Communication online is shaped by the a) logistics of using the technology, (latency, use of break out rooms, as well as cues and timing requiring new rules or etiquette), and also b) a psychological dimension. It seems much harder to create a sense of psychological safety and emotional connection, that will foster trust and promote contributions, when teams are online compared to being in a room together.
I have seen facilitators work really hard at setting guidelines, modelling disclosure, being open and engaging in friendliness, just as much, if not far more so, than might have been apparent in a training room.
What group participants seem to need most, is to have their concerns met, expectations clarified, and, especially thoroughly online, a lot of signposting as to what to do next in relation to the task or problem. This suggests less capacity for independent thinking than peers in a classroom setting. It may also explain why online team contributions are reduced, especially straight off the starting blocks, but they can also be of diminished quality. It may also be that the the amount of team time devoted to clarification for a few individuals feels more exaggerated in a virtual room than in a classroom.
"Oh, are you waiting for me to answer that?"
Our communication is the result of verbal and non verbal expression, and can sometimes even be paradoxical. Your words are saying “Yes I agree”, but your posture might be saying “never in a million years.” Its clear that most, if not all, clues of body language are missing from online meetings.
This would explain our awkwardness, the pauses, the over-talking, and the anxieties around wondering if the other person has finished speaking. Was that question directed at me? Who is going to say something next? Social awkwardness or anxiety can negatively effect the level of participation, and then, potentially engagement.
We no longer have the cues of body language - the intake of breath, the lean forward, the slight lift of a hand before someone speaks, the tilt of a shoulder to acknowledge someone’s successful entry to the conversation. Often we can’t even make proper eye contact especially if the group extends to more than one other person, or at a stretch, about 3-4 people. Its hard to look at the camera, rather than the screen, to maintain the impression of eye contact.
YOUR ONLINE MEETINGS MAYBE EXPECTING SOMEONE TO BE A THEIR BEST AT THE END OF A WORKING DAY.
Even more extreme versions of latency and ‘time lag’ can occur with teams working remotely across the globe synchronistically, i.e. at the same time. Imagine coming to an important problem solving meeting at the end of a zoom fatiguing working week or day, perhaps compounded by the additional demand of a a stretched day since colleagues are working across European and USA time zones. “Hi, good to see the sun out in California. Sorry if I’m a bit dazed, its 8 o'clock at night here and I’ve been at the screen since 6 this morning talking to the Polish office. (Intake of breath). OK, what do we need to look at here?”
"Just had a thought then - er - sorry lost it!"
If we are working well together, there are moments when we suddenly have a flash of inspiration, only for it to be lost somewhere between rushing to unmute ourselves or put our hand icon up, and finding a gap in the conversation. How much are we missing as moments like this pass unnoticed? Perhaps worse, this hurdle becomes ingrained as a ‘sigh, what’s the point’ cultural norm, resulting in wider disengagement.
NON VERBAL LANGUAGE IS A RICH SOURCE OF INFORMATION, FEELINGS AND CUES.
On a positive note, technology drop out aside, online conversations amongst groups of five or less people can contain well thought out and considered contributions. Content wise they follow on well from the previous speaker, but the rhythm can seem jerky and sluggish compared to the fluidity and natural bounce of round the table meetings.
Research into brainstorming suggests more, although not necessarily better quality, ideas are produced by groups operating remotely (non video) than in the same room. This is explained as being due to less evaluation and idea production blocking e.g by someone interrupting. Also in the positive corner for online problem solving, it seems that there is greater listening by online groups compared to those round the table.
Over the past few months, individuals have learnt to focus on the team task when needed, less sideways glances at notifications, and more time spent clarifying - by repeating words back and checking everyone has understood. The added moments of reflection lend themselves to self regulation, and only speaking when contributing.
Is it harder to connect emotionally screen to screen?
Certainly individuals have reported back about having really useful, even deeply emotional one to one conversations that have occurred via video calls. These seem to happen when the only agenda is ‘the person’, and the call is between people who have already spent time face to face.
