You have to show up in order to get your project over the finish line.
Lesson 3: Drink before you’re thirsty. One of the keys to finishing long distance runs is hydration. Drink early and often. Your body will appreciate it and you’ll be able to go the distance.
As a consultant, it is important to stay abreast of the latest trends, research, methods, and technologies. Continuous learning is vital to serving your clients or supporting your business. Read. Attend lectures. Participate in professional conferences. Take online courses. Seek certifications. Don’t wait until you need to know something to begin your search—stay on top of the latest information in your field. In other words, “drink before you’re thirsty.
Lesson 4: Never pass an aid station without refueling. Sometimes, on the trail, runners feel like they are falling behind so they bypass an aid station to make up time. Inevitably, this comes back to bite them. In your race prep, you develop a plan. In that plan, you’ve outlined all the things you MUST do in order to be successful. If it is a good plan, stick with it. That includes refueling at the aid stations.
On your project, spend enough time planning the work. Understand where all the “aid stations” are. We often refer to them as milestones. Be smart about how and when you’ll get there. Be prepared to pause, take stock, and celebrate this small victory. Let your team know how well they’ve done to get to this point. Remind them where the next milestone is and what it will take to get there. You and your team will benefit from taking these pauses to refuel.
Lesson 5: On the tough parts, keep your eyes on the trail. When it’s safe, look up and enjoy the view. There are lots of obstacles along the trail. It’s easy to lose your concentration. It’s easy to stumble and fall. You have to maintain your focus to do well.
The same is true at work. Things come up. Obstacles appear. Keep your eyes on the “trail” as you move toward your milestones. Some parts of the project will be trickier than others. Use extreme focus on those parts. But, when you can, look up and take in the big picture. Celebrate how far you’ve come. Try to enjoy the journey.
Lesson 6: When you’re feeling good, encourage other racers. You’ll need for them to return the favor when you’re not. As you run past your fellow racers, offer them a word of encouragement. It’s amazing how your quick gesture helps push them along.
The same holds true with your work colleagues. Look for opportunities to stop and offer them a pat on the back, a kind word, or a listening ear. There will be days when you’ll need for them to return the favor.
Lesson 7: If someone goes down, stop and help them. On the trail, things happen—pulled muscles…twisted ankles…heat exhaustion…cramps…slips, trips, and falls. When you come across someone in trouble, you help them. You get them on their feet or you offer them water or you go for help. You don’t run past them.
In business, people go down as well. It is often obvious when someone is struggling. You can see that they’re not going to make a deadline or won’t deliver the best deliverable. Help them. Can you act as a sounding board? Stay after work to lend a hand? Give up your lunch hour to listen to your colleague practice a presentation? Figure out a way to help. Your colleagues will appreciate it and the team will benefit.
Lesson 8: Run when you can. Walk when you have to. Just get to the finish line. Finishing is what matters—not how fast. Many runners get stuck focusing on their time. They want to go fast. They want to set a personal record. And some push so hard they end up dropping from the race (because of injury, exhaustion, mental fatigue, etc.). Sometimes it’s better to slow down. Slowing down can help a runner get to the finish line.
In business, you’ve probably heard the saying, “Go slow to go fast.” This is the same concept. Sometimes there is benefit to taking a step back—revisiting the work plan and focusing attention in another area for a moment in order to ensure you get to the finish line. Keep your overall goal in mind. What is it you’re trying to accomplish? What problem are you trying to solve? I’ll bet it has nothing to do with how fast you finish. So, slow down. Get it right. Deliver a great solution. If your company or client tries to push you to finish faster, remind them why you’re there. Remind them of the benefits of success and the cost of failure. Let them know you want to get it right. Tell them, “sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.” Changing those behaviors, implementing that new technology, or whatever your project has been tasked with will eventually help your client go faster.
Just keep running.
Lesson 9: An endurance run isn’t the most difficult thing you’ll ever experience. When you feel like quitting, keep that in mind. Don’t get me wrong, some runs are very difficult. Running 31 miles through the mountains, in the rain, can be a challenge. Climbing thousands of feet in the heat, or running hills over and over again along a 26.2 mile course can be debilitating. You’ll want to quit. When these thoughts enter your mind, remember, this isn’t as hard as life gets. There are many things harder than running in the mountains. I won’t list them here; I’m sure you know what they are. I’m sure you’ve experienced some of them. When you think about those trials, you realize you have it pretty easy to be spending the day in the mountains, breathing good air, getting some exercise, and enjoying the companionship of like-minded people.
