Just the other day I saw a commercial on one of the cable news outlets promoting Cisco’s newly launched Webex Suite that is, according to the ad, tailor-made for hybrid working. It caught my eye because I once had an opportunity in 1976 to hang out with the McLaren racing team. I was the guest of a fellow student, who was a Formula One freelance journalist. I was intrigued to discover in 2021 that the McLaren Racing Team was still a major player in the Formula One world. I know, I know, some of you are now asking yourselves, where has she been!
I was even more intrigued to later learn, in more detail, how McLaren was leveraging some of the Webex new features at a special event that Cisco held called Hybrid Work Made Real. Click Here to listen to the McLaren interview at (minute 1.37.49). Things like background noise reduction when communicating with the racing team members at race events, language translation to more precisely engage with team members in other countries, and engaging with fans and partners in a totally new way by inviting them to sit in on driver debriefs in the garage caught my interest.
Being the strategy nerd that I am, this led me to a series of questions, some of which Cisco leaders raised, that got me to musing. For example:
- If 98% of meetings will have at least one remote participant, how will we stop from going back to the pre-COVID world where remote participants were generally ignored?
- How do you actually create a more inclusive and equal feeling so that every voice is heard and no one feels like an outsider?
- How do you humanize work, understand one’s collaboration patterns and traits and use visual and body language cues to gauge where folks are at in meetings with more than 2 or 3 people?
- How do you build trust within far-flung teams, between team members and their leaders, and across functions and geographies likely with different tribal loyalties?
In other words, the theory of hybrid work is great, but how will we execute, even with great new tools such as Webex Suite. This is especially important given all the fears that both leaders and team members have about losing control, culture, collaboration, contribution, and connection that are flying around and explored in a June 2021 HBR article by Manar Morales, President & CEO of the Diversity and Flexibility Alliance and Ivan Misner Founder & Chief Visionary Officer of BNI, a business networking organization. Spoiler alert, I am currently a change orchestration consultant on the Cisco mergers and acquisitions team, so I worry every day about how to effectively integrate new acquisition team members to the Cisco culture and operating model.
As my colleague Jeannine Vaughan, who is an expert strategist in executive communications and branding recently said: “Our work is a defining narrative in our lives. The pandemic is a story arc that gave us pause. Whether it’s a resignation, reassessment, or revolt, our lives have changed. Now, it’s time to rethread our work into a meaningful narrative.”
So using Webex Suite, what might this re-threading look like as it relates to actual team engagement and meeting orchestration? I think three building blocks will need to be re-imagined.
- Creating a comfortable virtual environment with constant encouragement to team members to turn on their video cameras.
- Planning meetings so that they become a proactive, orchestrated art form beyond just establishing agenda topics.
- Treating meeting participants as if they are a theatre audience that needs to be proactively involved and engaged throughout the meeting.
Step One: Creating a comfortable environment
The first most important step in creating a welcoming and trust-based environment is to encourage participants to turn their cameras on. Recent experience suggests to me that folks are comfortable using video when it’s either an individual or small group that they are well acquainted with or an individual that they are meeting for the first time and want to get to know. However, as soon as there are more than five or six attendees, especially if it is a cross-functional team, I see video participation rates drop dramatically. Now sometimes there are good reasons. Click here to view a tongue-in-cheek video that I created a while ago musing about what some of those reasons are. As mentioned in my LinkedIn article on home office streaming, backgrounds are going to be the new means of personal branding. This will be in addition to Webex Suite’s more prescriptive use of camera angles and video layouts, as we move away from appearing as these little squares on a screen.
Step Two: Planning meetings so that they become a proactive, orchestrated art form
Meetings need to be orchestrated not just passively held and first up is to is determine if the meeting in question is to be transactional or transformational in nature. Pre-Covid, more often than not meetings were generally transactional. In other words, the purpose of the meeting was to share facts, status, roadmaps, or progress. Little energy or time was devoted to ideation, innovation or brainstorming, or even decision making for that matter. Transformational types of team engagement were more often the purview of off-sites, workshops, or special steering committees. I would argue that as we move into the post-Covid era of hybrid work, new solutions like the Webex Vidcast app will enable most transactional meeting content to be moved to asynchronous video. In so doing, this will become a virtual meeting process that engages team members outside the meeting format, the same way that collaboration apps such WebexTeams, Microsoft Teams and Slack do so now. As virtual meetings become more transformational, going into the office for ‘on-site’ engagement, will become the means to strengthen culture and connection, as well as create high-powered opportunities for collaboration and contribution. In so doing, new kinds of ‘on-site’ team interactions will help address a number of the fears of hybrid work.