Individuals meeting for the first time are constrained in getting to know someone by what they experience of each other through a screen. Our full physical self is hampered by our relatively static head and shoulders view. Whilst some people are more comfortable with this representation of themselves and what they have to offer, other, perhaps more extroverted, people feel constrained in terms of who they can be in the perceived confines of the screen perimeter, and are less able to bounce off others in the room in a way that brings their skills and personality to life.
Groups seems to enjoy talking about each other and themselves, but in my experience haven’t always been able to shift this level of trust to collaborative working, i.e. pushing for evidence and challenging each other’s ideas for example. The personal isn’t always the emotional, nor a moment leading to an increase in professional relationships. Its great to hear about another person’s day - but how they might be feeling might be a different arena.
Not least is the readiness to talk about issues that might be worrying you. We can’t schedule emotional sharing and connection to coincide with the 3pm check in zoom meeting. Emotional connection is unlikely if each party is not in the right place. Those incidental chats in staff rooms, corridors, reception areas, car parks - yes - water coolers and coffee machines - provide many more statistical opportunities for a single serendipitous, but authentic sharing of “actually I’m feeling rubbish today” matched with someone in the right place to pick up the body language and make time to listen.
EXPRESSING, READING AND INTERPRETING EMOTION CAN CREATE DIFFICULTIES WHEN WORKING AS A LARGER TEAM ON SCREEN.
The most obvious gap for on-screen teams is the difference that might exist between what is said and what is felt. It is nuanced, and difficult to perceive. Additionally, important though this is, emotionality may offer more than an indication of someone’s level of engagement with an idea.
Neuroscientists looking at how our brains makes decisions have revealed the significance of trusting the gut and recognising the role of emotions in making decisions and judgement calls. Their findings indicated that the 'gut instinct’, anchored in our emotional response, often predicted evidence. Communication of this ‘hunch’ in a problem solving scenario could provide a valuable prompt to others of the value and need for exploring further.
Surely break out rooms are safe and useful places for people to chat?
Break out rooms away from scrutiny would seem a good opportunity to hear frank and honest views, but by their very nature of being separate, we can’t be sure of the depth of conversation. Reporting back to me ‘behind the scenes’, subgroups have had widely varying experiences, from using the opportunity to disengage, to some well needed ‘off task’ sharing.
The point is - we can do what we can to set up a supportive culture, with rules and confidentiality, but the break out room experiences seem more diverse and perhaps reflect poorer quality of ‘on task’ thinking than in pre - pandemic workshops. This can be made worse by a woolly, verbal briefing before people disperse. Online break out rooms are just, if not more, likely to have a quick flurry of activity to produce something to bring back to the main room in the last five minutes. Its much harder to pop in, unnoticed, to a break out room than to sidle past an open door with the aim of ensuring groups are using their time as intended.
Overall the change in pace and rhythm has proved arduous but worth working with by allocating more time and ensuring there are opportunities for everyone to remain engaged and contribute in a timely but enthusiastic way, not least by clear, succinct, preferably viewable shared outlines of discussion topics. The psychological impact (Part 2 b - next blog) is far more of a concern.
1. Schedule meeting times with consideration for global time zones, and daily routines in play. Maybe part of the morning is set aside for organising the family. Avoid disadvantaging the same people by flexing meeting schedules, in favour particularly of people representing a minority of the team at least occasionally.
2. Be clear about what you want to discuss, whether a full team or break out meeting. Invest time into and consider the wording of your questions carefully. Preferably write it out beforehand so that it can be pasted into chat, emailed or shared on a slide. This will ensure that it is clear to everyone what is to be discussed, and what the outcome of the conversation will look like e.g 3 action points, 4 possible solutions, 3-5 top learning points.