We all have tough days at work. Tough months… Tough clients… Think back to all those “tough” experiences. You survived them all. Keep plugging away. Recognize those bad days aren’t so bad; you can handle them. Just keep running.
Endurance running and consulting: same thing, different wardrobe. Who knew?
Virtual OnboardingWhat we know about brain science can give your new employees a great transition to your team.
Make it familiar, controlled, and successful.
The pandemic has forced many businesses into a work-from-home model. Well-known companies like Google and Facebook won’t have workers return to their offices until at least January 2021.
But hiring does not stop. How do you onboard employees virtually? How do you get them engaged and performing through a screen?
Most of us are acquainted with the mechanics of virtual onboarding. There’s already been a lot written about the basics:
- Welcome the new hire with something tangible like a plant, gift basket, or company-branded gear.
- Keep each virtual onboarding session short and interactive.
- Use strong presenters.
- Expand the elapsed time for onboarding from one or two days to as many as 30 days.
- Issue surveys to gauge engagement and solicit feedback for improvement.
But we think good virtual onboarding has to go deeper. When you’re onboarding employees, you’re asking them to change their behaviors—do this, in this way, to this standard. You are also hoping to reinforce their positive feelings about the organization, so they feel welcome and they are part of something great.
Science tells us that if we want behavior change to work, we should make it feel familiar, controlled, and successful.
Our brains see new things as dangerous, so change – like a new job – can create feelings of resistance. But familiarity, as mentioned in other posts, feels “safe.” You can activate those feelings of safety in your onboarding program.
Determine what makes most new employees feel great about the employer—for example, the culture, the brand, the physical environment, the great people, and the proper supports and resources. Highlight those familiar “feel good” elements in your welcome video and guest speakers. The more you remind them of what they already know and like, the better.
Use video tools that are familiar to most participants. We all know Zoom. Many of us will not be familiar with GoToMeeting or TeamViewer. Make the login to the virtual onboarding easy. First impressions matter.
Include live speakers or filmed testimonials from people who look and sound more like your new employees. If your new hires are in their 20’s and mainly Black or Brown, they won’t connect as well to, let’s say, middle-aged White men.
Repeat certain onboarding activities throughout the program; for example, use weekly check-ins with their boss and a peer coach. Over time, these events will start to feel familiar.
Humans love to feel in control. Giving new hires the feeling of control reduces anxiety and frees their brains for learning and executive functioning. You can do this by building in structure, predictability, and choice.
Develop an onboarding timeline and share it repeatedly when meeting with the new hires. For example, if a group of new hires connects every week, show them the timeline with a “you are here” marker.
Provide new hires with the right tools: laptop, easy connectivity, digital onboarding tools, and job aids. How about a new hire portal or MS Team Site to house all this information? Include FAQs and key contact information they can have at their fingertips.
Give them some choices up front: Surface or MacAir? Flextime vs. standard business hours?
Build some flexibility into their onboarding tasks so they can exert some personal control over their schedules and not feel like their new employer is programming every minute of the day.
Winning releases dopamine, the brain’s feel-good chemical. And sharing success promotes oxytocin, the connection hormone. You can build success into your onboarding program.
Small and simple successes might be things like signing up for health benefits or getting their parking pass activated. Highlight each successful step. Consider gamification to track these successes, with a nominal reward or recognition at the end.
Handling some of their new job activities, with support of their new manager and peers, will also make them feel successful. Keep things small and simple in the beginning, so you are sure they will complete them correctly. (Failing at one of these tasks will produce the opposite effect!) Have managers give new employees coaching and feedback along the way. You could even build completion and sign-off into your gamification approach.
New hires feel more successful when they feel they are becoming part of the team. Interpersonal and social successes count too! Can’t gather at the local sports bar? How about a virtual happy hour or beer bash? Schedule some virtual team lunches or coffee breaks—the company could pay to have the meal or coffee delivered to the new hire.
The last word…
Create your company’s onboarding experience to promote feelings of familiarity. New hires will feel they’re more in control of their transition when you include choice, structure, and predictability. And they’ll feel more successful if you provoke the feel-good chemicals in their brains through small wins, feedback and rewards, and orchestrated virtual events that make them feel like they belong. It’s a different world right now, but people are still the same. What we know about brain science can give your new employees a great transition to your team.
