When you work in government, sometimes you have to work with people online — offices interstate, regional stakeholders or the odd staff member who works remotely. Now, as we work in a new COVID world, most government buildings have reduced to 50 per cent capacity. That is half of all staff working from home every day. This is the new normal way of working, and it could be around for a long time.
Have you changed the way you engage with your colleagues?
Last week, I ran my first hybrid team planning day – with both face to face and virtual participants. Welcome to the new world! It made me stop and think about how we need to change how we engage with those we work with.
As a facilitator, I have several tricks and tools up my sleeve that I use when designing a workshop – most of them involve flip charts, post-it notes or face to face interaction. When you have participants online, this all changes. It’s not as simple as moving to an online tool. You need to keep everyone engaged, make it accessible, and consider how people can interact.
During the workshop there was activity about collaboration which required teams to solve a problem without talking. The people in the room gathered into a circle and started working together. The people online gave up after about 5 minutes.
“This is too hard. You’re not working with me. I’m not doing this.”
At the end of the exercise, one participant said, “I had the answer. I wrote it in the chat. I wrote it on paper and held it up. I wave my hands, and none of you paid attention to me.”
Another online participant in the same team said, “I saw what he was saying and knew the answer straight away, but you didn’t pay attention to either of us.”
This was the moment of realisation for people in the room. When you’re online together, you can communicate on a common playing field. When you are trying to engage with people, face to face and online, it’s completely different. When we are with other people, we default to our normal office behaviours. But that can isolate those not in the room and make them feel unheard.
How many times have you been the one person on a video call or on the phone with everyone else sitting around a meeting table? It’s hard to get a word in and you quickly disengage.
So, how can we change our behaviour to be more inclusive and ensure that we engage all of our colleagues effectively?
Consider the experience of the person online
If you are having a meeting, consider what it will be like for the people online before you start. If you are planning on writing on a whiteboard – can they see it? Where will the main speaker sit/stand? Can they hear everyone in the room, not just muffled talking? It is not as simple as dialling someone into a meeting. You need to ensure they can be engaged in the conversation.
Actively ask them to contribute
Don’t wait for them to speak up in a meeting, ask at the end of each question or agenda item if the people online have anything to add. It can be intimidating trying to interrupt a large group of people to make your point, and often everyone has moved on before you can get a word in. Body language in a room (nodding heads, a thoughtful stare) often helps to reach consensus, and it doesn’t always translate online.
If you are working on a project, call and ask for their input. Don’t just wait to see if they have something to say.
Be clear in your instructions
You need to provide much more detailed instructions when you have people in the room and online. How you perceive what you need to do changes if you are in the room or on a computer. It can be subtle things like ‘write it down’ in the room that probably means on paper, but in a virtual meeting, it could mean the chat function. People will engage better if they are clear what they need to do.
Don’t call with a purpose
Remember, if you are working remotely for a day or permanently you don’t get the same social engagement with colleagues as you do when you are in the office. It is the small things that can help build relationships — the hallway chat, or ‘how was your weekend?’ when making a tea in the kitchen. Pick up the phone and call one of your colleagues just to say hi and have a chat—no work thing to discuss just to connect with them.
It’s a two-way street.
One participant said the other day during the workshop, ‘Engagement is a two-way street, I have to work hard to get into the conversation as much as people in the office need to work hard to engage me.’ If you are working remotely and sit back in silence, the lack of engagement is on you. It’s everyone’s responsibility, not just those back in the office.
This is new to most people. While you may have had one or two people you had to work with who worked interstate, now this happens every day. The worst thing you can do is go back to your normal way of working and pretend like nothing has changed. The best we can do is be conscious of how we are engaging, try new things and ask people what works for them.