3. Ensure people are coming to break out rooms not only with a clear brief but are sufficiently refreshed and focused so they are not inclined to use the space to ‘vent’ or take a break’. Unless that is the the intention! Always consider building in some introductory socialising or orientation time to any video meeting or break out activity.
4. Ask people to use chat spaces to record interventions or ideas where they do not get an opportunity to speak, and have someone monitor the room with the power to introduce speakers. Save chat or simply encourage the use of paper and pen note taking and ask at intervals if anyone has jotted down any additional thoughts during the discussion.
5. Making it clear who is expected to speak, e.g.“Can you update us, Meera?” including the occasional “Anyone?” and checking everyone who wants to speak has had their turn.
6. Use protocols such as “round robins” or the last speaker to nominate the next, where appropriate, to make sure everyone has a chance to speak.
7. Investing in all relationships will help with emotional connection. Managers are undoubtedly being stretched by the request to make regular individual ’how are you doing’ calls to their team, but this is also an investment in future working relationships.
8. Any scenario involving an emotional issue is best made a meeting in it’s own right. Anecdotally, counsellors report greater intimacy sitting sideways to the camera, perhaps with the use of two cameras/screens, but one would be enough.
B) PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY
When we are in the physical presence of other people, both challenge and support are higher.
Face to face groups in the past have demonstrated a higher rate of challenge, to both decisions and behaviours. Increasingly this is less likely to happen as problem solving meetings move online. Individuals are more likely to feel they can contradict each other in a face to face setting than via screen, perhaps because they feel they can better gauge and manage the emotional context and consequences when they are in the same room.
When challenge is low, ideas can be absorbed without scrutiny. This is a dangerous precedent for problem solving. This may also be a concern with regard to the amount and type of feedback being passed upstream. Ideas from the top that may have been resisted in a meeting format may be accepted rather than challenged if communicated via video call.
Perhaps, too, according to the results of an experiment, people are more invested in doing their best for people they can actually see. An experiment exposed how differently we feel towards people we meet on screen depending on how much of the person can be seen.
Together with familiarity, it seems that we are able to forge better relationships the more we can see of a person, even if its not in person. Most of our on screen encounters are restricted to disembodied heads, heads and shoulders or top of the body at most, perhaps disabling the inclination to contribute to solving a shared problem.
Psychological safety: If we don’t feel safe or good about ourselves, we are less likely to contribute.
David Rock’s SCARF model (Fig 1) provides a useful framework to describe the social needs that, when met, enable us to feel rewarded and have cognitive energy we can use for working together.
If our social needs are not met by the other people on screen, and especially our boss, that is, if we do not feel sufficiently recognised, respected appreciated, our brain switches to a default mode of feeling threatened. Someone under pressure is likely to feel less able or willing to contribute.
His model proposes that if our social needs are not met, they result in us feeling threatened, producing a negative and long lasting cognitive impact. The cognitive effects identified by Rock include the following four ideas:
Cognitive effect No 1 - less energy available for working memory and linear processing.
It becomes harder to hold and work with ideas in your head, and more difficult to develop and follow a rational argument or business case for a decision.
Faced with complexity, and personal and professional uncertainty, at the very time when the brain needs to work hardest, it can have least power. Typically people appear to ‘freeze’ or can appear disengaged.
Uncertainty of direction of travel (What are we meant to be doing?) and ambiguity (we don’t know what this means?) is challenging for any group whether working face to face or remotely. Being uncomfortable remains uncomfortable longer for many online groups.
In a face to face training workshop or meeting people, who are struggling to maintain concentration and grasp an understanding, could literally take themselves off into a corner with part of the problem or maybe with someone else and ‘recharge’. That down time doesn’t happen so easily when you stuck as part of the group, all visible in ‘gallery’ mode. It takes a very aware leader, and team, to spot and manage the potential drifters. Its also hard for drifters to ‘own’ their difficulty and ask for support, to say perhaps, “I don’t know about you but I can’t get my head round this at all, can we go back a step?”
