Feature Story

Cultivating culture and collaboration with video conferencing

As company culture turns virtual, how can we replicate things like team outings?

There may be no office birthday cakes, but there are plenty of birthday shout outs. There may be no milling around the office break room or cafeteria, but colleagues are checking out virtual water coolers where coworkers can exchange recipes, talk favorite shows, and meet partners, children, and pets. Welcome to the company culture amidst COVID -19. Companies are turning online to collaborate, connect and retain their company culture. Intentional video hangouts, virtual happy hours and even working out together have brought colleagues fiercely together as we all work remotely.

I’ve seen big changes within Cisco since the company has made the transition to everyone working from home, all the time. My immediate team has set up regular video check-ins and hangouts, my team’s larger global organization has had virtual tea and coffee breaks, and even CEO Chuck Robbins and Chief People Officer Fran Katsoudas have been holding weekly video calls from their homes. All of this instills a sense of normalcy and togetherness that bonds the employee community together and gets them working more collaboratively.

Here are some tips on how you can work and lead effectively using video collaboration:

Set expectations and milestones

This is a time to be clear to your manager, and yourself, about boundaries and guidelines. Whether that is taking necessary breaks to step away from your computer, or when you’ll be spending time with your children, it is crucial to prioritize these needs. Working from home doesn’t necessarily give you the break rooms and coffee meetings that you need, so set time aside for yourself.

Managers might need to change the frequency or way they’re checking in on employees. Managing director of The Center of Phenomenological Leadership Brian Trahan tells The Boston Globe that by setting and defining expectations and milestones early on, you can track their progress more seamlessly.

“Goals and milestones need to be discussed, set, monitored, and measured,” says Trahan, “What needs to change, most of the time, is how management handles the team. Managers can stay up to date on team projects with periodic check-ins or monitoring, using any of the communication, project management, or collaboration tools available. But micromanaging, continuously checking in, or over-communicating will be a hindrance.”

Balancing the line between checking in and micromanaging may be tough, but essential for the new work-from-home experience. This is where messaging tools, video chats, and check-in tools will be the most helpful.

For meeting leaders

During this time when people may be making the shift to working from home, it’s important to create a culture of compassion for others. Above all, connecting on how people are doing is essential for good leadership. Leaders can also help their teammates by making sure everyone is well-prepped for their meetings by sending out agendas and meeting materials beforehand. Setting the tone of meetings can help participants feel willing to be engaged and collaborate. I spoke with Rebecca Goldsmith, founder and principal of C-Level Stories, which provides strategic communications advice to CEOs and leadership teams. Here’s some of her advice for leaders:

  1. Create space and time for human connection. During the pandemic, people's lives are in crisis. It's important as a manager to create some unstructured time during video meetings for people to share what they're going through. It doesn't mean you'll be able to fix their non-work issues (you won't), but at least everyone will be aware of the important context of what else is going on behind their screen.
  2. Prepare. Share an agenda and any pre-read materials in advance. This gives more introverted people a chance to prepare their thoughts ahead of time, since they may feel less comfortable jumping in on an impromptu basis.  Kick off by stating the goal of the meeting and what will make it successful.
  3. Set the tone. The meeting leader can model the best behavior and set expectations. Cameras that are on and set up properly simulate face-to-face eye contact. Distractions are minimized by shutting down notifications from email and messaging.
  4. Call on people by name. This is easier to do in video meetings where everyone’s window shows up with their name underneath.
  5. Set expectations for broad participation. This can be done in 1:1s with your more shy, introverted team members. And you can set the tone in meetings that everyone will get a chance to speak by soliciting input from anyone who has not yet spoken.

For meeting participants

For some participants, it may be the very first time navigating video meetings. For those, Goldsmith recommends structuring some key points beforehand, remembering that it’s still a conversation between people, and just to breathe if nerves come up!

  1. Prepare. Take a moment to organize your thoughts in advance of the meeting. Review the agenda and come with your personal intention. What are your three key points?
  2. Structure your points to be cogent and concise. An easy, flexible structure that works for most situations is to share your main point, an example and then close with relevance. Another effective structure is to state your headline point, followed by one to three supporting details, and then close with a statement of relevance.
  3. Remember you are part of a conversation. Build on your colleagues’ points by drawing comparisons, contrasts and parallels. You can use simple phrases like “to build on what Claire said,” or “I’m seeing a different trend from what John noticed.”
  4. Don’t forget your facial expression is front and center. This is true even more than in an in-person meeting. This is a good time to get used to using your face as a tool - smile to convey warmth, make strong eye contact with the camera. While these gestures may not come naturally, they will project energy and connection with your colleagues. This human connection is critical to influencing others and is often neglected when everyone is moving fast on and off online meetings.
  5. Breathe. People who get nervous tend to forget to breathe, which causes a host of other issues and makes other people uncomfortable. You can counteract this effect by remembering to breathe deeply when you start to feel flustered or nervous. One trick is to keep a glass of water nearby so you can always pause to take a sip if you need a moment to compose your thoughts.

Design your own "virtual water cooler" or "virtual happy hour"

I also recently spoke with sparks & honey’s senior cultural strategist Brendan Shaughnessy about how his team is navigating their virtual hangouts while working separately from each other. Shaughnessy has already hosted two virtual happy hours for his team, and says that visual cues like faces and body language can be missed by not seeing coworkers in person.

“We use the grid view, Brady Bunch format where everyone’s faces come to the forefront—we saw twenty-five people’s faces at once,” says Shaughnessy of Webex Meetings, “We lose a lot of the visual cues when we move online, and it made it really easy to still see everyone’s faces and see how everyone is laughing or smiling along.”

Virtual “water coolers” or virtual “happy hours” may be more important than ever, in the time of physical distancing. When setting up your own online hangouts with colleagues, make sure to schedule these as optional meetings so that participants will have it in their calendar. You can plan general questions, agendas, or even games to get the conversation flowing. While discussing work and the current news climate might come up from time to time, try to keep things light and fun to give coworkers that well-deserved break.


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