Tough Times Need a Tough TeamFaced with unprecedented challenges, your leadership team needs to get aligned and then sound aligned.
Imagine this: your senior managers are hosting virtual meetings. In each one of them, someone asks a question. “What are we doing in response to the pandemic?”
- Manager 1: “We are doing everything we can to keep all of us safe.”
- Manager 2: “I know we all hate these Zoom meetings, but we will be back in the office as soon as possible.”
- Manager 3: “You were sent an email on June 14, outlining our response to the pandemic. I suggest you read that.”
- Manager 4: “What are you concerned about? Let’s talk about what I can do to help.”
Which is the right answer? All of them, and none of them.
None of the answers is wrong. But they are all wrong because they are so different.
People have a fundamental need to feel safe in order to function. Control and predictability create feelings of safety. Four different vague or evasive answers create just the opposite. The costs of this kind of uncertainty: resistance, lost productivity, and an organization even less focused on its business goals.
Faced with unprecedented challenges, your leadership team needs to get aligned and then sound aligned. That’s a tight team.
We have tightened up many executive teams. We don’t tell them what their goals and message should be; we facilitate. Here is the essence of our process:
- Gather your team and ask them four questions.
- What’s the challenge we’re faced with?
- What’s the solution to the challenge?
- What’s the approach we’ll take to execute the solution?
- What’s the result we want?
- For each question, brainstorm a one-word hint: start broad, then narrow down to the top two to three words, and then down to the final one.
- Once the four words are selected, generate facts and examples to use when you deliver the message. Each of the four words needs its own supporting details. Now you have a message frame.
- Bring it all together in a 30-second story – the four words, buttressed by facts or examples.
- Practice telling the story. As you practice, customize it for who you are and whomever you’re addressing. That is, use different examples for a Marketing employee vs. an IT employee. Each executive’s story will be slightly different, based on their communication style, area of expertise, position, and audience.
- Practice it a few more times, imagining different scenarios.
- Use the message frame as the foundation of all communications on this subject.
Let’s try our scenario again. Four Zoom meetings. Four employees with questions. Four responses from leaders.
“What are we doing in response to the pandemic?”
Feel that? It’s peace of mind.
Scaling Your Workforce in Tough TimesIf you need to scale quickly, we have some ideas for you to consider.
We all know the bad news. The US economy lost 20.5 million jobs in April 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—by far the most sudden and largest decline since the government began tracking the data in 1939. The unemployment rate soared to 14.7% in April, its highest level since the BLS started recording the monthly rate in 1948. The last time American joblessness was that severe was the Great Depression.
But it’s not all bad news. Certain businesses associated with logistics and supply of critical goods are actually hiring…like crazy. Instacart is hiring 300,000 contract workers. Amazon is bringing on 175,000 new workers for its fulfillment centers and delivery network. We see additions of 50,000 each for CVS Health, Dollar General, and Walmart. Lowe’s is hiring 30,000 employees. FedEx is hiring. Ace Hardware is hiring.
A company like Amazon is used to scaling up for seasonal hiring but many businesses are not. Hiring thousands so quickly taxes the organization’s entire talent management system.
At Emerson, we think of talent management holistically; it supports the organization’s culture and helps achieve desired business outcomes.
When you need to scale quickly, here are some ideas to consider:
Standard career fairs and job postings won’t work right now. What are the best ways to acquire talent? How can you quickly identify the best when supply exceeds demand due to high unemployment?
- Tap into communities like church groups, food banks, university campus online boards.
- Work with other companies that have laid off or furloughed workers.
- Apply AI technology to filter best applicants.
- While it may be tempting, don’t hire the first warm bodies. Maintain your recruiting rigor with a focus on the critical skills for the job as well as cultural fit. In some markets and industries, it’s a buyer’s market, so leverage it and don’t settle.
Measured, multi-week onboarding doesn’t cut it when hiring thousands at one time. How can you streamline the process?
Use a “speed dating” model. Allow groups of applicants for similar jobs to familiarize themselves with the end-to-end process in a few hours by moving quickly through the main steps or stations. Then, assign a given cohort to specific coaches for more detailed on-the-job training.