A face to face group - has the advantage of full body language to express being ill at ease, and even a geographic relocation that signals ‘I need space’ or ‘I’m feeling left out/left behind’. There is space for individuals to catch up or to be updated in an quiet, brief, side conversation.
Significantly, this accumulating discomfort is often avoided by taking the first idea or line of least resistance. This clearly has implications when we are working with unknowns, and ambiguity. Nuanced conversations to explore and probe problems, together with free flowing dialogue to bounce ideas around are probably, therefore, more effective in person.
INSIGHTS AND SCANNING ARE VITAL FOR COMPLEX PROBLEM-SOLVING. ARE WE PREPARING OUR TEAMS TO DO THIS ONLINE AS WELL OR BETTER, THAN THEY DO IN PERSON?
Cognitive effect No 2 - reduced capacity to develop insight or think laterally to solve problems with breakthrough thinking.
Insight doesn’t come out of the blue. We may not be able to track its sources or understand how we made a connection, but insight is dependent on us having the capacity to scan and pick up on weaker peripheral signals.
Search light intelligence as proposed by Howard Gardner (2004), is the ability to spot patterns and connections across data and people in ways that are not immediately evident to others or a machine.
Insights occur when we are meditating, exercising, relaxing, or at least feeling relaxed - not stressed, tense and cognitively loaded as a result of a demanding video conferencing session with people we don’t know very well.
That’s why we have eureka moments when we are relaxed: our brain is freed up to gather data from all the signals, information indicators, cues and prompts available to us, not just what we are having to focus on at the time - like a screen.
Solving complex problems and even some straightforward issues, can usefully benefit from insight. Searchlight intelligence certainly benefits from taking a wider perspective, and is a necessary skill for the those looking to explore new areas, and work with ambiguity or uncertainty - the very opposite of focusing on what is immediately in view both literally and metaphorically.
Cognitive effect No 3 - increased tendency to generalise, and make ill founded connections.
Problem solving, challenging and critical thinking need a full cognitive working set. Without cognitive capacity, and without independent thinking, groups can jump onto the easiest idea, one that has been used before, perhaps, or the line of least resistance or effort required. Corners can be cut, assumptions made, and important detail and accuracy overlooked. Conflicting evidence may be missed or brushed over, and links between ideas not always scrutinised.
In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), author Daniel Kahneman explains that our brains have two modes of thinking: the first that operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort, and a second system that pays more conscious attention to information presented, especially when the task demands more cerebral effort such as complex problem solving.
When we become uncomfortable and are operating under the cognitive strain of the second mode (mental effort) rather than cognitive ease, Kahneman suggests that, along with this switch into the second mode, people become more vigilant and suspicious.
There is an understandable pull and attraction towards familiar and easily understandable situations where individuals feel safer, more confident and at ease. Our brains are wired to prefer clarity and certainty. This helps understand why people are drawn to the first apparently coherent idea offered perhaps at the expense of the right idea, particularly if the scenario feels complex and ambiguous.
WHEN FACED WITH DISCOMFORT FROM UNCERTAINTY AND TO AVOID CONFLICT, IT CAN BE EASIER TO PUSH AT AN OPEN DOOR THAN CHOOSE THE RIGHT ONE.
Cognitive effect No 4 - increased tendency to err on the safe side, and shrink back from opportunities or new ideas.
Decisions are made on the basis of what is probably OK, and acceptable to the group, rather than "evidence beyond reasonable doubt.” The idea that pressure to conform can have a negative influence on the creative process has been validated by research going back to the 1960s. It also links to Rock’s concept of ‘relatedness’ - we prefer to feel like part of the group.
In support of our tendency to err on the safe side, a research group including Janis, found that in a situation “that can be- characterised as groupthink, individuals tend to avoid expressing doubts and judgments or disagreeing with the consensus. In the interest of making a decision that furthers their group cause, members may also ignore ethical or moral consequences.” They go on to say that group think is more likely in the presence of pressure, which may include cognitive load, conformity pressures, and time deadlines.
