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Silence is the digital coffee break!

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Last week, my boss was ten minutes late for our scheduled catch-up on a zoom call. As he settled down and switched on his video, he was candid enough to admit that he had dozed off after a rather heavy lunch. It brought a smile to my face as I realised that its fine to catch a quick nap or go watch a show on your favourite OTT platform for a bit in between hectic work schedule. Spending a few minutes with your children and playing a quick board game is par for the course. It also brought a human touch to the technology that’s already made widespread changes to the way we work.

There is an abundance of ‘lockdown’ wisdom wherever you go. The etiquettes around being more productive on a video call have been debated enough. Corporates have been quick to issue Standard Operating Protocols of what makes for an effective video call. Employees have chuckled at witty memes around how to circumvent each of those protocols. The last thing one needs is a lesson in video call form and manners.

When I reflect over the last few months, I realize that I have adapted my managerial style. There is a sense of something crucial ‘missing’ on video calls. And it is not about eye-contact, not even about a pat on the shoulder or how you decode the crossed arms body language in person. I realize that your sheer physical presence in situations whether of a crisis or a celebratory nature make a lot of difference. Call it emotional quotient or intelligence, teams that work together need to stay together and not just see each other. Have you wondered what would happen to running between the wickets if say a 19-year-old Devdutt Padikkal had to “discuss” opening strategy with Aaron Finch?

There are five things that have worked well for me in this context. I do not know if my team looks at it the same way, but I guess its worth reflecting. So here goes…

Silence is the digital coffee break.

The nature of a video call is inherently agenda driven. The very act of blocking time on the calendar requires you to put down a subject and perhaps send pre-read. Quite often then, the call is preluded with some banter for the first 30 seconds or so and then you plunge straight into the subject. You conclude the arguments or findings and look up in expectation of a verdict, decision or approval.

In real life, you take pauses for a quick coffee break, a bio-break or just look around the room as you collect your thoughts. On a video call though, a few seconds of silence can prompt you to check-in with a terse “Hello, hello…” or fiddle with your internet connection to see if all’s fine. We do not factor in this break for silence. It is important to let silence do its magic in between. Silence provides time to absorb and reflect. Silence helps you to make your point and let it get imbibed. Silence lets you think of related issues and consequences. Silence is as important as the argument.

It is therefore important to stop treating the video call as just a ‘call’ and let it be a ‘meeting’. A meeting gives time for you to scribble some notes, look at reactions of other people and sometimes just balance out the ‘data and analysis’ with some ‘implications and rebound impacts’. A meeting sparks off a bit of humour or some plain old banter that infuses much-needed relief in the decision-making process.

You also tend to close the meeting expecting a closure or a decision. Human beings do not always base their decisions on the strength of the data presented. Think back to regular times. I have often asked someone unrelated to the agenda to come in at the end of a presentation and react to the stimulus. Sometimes, you just want some slack to ‘sleep over it’. And sometimes, a quick look around the room and the affirmative nods helps you close. In a video call, you miss these things. Silence and time for reflection helps make up. Ask for the time and provide the time. It is alright to take time out for a loo break or a coffee interval!

Get that Share button going

Video calls tend to become very formal. A brief prelude and you launch into a prepared deck. Text, graphs and trend lines. In a regular meeting, you supplement the points with some informal cues. For example, a quick reference to a video that has gone viral or a social media post that is relevant.

Provide for opportunities to let people share. Not just decks but also trivia. Sometimes a news clip. Sometimes a You Tube video. Make it conversational. Helps take the stress off both the decision maker as well as the other stake-holders.

I think the trap of a video call is that you tend to ask a question and expect someone to provide an answer that is already processed on the back of data and analysis. In a normal situation, people also rely on anecdotes, gut feel and related incidents. Think about the last time a colleague whipped up his or her phone and insisted that you see a video to substantiate a point.

People want to add ‘colour’ to the facts. Enabling and encouraging them to ‘share’ information that is not strictly part of the agenda helps move the conversation forward. And helps arrive at a decision having taken an all-round perspective.

Contrary to popular belief, a ten-slide open and shut case does not translate to a slam dunk. The body language, the stories and jokes around the subject and a lot of reflection makes it easier.

Blend the formal and the impromptu.

Work does not always happen inside the board room. And not always at the desk. Impromptu meetings at the cafeteria, pantry or the watercooler are very often the triggers. In a video call scenario, we miss these interactions.

Some managers tend to keep things informal; involving the family or the children are easy ways to start informally and then lean into a heavy-duty agenda. However, this does not always compensate for the quick twosome or threesome gathering over a coffee. These get-togethers help short-circuit organisation protocols and make working more ‘personal’. Many organisations work on the basis of “pre-aligning” an outcome and using the meeting to “ratify” the decision.

On a video call, find time to chat about other topics as well. Some of these do not have to be directly related to the agenda, not require data and reports to substantiate a point. These are quick pulse checks and help you stay in touch with what’s happening. It also gives your team an opportunity to put a few things ‘in your ear’

Allow for the Learning Curve to Kick In

Have you noticed that the first few weeks of the lock-down used the video calls to ‘check-in’ and that was it. Managers used it to do a situational assessment. It was a way of saying we are all in it together and let’s stick together as we confront this unknown situation.

The calls then moved to the next stage wherein the focus was to find projects and themes to stay engaged. Almost as if you needed distraction from the pandemic.

In Stage 3, the focus moved to figuring out methods to get work back on track. You suddenly discovered that you could do most things from home; the video call helped enhance productivity and things around you fell into a rhythm. The children also began to understand that the work table was ‘office’ and out of bounds!

As we move into Stage Four, I think the focus will be on Accelerating the pace of work and doing things smarter and better. People discover new features of the video call, new ways of becoming more productive and at ease with working remotely. This is the stage to watch out for – you could get left behind; you could also be the first to force the pace.

Stay in touch with the wider team

The virtual townhall is no substitute for the various methods that you employ to stay in touch with skip levels, juniors and other stake-holders. The two-minute elevator stories, the corridor catch-ups and the genial bonhomie at the car park are now missing.

Summoning a formal video call with the larger team also doesn’t seem to help. The air of formality to the call does not let people loosen up. Sometimes the humorous and straight-faced comments are more potent than direct statements.

One thing that works then is to find the virtual way to ‘chill’.  Do a Friday afternoon call that is just a quiz show or a puzzle that the team needs to crack? Bring in a facilitator who can moderate a session for you. Let people just hang around. Let your children scream into the camera. Knowing that you are in the same boat helps the team relax and bond. Much like the weekend beer do at the local pub next to office!

The video call is not just a call. It is a platform, a tube that connects you with the organisation. Think of your desk as the office and the video call as the passage to both your conference room as well as the corridor. You need to be present at both places to get that work agenda going!

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