- Show short videos rather than live demos or blend videos with live learning. Note that videos don’t have to be professionally done to convey key points. Think TikTok, not Ken Burns. Use a tripod and your iPhone.
- Update your critical job aids. Simplify them to highlight the common, critical, and catastrophic–the “must-knows and dos” for the job. Think about how employees will use the job aids. Should they be laminated or posted? Should they only be online? Ensure they are multi-lingual if needed.
- Make it easy to spot coaches or team leads through clothing, like a colored cap or vest or a large badge. Post visible “Ask Me” signs on the tops of the coaches’ workspaces.
- Appoint a buddy to each new hire for a quick-and-dirty mentoring program.
Engagement and Retention
Turnover is costly. For workers earning $30,000 or less, the typical cost of turnover is 16% of annual salary, or $4,800. For workers earning less than $50,000 annually, average cost of replacement is 20% of annual salary, or $10,000. Five to ten thoursand for each entry level job? Multiply that by a thousand and you can see how turnover can hurt.
Unemployment is high so getting a replacement worker is easy, right? No! Every turnover requires replacement costs like recruiting, physical or drug testing, background verification, and training.
Putting a little effort into retaining those you hire will save you a lot of money.
- Make your work environment positive, comfortable, and safe!
- Focus on respect for employees. Provide supervisors with tangible examples of what “showing respect” looks like.
- Offer appreciation with unexpected small perks like periodic snacks–maybe a weekly delivery of fresh fruit or some other food your employees would enjoy.
- Recognize employees during staff meetings. Make it more personal; for example, ask leaders to send handwritten notes to employees’ homes.
Development and Performance Management
Yeah, we know what you’re thinking: hire now and worry about development later. But it’s never too early to think about how you’re going to evaluate, develop, and retain that new hire. You’ve just placed someone in an entry level job; what are the criteria to determine she’s ready to be a supervisor a month from now? How can you use development to avoid turnover?
- For job positions with the biggest hiring need, develop some simple evaluation criteria. Anticipate and document how you’ll close performance gaps and how you’ll promote those who are excelling across the board.
- Hiring is harder than firing, so be thoughtful about termination. For the harder-to-fill positions, how deep are the employee’s deficits? What is the return on investment for developing that person instead? How much effort can you afford to spend in developing a poor or mediocre performer?
By the way, be on constant lookout for new hires you want to retain and/or cross-train after your demand surge subsides.
Impact on Culture
Every employee contributes to the culture, including the new hires. When you’re hiring thousands of people at one time, they have the potential to impact the existing culture. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but no company wants to change their company culture unwittingly.
- Set the stage by showing a video on the company culture, purpose, vision, and values during onboarding.
- Enlist high-profile company leaders to visit facilities and personally welcome some of your new hires. A high touch “hello and welcome” is more meaningful than a big, impersonal all-hands. The new hires who speak to the leader(s) will tell other new hires of the gesture and that’ll strengthen engagement and loyalty.
- If the new hires are located together, physical reminders like posters and company gear such as caps or tee-shirts can reinforce the company culture.
- Invest more time with the coaches, team leaders/supervisors, to ensure they role-model the culture. They are the closest to new hires and their impact is huge.
- Identify a few key behaviors that are imperative to maintaining your culture/values and bake those into performance evaluations. Then act quickly to address those who are counter-cultural.
It’s daunting to hire thousands in a matter of months. Hiring the right people in the right numbers will answer your business demands and yield the outcomes you want, including revenue, profitability, and brand reputation. Invest a little to do it right.
Scale fast but scale smart.
Are you uncomfortable? Good. The work is just startingYou want to be on the right side of this sea-change and tap into the culture of tomorrow. But to do this right, you will have to unlearn some of the behaviors that got you this far.
Getting the Inclusive Culture You Need
No organization remains untouched by these times. The pandemic, the sweeping protests for justice, and 2020’s political tipping point affect every person, every community, and every business. We must respond or be responsible.
You want to lead your organization through this and emerge stronger. You want to be on the right side of this sea-change and tap into the culture of tomorrow. Being one of the thrivers will mean you can attract the talent and customers you need in the future. So you’ll apply all your leadership talents to this challenge, just like all the other challenges you’ve faced.
Wrong. Here’s the first hard truth: To do this right, you will have to UNLEARN some of the behaviors that got you this far.