Conflict feels at least uncomfortable, if not dangerous to most people. It is possible that we are likely to avoid, accommodate, or compromise in an effort to ease both the tension and the stresses of the cognitive load of being on screen. In addition, we may like to be seen as ‘easy going’ by our colleagues, or ‘not awkward' by managers, and therefore stick to known solutions or part solutions that have been found acceptable before.
Overall, there is a lower tolerance of uncertainty and disagreement as well as cognitive difficulty in thinking up new ideas together with a reluctance to consider or look at new and unfamiliar ways forward.
This is compounded by lack of scrutiny, challenge and feedback - so problems might not be really solved, because they are not thoroughly explored. Potentially, solutions are not generated because no one has the energy to push for something new, risky, or requiring more work or threatens relationships with others at this time.
Both these areas are areas of challenge in the in-person workplace, but are heightened when complex problem solving on screen.
In my experience, problem-solving via video does change things. For the extrovert, less fun, less human energy to spark off. For the introvert the chance to reflect and consider, and a comfortable mode of operating than many office meetings. There are clearly benefits to rational and more reflective contributions, and perhaps some people feel psychologically safer than others. But across both personalities, teams experience less ‘aha’ moments, safer, less contentious contributions. If ideas in use comments could be measured, I would estimate that more comments would be under the middle of the bell curve and less at the extremities.
We maybe short changing ourselves if our team contributions are constrained by cognitive overload, and thwarted by social needs not being met. The results:
- missing the weak signals,
- the downside of fast thinking where answers are preferred to questions, a decision preferred to analysis, acceptance of one perspective above seeking many views,
- limited insight,
in a world order where diverse perspectives, new ways of looking at things and fresh solutions are sought to solve our problems.
Release of as much cognitive capacity as possible. Running meetings especially those where problems need to be solved, requires leaders to take responsibility for meeting people’s social needs. Ideally this is the role of the manager or leader, but recognition can come from within the group too.
Schedule and run meetings to minimise fatigue. Make the meeting as relaxing or at least stress free as possible if you are looking for innovative ideas and creativity. It has been estimated that people can concentrate for a continuous period of time of somewhere between 20 and 40 mins.
Promote psychological safety, particularly where there is real or perceived hierarchy, by indicating fallibility. You might say, for example, that you
- “don’t have the answer.”
- “want to hear everyone’s views on this.”
- “may not being seeing the complete picture.”
Build a contributory atmosphere. Frame the task as a learning opportunity. Acknowledge the acceptance of getting things wrong, learning through failure, (failing forward).
- "No one has had the opportunity to solve this problem before us."
- “We're not going to see the way ahead until we test out some ideas.”
- “Lets aim for 3 workable ideas.”
Model challenge, e.g.
- “Is there anything pointing the other way?"
- “So how do we know that?”
- “Should we be considering anything else?”
Notice how quickly the team settles on an idea, particularly if you feel energy is running low. If its seems too quick, it probably is! A useful practise is to not leave the meeting until at least 3 feasible ideas have been discussed.
Capture your ideal collaboration discussions in a team culture contract - include the above points 3-6, and emphasise the importance of slow versus fast thinking. (i.e questions above answers, and evaluation above decision.)
Deliberately cultivate cross domain/department/industry connections to build up your capacity for scanning different types of information, to make connections, to incorporate different perspectives, and build your search light intelligence.
Allow lots more time. The increase in time, aside from ‘social’ time, should be in proportion to the amount of ambiguity or uncertainty, and therefore exploration, that will be required.
Invest in appreciating others in the team, work out what it is they contribute and the part that plays.
Let them know. This will build bridges and reduce self doubt on their part. With their human needs (SCARF) more likely to be met, they are primed to contribute.
After all, the more diverse perspectives and different brains you have available, the better for solving complex problems.
Connect with article author, Judith Cantrell on Linkedin, to receive updates about future articles.