How little talk is the right amount in video meetings? My company seems pretty evenly divided between people who learn by asking everyone about their weekend or something, and people who just get on the agenda in an effort to finish it as soon as possible. On the one hand, the small discussion feels forced, but on the other hand, it is a rare possibility to interact casually. What is the solution?
The first piece of this column opened with a reminiscent about the magic of conference calls, followed by one of my key management rules: Most video conferencing should be phone calls, and most phone calls should be email. I am no longer a director, and in fact I no longer have a real job, but being mostly unemployed has only strengthened my commitment to this philosophy.
In my old life, an average day consisted of somewhere on the order of seven to 10 Zoom meetings. In the evenings, I was routinely too tired to have a normal conversation with my spouse, much less join the numerous invitations for online drinks and trivia tours and birthday parties and so that became the norm during the pandemic. Zoom fatigue it’s real, and companies and managers need to do a much better job of preventing video chats from monopolizing employees ’working lives. These days, I probably have one video meeting a week, about 2 percent of my previous total, and that reduction alone made me feel healthier than I had in months.
Over the course of all those meetings, I witnessed different approaches to chit-chat (or not) from meeting facilitators. Many open meetings with five or more minutes spent talking briefly about the weather, people’s environment, or yes, their weekend activities. (Only once, mercifully, did I encounter a formal puzzle – asking each of the dozens of participants “what hobby did you take during your forties?”) Others, meanwhile, took a firmer hand. A former colleague, the kind of guy who reads articles on entertainment management theory, was a fan of (well!) Intercepts to make the meeting move at the moment the last person arrived. Most of us, however, have fallen somewhere in the middle of the movement – there is no real interest in building chatter on the agenda, but too much to cut through mandatory chatter even when it was clear that no one enjoys it.
I must confess that I tried to suffocate an eye roll when that colleague opened a professional meeting with an icebreaker, and he took a moderate to heavy sigh (while he was silent, of course!) Even at the less structured form of chatter. I would have much preferred to spend a few minutes stretching out or drinking water or stroking my dog instead of deciding which of my pandemic research was actually counted as a hobby while listening to the third person in line sing the praises of their starter of fermented pasta. As you can see, temperamentally, I turned to my colleague who cut through the pleasures to get to the reason we were all here.
That said, as you pointed out well, Matt, there is an excessive value in random interaction. I realize that people who have fewer meetings than I once had may be more excited to see their colleagues, even just on screen, and less desperate to run away. Discovering in a co-worker – especially one who doesn’t usually work closely – in the hallway or in the kitchen was a huge advantage of working in an office, and often led to conversations that made our job better in addition to warm general feelings that have made our jobs more enjoyable to be around. Losing that added insult to injury.
Here’s where I stand, though: No matter how valuable your efforts are, I think the last 16 months or so have shown us that can’t recreate the magic of a casual conversation in online office. Our pandemic era has been different and more terrible for all races, and I think we are better off appreciating that instead of trying to solve an insoluble problem. The social cohesion that grows from spontaneous encounters in the office doesn’t come from a circumstance about people’s hobbies or from a checklist of chatter about weekend activities, but from a kind of flow-through conversation. free that feels organic only when it is in person.