Act. Don’t wait until you have the perfect plan. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do employees. They will fill in an empty space. If you say and do nothing, or wait too long to plan a response, they will assume you agree with the status quo or don’t care. And by the way, saying, “We are going to do something – stay tuned” is doing something. Just don’t do NOTHING.
Listen. Don’t say your organization celebrates diversity. Ask, “Does our organization celebrate diversity?” Don’t say you are putting health and safety first. Ask, “Are we putting health and safety first?” You might have departments and task forces and employee surveys on this stuff. So what — assume you have a problem and find out what it is.
And this is critical: Make it safe for employees to answer the questions and ask their own. If they think there will be consequences for making their bosses uncomfortable, you will hear nothing, learn nothing, and accomplish nothing. So say it, straight up: “No one will be fired or demoted for speaking up.” Also, give people several channels of communication – live and face-to-face, by anonymous forum, by survey, and via small groups or task forces. Capture what you’re hearing, synthesize it, and then distribute it for feedback. Say, “This is what we’re hearing. Are we getting it right?” Then listen again. It’s a cycle, not a task to be checked off.
Tap into the positives of a grass-roots change.
Wanting to be heard is innate. Forming community is natural. Think about protests and social movements – people march to be seen and heard, and they work on causes to create change together and feel like a part of something big. Simply put, these things activate feel-good chemicals in our brains. Do this for your business, and your employees will feel good about your culture. You will create unity around your organization, your brand, and your mission.
Disrupt. Changing culture is like changing the course of a river. You have to really want it, because it takes dynamite. It’s messy and confusing while it’s happening.
But the ugliness of the disruption is good – it’s a signal to all that you mean business. This is not just about memos and posters and procedures – they’ve seen all of that. This has to look like nothing they’ve seen before. It’s Opposite Day. How do you usually talk to everyone? What words do you use? Where do you meet? How does it feel? Don’t do any of that. Say or do things they don’t expect to set the right tone.
Then use that dynamite. When you hear what’s wrong, go after it. That looks different for every problem and every organization. Use your sounding board to guide you.
Facilitate. As you figure out significant actions to take, let people step up and lead, based on their skills and passions. And then follow; ask what you can do to advise, clear a path, and make things happen. And then lead by example. Show employees you are taking concrete and personal steps toward the culture you are defining together.
Never stop. Don’t declare victory and disband the change team. Assume there is always more to do. Make the effort permanent. Keep listening and learning. Forever. You can celebrate, but celebrate progress, as defined by employees and experts. Celebrate growth, and then keep growing.
So here are your new leadership behaviors, for a new culture:
Scale Your Workforce in Tough TimesAt Emerson, we think of talent management holistically -- it helps achieve the business outcomes you want. But how can you streamline the process? Download our latest whitepaper to learn how.
The People Side of Supply Chain Risk ManagementTo guide the organization through a big change you need to understand who is impacted and how. Managing this change is crucial. We'll show you how.
Phil Knight, the legendary founder of Nike, said “supply and demand is always the root problem in business.” Weak demand for a product is a bitter pill for any company to swallow. Inability to meet demand based on supply challenges is maddening.
Coronavirus has highlighted just how fragile our supply chain has become. In some cases, the chain is very complex. Even seemingly basic products like disinfectants, not to mention higher-end products like automobiles, can have many links in the chain of component ingredients or parts. Other times, there are too few links. For example, grocery stores may not able to meet the consumer demand for meat because there are relatively few animal processing plants. Production disruption at only a handful of major plants can leave meat displays nearly empty.
A global pandemic is a black swan event, but large-scale supply disruptions are becoming more common due to events like natural disasters, changing economic policies, and geopolitical disruption. Managing risk differently is a must. Tactics include:
- Identifying alternative sources of origins of component materials
- Diversifying suppliers
- Moving to nearshore or even onshore suppliers.
New solutions often mean new processes and digital technologies, and they always require people to perform differently. Change management – the people-centered solution – is crucial.
The Case for Change Management
Coronavirus is a trigger event for supply chain transformation and transformation is complex. Digital technologies like analytics and artificial intelligence are part of the solution. New processes are part of the solution. Employee behavior change is part of the solution.
In the face of a big, complex change, employees might be confused and fearful – they might disengage or actively resist the new way of working. But you need that behavioral system to work just as well as your processes and technology. Managing this change is crucial.
