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Plus ca change

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Not everything has changed.

Before Covid-19, conference room meetings consisted of attendees in oval formation, the backs of their laptop screens forming a socially impenetrable barrier. Many of the attendees pretended to be taking notes while actually checking email and otherwise disengaging.

It wasn’t exactly social distancing, but compare this room chemistry with old-fashioned note taking on a pad of paper: No spite fence, no suspicion that half the room is, while physically present, engaged in astral projection, and, for that matter, less temptation to engage in astral projection.

Now we have virtual conference rooms, where many of those attending “multitask” without even having to pretend they’re interested in the conversation. They can just mute their phones and go about answering email and otherwise disengaging while satisfying the need for their presence, which is, as before, more political than essential.

They were invited, they showed up, and so their silo was represented.

What’s the solution? Decide in advance if you’re going to participate. If you are, show up and participate. If you aren’t, Reply All to the invitation list, sending this message: “I have little or nothing to add given the expertise that will already be represented. I trust you to make the best decisions and I promise not to second-guess.”

Or, if you’re the meeting host because you needed it to happen, but don’t have content to contribute from that point forward, let everyone know that your plan is to host but not participate once the pre-meeting schmoozing has finished.

It’s a lot less embarrassing than being asked a question when your mind is exploring an entirely different region of cyberspace.

As long as we’re on the subject, here’s another virtual meeting tip: If you’re the one who’s screen-sharing, make sure the screen you’re sharing isn’t the screen incoming instant messages pop up on. Even by email standards, instant messages tend to be … unfiltered.

And one more: If screen-sharing isn’t important for much of the call, have the designated note-taker share their screen when nobody else needs to share theirs so everyone can see the notes that are being taken in real time.

I’ve been a “remote employee” for the past seven years now. In that time, the phrase has evolved from polite euphemism, to pre-Covid-19 nothing-out-of-the-ordinary, to Covid-19-era new normal.

And yet, not all managers have adapted to the difference between leading and managing a physically present and virtual workforce.

Perhaps you or the managers who report to you are among them. To that end, here are a few more notions to explore:

Out of sight, out of mind. With a physical workforce this was metaphorical. Now it’s literal, too. Not the out-of-mind as in loss-of-sanity-from bouncing-off-the-walls out of mind. Out of mind as in interactions become transactional. The casual conversations needed to build and maintain working relationships easily fall by the wayside when contact has to be intentional because you don’t bump into the people who report to you just by walking around.

The rules of organizational change management (OCM) apply in spades. Especially, every manager should perform a stakeholder analysis to understand how different staff members and groups are likely to be reacting to the steps the business is taking to make it through.

The point of stakeholder analysis is very much the same as the point of personalized marketing messaging: If you understand each person who will receive your messages, you can craft your messages for maximum effectiveness.

Marketers are rarely in a position to truly personalize their messages. The best they can do is divide their audience into groups with similar demographic and psychographic profiles.

That’s true for you if you’re the CEO communicating with the employees of a large enterprise. But if you know every member of the teams that report to you, personalization … or, failing that, being sensitive to how each member will react to what you have to say … is certainly within your grasp.

A final suggestion: Start sending the managers and supervisors who report to you a tip ‘o the week for managing a remote workforce, and especially remote teams.

Some of the above might be useful for getting started.

The answer to the question you undoubtedly want to ask is, of course you can use the above as a starting point. KJR isn’t supposed to be a secret.

# # #

Are you still employed? Has your personal pittance failed to entirely lose its value over the past couple of months?

Us too. Sharon and I decided it’s time to think about those less fortunate than us, which, we concluded, is nearly everyone.

I’m not going to even give hints as to which charities you should donate to. I’ll just say that if you’re like us, little of COVID-19’s personal impact has crossed the threshold separating problems from inconveniences.

If you have been personally affected, I can’t do much more than offer my sympathy. If you haven’t, consider donating somewhere to help those who have.

Comments (7)

  • Bob, I am glad to hear that you and Sharon are well, and I appreciate that with all that is changing around us, you are still coming through with KJR to challenge, inform, and advise.

    I love your suggestion to share a tip of the week for remote managers and supervisors.

    Thanks for continuing to do what you do.

  • Back in your InfoWorld days, you wrote a (hit) piece about remote teams. If memory serves (I’m older now), coalescing of teams and their distancing from the home corporation was a theme. Those observations I think could be relevant for today’s distancing. I could be wrong. Either way, can you resurrect the content, for future weeklies?

  • Unrelated but wondering. Was this one of your lists for attending meetings?
    1. Show up on time.
    2. Speak from the heart.
    3. Don’t be married to the decisions made at the meeting.

    • Good question. And … no. Not to quibble and nitpick, but of course that’s what I do:

      1. In a virtual world, showing up on time is easier, although virtual meetings can still go long in spite of the best efforts of those who need to join another meeting Right Now. In the physical world, with back-to-back meetings, the only way to be on time for one is to leave a preceding one prematurely.

      The only way to commit to showing up on time is, for every meeting you get scheduled into, to put your own “buffer” appointments on your calendar, to prevent anyone from scheduling you in back-to-back meetings.

      2. It’s easy for speaking from the heart to turn into blurting. When you’re face to face you at least have body language to help mitigate misinterpretation of intent. So I agree that sincerity matters. I’d also say that diplomacy matters at least as much.

      3. I don’t know about being married to them, but bringing a group to consensus is tough enough without anyone leaving a meeting thinking the decisions made in it are optional.

      But as I say, I do nitpick and quibble, so I’m sure I’m overreacting to all three of your suggestions.

  • Since I’m a retiree, I’m fortunate in not dealing with virtual meetings or managing a virtual workforce. I am, however, now in the high risk population, in a community that takes its responsibility for protecting residents VERY seriously – like those on the cruise ships, we aren’t supposed to leave our apartment.

    Which leaves lots of time to read or listen to what is going on in the ‘outside world’, and the commendable new fund raising activities (for healthcare staff, for restaurants, etc), along with appeals from organizations I’ve long supported (e.g.,with no ticket sales, funds are short for the staff who are keeping all the aquarium animals alive). I am struggling to know where to start…

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