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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Mar 2020

5 tips for doing deep work via video

When I say ‘deep’ I mean work that requires a level of human connection that is typically achieved face to face. I mean leadership work like coaching, appraisals, interviews, leadership development modules and team development sessions. The desired outcomes of these interventions are things like ‘insight’, ‘behaviour change’, ‘learning’ and ‘relationship transformation’. These are things we tend to assume are not possible to achieve online.

I think there’s so much more potential to do this kind of work well online. Which is lucky, because it looks like it will be the only way it gets done for many organisations in the coming virus-y weeks. We don’t need to cancel important interventions just because there’s a lockdown or a travel ban. We can get smarter at being more human online.

I’m not that tech savvy. I’m a Gen Xer. I can get flustered by machines and I’ve had my fair share of crap online experiences. But I embrace video as a viable way to get ‘deep’ work done. 

In my experience of coaching and facilitating via video conference I have a few insights to offer. I hope they might be helpful to leaders, coaches, consultants as they find ways to do good, relational work with people from their laptops.

1 Don’t underestimate aesthetics

When you meet face to face, the room makes a difference. Natural light and good layout matter. Aesthetics matter. When you meet online the aesthetics also matter. Good lighting, reliable broadband, an effective microphone and a smiley holding photo make for a conducive online setting. Zoom has a feature that enables you to put a virtual backdrop behind you to hide your messy kitchen or your guest room bed! has a pleasant uncluttered green screen that is much more personal than the more corporate feel of other providers. If you are the leader of the meeting, check your aesthetics and encourage others to have high standards too.

2 Human connection is still the magic ingredient

When you meet face to face there is usually some settling in: small talk, hand shakes, chatting about your morning, working out how to pronounce peoples names properly, welcoming latecomers. And then throughout the meeting the task work gets lubricated by human connection, appreciation, humour and play. Many times on a video conference, these essentials are dropped or undervalued. But drop them at your peril. Make sure you plan in plenty of time just for connecting. With a large group, you can send people off into virtual breakout rooms just to say hello and learn a bit about each other before you start. And you can take breaks for fun stuff – on or off the topic. This might sound like it will all take too long. In a recent meeting we spent a total of 20mins (in small bites) connecting. Then around 40mins was spent on task (in small bites interwoven with connecting). I know that the 40mins we spent on task achieved far more than we could have achieved in a badly run hour. We didn’t miss out the ‘magic’.

3 Pay attention to purpose and agreements

This goes for all meetings, but online, it’s often even more important to check people’s expectations of the meeting, to share the purpose, the agenda and the roles. The old facilitation shorthand “OARR” stands for Objectives, Agenda, Rules and Roles and is just as important online. Sharing and agreeing your OARR at the beginning is a useful bit of protocol. Ground rules are also really important to agree early. These should include agreements such as what happens if someone loses connection or how to use the mute function.

4 Pay attention to process

The process of a meeting is often paid less attention online. There are so many different ways that group processes can be constructed online for example round robins, voting with thumbs-ups or emojis, live editing of documents, brainstorming in the chat function and using breakout rooms for paired or small group conversation. Just as you would in a real room, don’t scrimp on time for breakout conversations. People need a bit longer to get used to the tech as well as the human connecting required before work can get going. What’s great is that some things that are hard to take care of face-to-face are easier online. For example, breakout rooms with a countdown clock ensure breakout conversations don’t overrun and brainstorming via chat ensures all contributions are seen.

5 Pay attention to presence

Presence is about a quality of listening and attention. It’s about being in the here and now. It’s about allowing ourselves to really hear each other and be influenced by each other. Presence is hard enough to do face to face – just notice in your next face to face meeting how often your mind wanders. Then notice how often your mind wanders on a video conference where there’s less chance anyone will notice! Presence online is a discipline that coaches, facilitators and leaders must role-model. It means paying full attention to people without distraction. It means responding attentively to body language and unspoken cues. It means imagining how other people might be experiencing the meeting. It means checking assumptions and exploring disagreements. It means being able to alter the plan as the meeting emerges. If you are the leader of the video meeting, your presence sets the atmosphere and tone of the meeting. If your presence is good, you’re more likely to enable the presence of others. And of course all this can be made explicit. One great online facilitator I know always gets attendees breathing and stretching and allows time for closing comments and thanks at the end.

Let’s not assume that working via video has to be shallow, distracting and ineffective. Moments of insight, touching moments, breakthroughs in understanding and creativity – all of these are possible via video. If we pay attention to some essentials, we can do good, deep, human, necessary, work online.

Thank you to my friends AJ, WS and JS for the conversations that sparked this post today.

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