Messages must be clear and concise in times of complex change. We help clients boil down their message to four words – one to describe the problem, the solution, the approach, and the result. Together, the four words anchor the message. Leaders and other advocates need only remember these four words to ensure a consistent message. To make each communication compelling, add supporting details that are relevant to the audience.
To guide the organization through a change you need to understand who is impacted and how. Any change management novice knows how to identify stakeholders. We typically define them by team or department and design custom communications, training, and performance support for each group. But this type of analysis is incomplete. Teams and individuals should be categorized based on their disposition to change. Some stakeholders emerge as early adopters, who are pre-disposed to embracing new concepts. They make the change safe for the next segment of adopters: the early majority. The early majority makes the change feel like “this is how we’ve always done business” to yet another segment of the population: the late majority. Identifying, enlisting, and deploying the right people creates a bandwagon effect, until you have the momentum you need to engage the entire organization.
Behaviors, Habits, and Culture
Peter Drucker said “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It’s true. Results are marginal if your supply chain strategy doesn’t fit your culture.
How do we know whether a strategy aligns with culture? The sum of organizational habits form a culture. Habits are regularly repeated behaviors. We have to identify the behaviors that enable the desired business outcomes, and then decide whether those behaviors do or could align with the dominant culture. New behaviors can become part of the culture if they turn into habits.
Assess where you are today vs. where you need to be.
- Identify the behaviors that drive the to-be state.
- Consider what triggers or prompts each behavior.
- Make sure there is a positive consequence to reinforce the behavior.
- Ensure that employees have the ability to execute the behavior.
- Develop a plan to practice the behaviors and start creating habits.
We’ve heard the phrase “What gets measured gets rewarded, and what gets rewarded gets done.” Consider this when engineering behavior change. Are employees rewarded for managing risk? Probably not — at least not yet. Cost control or cost reduction has typically been king in the decades-long quest for efficiency. But performance ratings or bonuses tied to cost savings may not reinforce risk management behavior. It’s pretty basic: leaders must ensure that KPIs and employee reward structures match the business outcomes they want.
The global pandemic and other natural disasters may be changing the business landscape for good. However, the age-old problem of supply and demand remains. Business leaders have no choice but to change their supply chain strategy to be more nimble, more planful, and avoid risk. Mastering the change to people’s performance may be the difference between good and great outcomes.
- Fogg, B.J. Tiny Habits,
- Rogers, Everett. Diffusion of Innovations
More Virtual Meetings? Meet SmarterVirtual meetings are often inefficient and just plain awkward. Here are some tips to cure your virtual meeting woes.
Sorry, I was on mute. Can you hear me? Great, let’s get started.
Virtual meetings are nothing new, but in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are the only way many of us can meet. Which means all the annoying, inefficient, and counterproductive aspects of working together, while apart, are magnified.
When people are in a room together, there are subtle visual and auditory cues that manage the flow of conversation. Online, we lose so much of that information. We talk over each other. We start and stop talking abruptly. Some people just choose to clam up. Because we aren’t in the same room, we can’t point at things, huddle around the same flipchart to add our ideas, or pass out information and tools to use during the session. Our virtual meetings are often inefficient and just plain awkward.
Here are some tips to cure our virtual meeting woes.
Be the boss. One person should act as host of the meeting. Tell folks how it’s going to be and maintain those new norms. Virtual meetings are harder to get right, so they need more structure and a firmer hand. Before the meeting, make sure everyone has the information and technology to participate. After you share your screen and confirm that they see it, show everyone the participant list and take attendance. Show them the agenda and walk through it. Tell everyone that you will build in engagement – how you will be using the chat and other shared spaces to capture all of their input, facilitate good work, and make sure everyone has the summary and clear action items after the meeting.
Chat them up. Everyone should keep the chat window open and use it. Encourage participants to chat their comments or “raise their hands” on chat. Read those comments and stop from time to time to ask participants to speak. Notice who’s not speaking OR chatting; call on the quiet kid in the back of the room to give that person the floor for a minute. At the end of the call, invite participants to leave any final comments in the chat, then make sure you capture those in your meeting notes.
And promote a little chat anarchy. During our internal virtual meetings at Emerson, we do a lot of socializing on the chat – greeting each other, joking around, and posting shout-outs and celebration. Even if it’s not strictly on-topic, that’s ok! You should allow the kind of connection that normally happens as people gather in-person.