Other technologies now embedded in Webex Suite such as multi-language translation capabilities, noise cancelation, and voice enhancement features, the ability to turn captions on or off, and capture meeting highlights all enable a more comfortable and welcoming environment that better supports diversity and inclusiveness.
Step Three: Treating meeting participants as if they are a theatre audience
Meetings will need to be orchestrated as if they are a three-stage play. The audience must Become Present, then be Actively Engaged, and lastly be provided with time for what I call the Attentive Pause. For each stage, my experience has been that the Slido technology that is now embedded into Webex Suite can transform a meeting. In the same way that political rallies and comedy clubs have warm-up speakers, committee chairpersons hit a gavel to declare order, and talk show hosts all have a band that strikes up when they enter the stage to get audience attention, the use of SLIDO word clouds or ice breaker polls are a great way to bridge the gap between when a meeting is supposed to start and when it does and help the team to collectively Become Present. It also gives folks time to finish their instant chatting, read their last email or even hang up their cell phone and actually ‘join’ the meeting. Other tricks include storytelling, sharing vulnerabilities, or doing something out of character (like wearing a funny hat or sharing something fun, odd or frustrating that happened in one’s personal life) can also be useful ways to put people more at ease when starting a meeting, especially if it is a cross-functional team. It works especially well if a senior leader lets down their guard or shows a bit of vulnerability or makes a proactive effort to establish greater virtual intimacy.
The Actively Engaged stage includes the proactive stepping-in of the meeting orchestrator to invite the audience to participate throughout the meeting. All of us are familiar with the ‘Does anyone have any questions? ask to which there are usually, if not always, ‘crickets’ in response. For reasons that I still don’t understand, ‘crickets’ seem to be much more severe if the audience is a cross-functional team. I have found that calling on specific people and asking open-ended questions such as their impressions or inquiring as to how whatever is being discussed impacts them elicit far more useful conversations. If there is a desire for anonymity, SLIDO questions, polling, surveys, ranking, or quizzes can be used to elicit audience engagement without being personally attached to the response. Some of my favorites are to ask in a poll are: How is this discussion resonating? What’s your impression of what you just heard? What’s currently keeping you up at night about this topic?
Now Webex also has all kinds of other tools that I’ve found also to be very useful such as
- The Attenuate tool to hand draw on PowerPoint slides circles, colored lines, question marks, and even emojis to emphasize specific points.
- Seamless integration to visual collaboration tools such as Miro or Mural that can be used for brainstorming and ideation tasks. Templates for SWOT, Force Field, OKR definition, customer journey, and empathy maps can instantly be accessed with a press of a button. Virtual whiteboarding, though around for a while, sometimes can be used to encourage more active participation.
Given that so many of us today are now caught in back-to-back meetings all day long, carving out space for an Attentive Pause at various points within or between meetings becomes especially important. This can involve the building in 60-second resets every once in a while or so. With Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global technology now a part of Webex Suite, participants can develop their own personalized 60-second reset routine. According to Huffington, research has shown that all it takes is 60-90 seconds to course correct from the stress of all day back-to-back meetings and even change the energy of meetings.
Another important Attentive Pause process is to close meetings with a specific feedback request. Here the focus is to directly ask if the meeting was a good use of the participant’s time or did it meet the objectives set for it, or what could be done to improve for the next time? In the beginning little feedback is usually elicited, but my experience has been that once team members get used to the routine and are more trusting, often really valuable input can be received.
My most favorite Attentive Pause, however, is what I call the Elephant Sanctuary. This is the place where all of the elephants in the virtual room congregate. It’s a periodic process, usually for standing team meetings, where the team is specifically asked:
- What’s working and why? What’s not working and why not?
- What can we do to ‘reshape the jungle’?
- What new skills or capabilities do we need?
- If we had an unlimited budget, time resources, what would we do differently?
As I shared at the beginning, using technology to create a comfortable virtual environment so team members will turn on their video cameras, shifting transactional meeting activities to asynchronous video, taking the time to plan orchestrated transformational meetings, and treating meeting participants as if they are a theatre audience in a three-act play can make a world of difference.
I’m not normally a commercial watcher, and certainly am not a Formula One racing fan, but the McLaren ad has me hooked. Its ability to demonstrate the seamless merging of technology and ideation into a new way of working reminds me of why I continue to love technology’s ability to change the world for the better. Solutions such as the Webex Suite have the potential to create teams that are far more agile and adaptive and able to better manage complexity. By supporting a wide range of work styles, roles, environments everyone has an equal seat at the table and no one feels left out. More empathy and well-being drive greater trust, which as we all know is especially important for creating strong cross-functional teams. Can’t wait until holographic technology will imbed me in a conference room on the other side of the world. Then I’ll know that the Jetson’s and Star Trek TV shows of my youth weren’t just fantasy stories!