Working from Home During COVID-19 Part Two
As mentioned in Part one, our goal is to overcome the inconvenience of working from home and to continue to deliver high quality work while meeting established timelines. Today, I will discuss some aspects of how technology can help and should be used, along with some advice on how to get the most out of virtual meetings.
Email is still probably the most time-consuming technology we have today. It will become even more prevalent with people working from home in isolation. Stay on top of it or it can overwhelm you. One of the main problems with email is that people believe they have communicated by writing an email. However, email is asynchronous and there is no visible acknowledgement that the message is received and understood. Consequently, it is imperative to make your emails clear and focused. I have found that ideally you should limit yourself to one topic per email. Make sure your subject lines are consistent with the topic. Please never blindly reply all. Often the topics shift in a chain and all recipients may no longer be relevant to the topic or worse someone will ignore it missing the new topic. It is best to start a new chain with a new topic or at least change the subject line to reflect the current topic.
As I stated in part 1 (https://www.applexus.com/blogs/working-home-during-covid-19-part-one), more short bullet pointed sentences and less prose – see “communications”.
Collaboration and Conferencing tools are absolutely critical to effective meetings. Tools like “Zoom” and “Teams” include video and audio conferencing, white-boarding, note taking and more. Leveraging Instant Messaging where possible can provide that quick nearly synchronous vehicle to ask a quick question while participating on a call or focusing on another task. It is also a nice way to combat being overwhelmed with emails.
Video conferencing is probably the best substitute for a face to face meeting. Family members have been using this for years on tools like Facetime. Video is a pretty standard part of most collaboration tools and you should consider using it when you can, especially in smaller meetings or 1 to 1 meetings. Bandwidth can become an issue. What has worked well is if you’re speaking or have something to say, you can “raise your hand” by going on video. If you aren’t speaking or don’t have something to say, turn your video off and mute your mic.
The best tips I found for a good video presence is to smile and look at the camera; keep the camera a bit higher so that you are not looking down and to frame your face so that your eyes are about 1/3 down from top. Don’t sit in front of a bright window with the camera facing you (ideally all light sources are placed behind the camera).
To improve your bandwidth, use a wired internet connection if at all possible (not WiFi or Cell). Close tabs or applications you don’t need during the call; this can significantly improve video performance, especially on older computers.
Your #1 goal should be an efficient use of everyone’s time in the meeting. Online meetings should be no longer than 2 hours and ideally 30 minutes – break them up into smaller topics. Attention spans are shorter and multi-tasking can undermine the effectiveness of the meeting. A short focused meeting will be much more productive than a long and winding one.
General good meeting practices also come into play. Make sure you have a pre-published agenda. Distribute pre-read materials if required (keep those simple when possible). Distribute minutes within 24 hours of meeting conclusion with Action Items. And take good personal notes. You are likely going to have to influence others outside of meetings to ensure full alignment.
If you are in project mode, it will be even more important to establish a daily, weekly and monthly meeting schedule. You can even use shared note-taking by keeping a browser window open for shared notes to ensure alignment. There is no substitute for black and white over a verbal agreement.
The key to a good video call is the audio. Find an external speaker phone such as something offered by Jabra. They have USB and Bluetooth options. Laptop microphones really do not support a good conversation. Just as important is that participants must have good audio etiquette. This includes participants muting themselves when they are not speaking, avoid talking over one another. Raise your hand, the “turn on camera” idea above and using a speaker queue can help with this. All participants should be in a quiet space when they connect.
Designate a Facilitator / Timekeeper / Process Checker. Facilitators need to keep in mind that they play a key role. Their responsibilities include keeping the meeting on schedule according to a timed agenda, keeping the discussion on track, managing muting and speaker queue diligently and keeping an eye on the notes and bringing ideas from the notes into the conversation if appropriate. They should also make sure quiet people participate as they often end up participating even less when virtual.
Please note that facilitators don’t typically get involved too deeply into the substance of what is being discussed. Therefore, don’t have the Subject Matter Expert also facilitate. Finally, the facilitator should also make sure that someone records the sessions.
During this time of uncertainty and for many, uncharted waters, patience, professionalism and diligence will be required. Expect to have somewhat fluid schedules and further unexpected events and decisions that can throw you off your game. Try to exhibit tighter control over daily activities/results and adhere to a tight timeline. Schedule more frequent calls with shorter and more focused topics.
Individually, we should focus on what is your output or deliverable. Attend all calls possible with visible participation as in this case, silence is not a virtue. Most of all, be trustworthy. Make sure you deliver what is expected of you.