Use your words. Even if you’re on video, your facial expressions and gestures won’t land the same way as when you’re in-person. So add a layer of words. Make sure everyone knows where you are in the agenda, all the time. Ask them whether they can see what you think they’re seeing. You can’t point at something with your hand, so use your cursor and tell everyone where you are looking and which item you’re talking about. Pause at critical points to confirm that everyone is with you. Also, capture on screen and online, agreements, issues, comments, and next steps.
Think outside the screen. Consider structuring your work differently. For example, if you would normally ask small groups to put their heads together during an in-person session, chunk up your virtual meeting: a set-up, a break for small group work on the phone or email, and then a sharing session so groups can report out virtually. What might have been a continuous session in-person could be conducted in smaller sessions over a two-day period.
End on a high note. Use humor. Congratulate someone or celebrate a win. Switch to a grid or gallery view, so everyone can see all the faces on video. Ask participants to answer a fun question in the last few minutes. Do this often enough, and it becomes part of your culture.
Get ready to work. Arrive ahead of time and test your audio/video. Make sure you’re in a quiet place – no construction, family activity, or barking dogs. And just in case, MUTE when you’re not speaking. True Story: one of my virtual meetings was interrupted by a rooster crowing outside my colleague’s window! To be fair, it wasn’t his rooster. But do try to make sure your next call is rooster-free.
Don’t just join the meeting; be present. This is really hard, but don’t multi-task. Would you be texting or answering emails if you were in a small group in-person meeting? Probably not. Follow your host’s direction, so you don’t lose track of the conversation. And engage! Have mercy of your poor facilitator. Nothing’s worse than that dead silence when they ask for a response.
Be part of the solution. Are you frustrated with the meeting process or see an improvement? Don’t resign yourself to it— let your facilitator know, one on one. Your input can help virtual work evolve to serve your organization better.
Virtual meetings are here to stay especially after the COVID-19 crisis. But virtual work can evolve and change. Let’s resolve to be better at virtual tomorrow than we were yesterday.
Using Our Brains During COVID-19 and BeyondLearn to trigger both brain centers in a positive way during this crisis or for any challenge.
Contributing authors include Cathy Quon and Mary Stewart
Have you found yourself hoarding toilet paper and Clorox wipes in the last few weeks? Feeling edgy and out of sorts? Wake up feeling like you’re in an episode of the Twilight Zone? Obviously, you’re not alone. The rest of the human race in living through this pandemic too.
Layoffs! Bear market! Closures! Hospitals are overwhelmed! Deaths! COVID, COVID, COVID—24/7. It’s no wonder we’re overwhelmed—we’re hardwired to categorize everything we see and hear as either safe or a threat.
Two regions of our brain are in constant competition. If we decide something in our environment is a threat, we go to our “lizard brain,” the amygdala—the primal seat of our brain. That’s the “fight or flight” center. If we consider something safe, we can effectively use our pre-frontal cortex—the place for rational thought and informed decisions.
The amygdala and pre-frontal cortex cannot operate simultaneously. It’s binary – one or the other is in charge. So, if you’re fearful, you might jump to “I might run out of toilet paper!” Your deductive reasoning is switched off. You won’t be able to convince yourself that the toilet paper supply chain is strong and that grocery shelves will be restocked soon.
So, what is the right way to approach work? During this stressful time and beyond, how can you better modulate the amygdala and prefrontal cortex of your own brain, and help your fellow employees do the same?
You can use your knowledge of the brain to trigger both brain centers in a positive way, during this crisis or for any challenge.
Tap the amygdala. The amygdala is sensitive to messages of loss, reward, and fairness.
Fear of Loss
Current Crisis: Manipulate that fear for the greater good. “If we don’t shelter in place, there will be more illness and death.” Anytime: Highlight what they lose by staying in the status quo, whatever that is. Example: “If we don’t change our intake systems today, we will continue to lose patient records and that will result in more lawsuits like the one we had in 2019.”
Sensitivity to Fairness
Current Crisis: “We’re all doing our part in social distancing and working from home.” Anytime: Snap people of out an emotional reaction. Focus on how standard criteria or rules have been used, as opposed to capriciousness. Example: “We looked at tenure and the past five years of performance data.” Or “This is applied uniformly; no one has been singled out.” Emphasize why the change makes sense, factually. Use data. Example: “Nine out of ten hospitals now are offering virtual appointments.”
