5 Top tips for opening well, creating psychological safety, and warming up the virtual room
In Part 2 of this series on revitalising your virtual meetings I offer 5 tips for how to open well, create psychological safety, and warm up the virtual room.
Remember: Tech is there to serve humans and virtual spaces are human spaces. Virtual can feel vulnerable. As social beings, many of the micro cues we rely on are less readily available online. Cues that help us read the room, gauge the atmosphere, form connections, and build the trust essential for clear, candid discussions and meaningful exchanges. Exchanges that affect daily life for individuals and teams, and impact outcomes for businesses and customers across the world.
Tip#1: Arrival and welcome. Take that extra minute or two to create a welcoming and human environment right from the start.
Virtual first impressions matter, so pay attention to the arrival stage of a meeting. Whether one is likely to know everyone or not, entering a virtual room and coming face to face with a gallery of faces can be a discombobulating experience. A warm “Hello, Ben, great to see you”, can make a big difference. Try to avoid directing a barrage of questions and comments at new arrivals – their attention will already be distracted by checking their video image and sussing out who else is in the room. Welcoming each arrival has the added benefit of helping you notice any issues with mic/speakers and checking that videos show participant names, etc. For larger meetings where relationships are likely to be few or still forming, consider more creative ways to warm up the room and help form early connections. Create the virtual equivalent of locating a friendly face in the crowd and sidling up for a chat by assigning people to breakout rooms automatically on entry. Have co-hosts there to welcome and onboard smaller groups, with time for chat and connection before joining the crowd in the ‘main hall’.
Tip#2: Warm up the room. Simple, well-conceived openers can create warm connections and positive impressions.
We all know the benefit of a good opener, one that sets the tone and creates the right mood before the meeting really gets underway. If you’re running a short, sharp meeting, the opener could be as simple as using Moodlight to poll and visually display the mood of your virtual group, which can help surface issues that could affect the outcomes of your meeting. Pick an opener to support what this stage of your meeting most needs – whether to energise, focus, or create positive connections. When bringing a new group together, Twitter Check in is a great way to structure introductions. It requires a little preparation: have people prepare a personal introduction ahead of the meeting, including their interest in this session, using up to 140 characters. Invite everyone to paste their intro in Chat, and then simply invite guests to read their tweet and then call the next person in the chat order. Or if you’re looking for a fun and visual way to create sharing on a topic, More Than 1000 Words is a good one. Set up a presentation deck in Google and share the link beforehand, inviting participants to insert an image that speaks to a question you’re asking. Share this live in the meeting and ask participants to talk about the image they chose before handing on to the next. Don’t be shy to use different approaches. The reality of the remote workday can leave people feeling stressed, frayed, and unable to access their best thinking; the best thing for your meeting could be a minute to shut off videos and run through a mindfulness breathing exercise before diving into the weeds of an issue.
Tip#3: Start with Why. Paste the session Purpose, Goals and Agenda in Chat.
Then talk it through and check this is what everyone else is here for. This is a super simple tip that hardly needs elaboration and is another example of using both the verbal and visual mediums. Never assume everyone has the same ideas about the reason for this meeting and what you are aiming to achieve. For those who realise they don’t need to be at this meeting, it gives them the chance to bow out. For everyone else, doing this one simple thing will set a clear North Star and inspire confidence in the flow and structure to come. This tip links to Tip#4 in Part 1 on design tips – take a look for advice on prepping this step in advance.
Tip#4: Agree ground rules. Regardless of the purpose of your meeting, removing distractions, encouraging presence, and creating psychological safety will contribute to its success.
Take two minutes up front to thank everyone in advance for removing distractions (turning off mobile phones, closing email) and making every effort to be present. If you’re anticipating a robust exchange of conflicting views, introducing a few ‘respectful dialogue guidelines’ can have a positive effect on psychological safety and the quality of interaction. Simply acknowledging that there will be both fast and slow talkers, and fast and slow thinkers present, and that some may need to set an intent to step into the discussion, while others step back to create space, can be a great way to raise awareness. For extended sessions, such as a virtual offsite or team development time, I always give the group at least 15 minutes to ‘design their alliance’ together, by asking four great questions: What is the atmosphere we want to create here, and how will we know we have it? What will help when things get difficult? What will help us thrive? What can the group count on me (i.e. each person) for? Think about small interventions that will positively impact on the ability of the group to take ownership for doing their best thinking and generating quality outcomes together.
Tip#5: Break down barriers. Consider the support and resources people may need advance access to, so they can engage effectively in your virtual meeting.
Virtual social engagement can feel risky. The social cues humans rely on are harder to read virtually. Cues that tell us when it’s a good time to bring up a thorny issue, interject into the flow of a discussion, offer an alternative view or challenge, or simply say what’s on one’s mind to a room full of thumbnail faces whose expressions are hard to decipher. Then there’s the inevitable embarrassment of mime-talking on mute to contend with, or the disruption of the neighbour’s DIY project going on in the background. That’s a lot of barriers right there already! It’s the facilitators’ role to help people feel safe to take risks in a virtual setting. Start by acknowledging these fears and discomforts and taking a minute to remind people of key functions you intend to use. If you can, it’s worth gauging how familiar people will be with the platform you’re holding the meeting on and with any new applications you intend to use during the session. If you’re introducing something quite new, or unfamiliar to the audience you’re engaging with, consider sending out a short primer ahead of time so they have a chance to get used to the technology. Additionally, consider what pre- and post-resources and agreements may be needed to help people engage or follow through on commitments. Can these be co-created with participants asynchronously via Google Docs, for example. If there’s a chance bandwidth issues may affect participation for some, suggest they pair up with someone in advance so they can check in on anything they’ve missed.
What other small actions do you use to create psychological safety, and warm up the virtual room? Share your best tips with others in the Comments.