Current Crisis: “The more we follow CDC and state guidelines, the sooner we can knock down this virus and resume normal life.” Anytime: Offer interventions of praise, feedback, peer recognition, and team celebrations.
Enable the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex responds to the promise of altruism, connection, and delight.
Appeal to Altruism
Current Crisis: Share what the company is doing to help (e.g., donating masks/gloves or making hand sanitizer). Tell personal stories of altruism—maybe your teenage son is making weekly grocery runs for senior neighbors. Post a quick story and photos, and invite other employees to do the same. Anytime: Appeal to the greater good. Example: “This will make people’s finances more secure.” Make it as personal as possible. The personal and emotional override the intellectual. We can use that to motivate, by showing the people we will help through the change.
Desire for Connection
Current Crisis: Start all virtual meetings by checking in with everyone. Ask people how they are doing and take time to share stories. Organize optional virtual lunch hours or breaks with an emphasis on non-work conversation. Set up channels to support each other with advice and information. And take care of yourself—talk to more friends and family on a video call or take a group workout class via Zoom. Anytime: Focus on the sense of community and team—not letting others down. Talk about those who will take a fall if the organization does not succeed. Focus attention on shared success. “Look how far we’ve come!”
Current Crisis: Publicize “feel-good” stories. Talk about the heroic efforts of teams during this challenging time. Tell stories of individuals finding humor or success despite the crisis. Include facts, testimonials, and quotes to capture their attention. Anytime: Focus on the personal, symbolic and thoughtful. For example, plan a surprise—something that is meaningful—to mark the end of a project. What can leaders do that is personal and individualized? Hand-written thank you notes? Also, think about delights along the way, not just at the end of the project. What do we have to celebrate right now? What do we know about the team? What do they love? Delight them in ways that make them feel seen and understood.
Yes, these are tough times but we can use our knowledge of brain science to muster the resilience we need to get through it and come out stronger.
Strong Messages for Tough TimesWhether in the midst of a pandemic or a change in company policy, strategy, or organization—good communication follows these principles.
As change and communication consultants, we emphasize the need for clear and consistent messaging from leaders about any change, big or small.
Inconsistent messaging from leaders only serves to confuse. Our recent COVID-19 pandemic is a case in point. Things are changing from day to day and we’re getting different messages from county, state, and federal officials. We are allowed to go outside to exercise. Does that mean it’s ok to go to a park or the beach? Do we have to avoid passing others on the sidewalk? What’s the safest way to feed our families? Should we shop at a grocery store and cook at home or order takeout? Who should self-quarantine—those with symptoms or anyone who has traveled lately?
In confusing times—whether in the midst of a pandemic or a change in company policy, strategy, or organization—good communication follows the same principles.
People have to hear the same message at least seven times for it to stick. “Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water” or “Our focus for 2020 is reducing costs.” Either one would have to reach individuals over and over, through different channels, to change behavior.
Assume people don’t like to read. Give them the headlines. Use the same words again and again. Offer supporting information, but make sure the essentials are simple. “Stay at home.” “Wash your hands.” “Wear your hard hat.”
And, the bigger the audience, the simpler the message should be.
Ideally, our government leaders would agree on a common, standard message—not one for California, one for Texas, one for San Mateo County, one for San Bernardino County, one for Dallas, one for Houston—make sure all leaders answer the same question in the same way.
At Emerson, we recommend identifying four anchor words to ensure consistency of a message. Agree on the Problem you’re trying to solve, the Solution to the problem, the Approach you’ll take to solve the problem, and the Result you want. Land on one word each to describe the Problem, Solution, Approach, and Result. Those four words are your “message frame.” When speaking or writing about the challenge, everyone should use those four words to recall and tell the story. Use whatever facts and examples make sense to your audience, but stick to those four anchor words.
Appealing to more than one of our five senses helps people retain information. For example, as we hear the speaker saying something in plain terms we understand, we should see the same simple message. If you’ve ever viewed any of the TED talks, the best speakers use simple graphics in the background to illustrate their points. Wouldn’t it be more effective if, every time the President was at the podium, a few bullet points or a clear graphic behind him reinforced his message to the people?
In challenging times, when people are anxious or stressed, clear communication is more important than ever. Use these principles and your employees will thank you for it.