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Boring Zoom meetings are killing work culture-here’s how to fix it.

The age of "stare-a-thons" is over. If you're still doing talking heads with dense PowerPoint slides, it's time to evolve.

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A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Rishad Toboccowala, the Chief Growth Officer of Publicis Groupe and author of  Restoring The Soul of Business, about how screens are being unfairly blamed for killing culture and human connection

As evidence, I cited my friends who lead fully virtual companies and have no problem cultivating culture–but for some reason, traditional organizations are hosting snooze-fest Zoom calls and blaming screens (instead of norms and behaviors) for the problem. 

Toboccowala said:

You grew up a digital native, so it’s second nature to show up authentically and engage people through screens––but organizations are run at the highest levels by generations who grew up in a different world than their rising Millennial and Gen Z workforce.” 

If you’re a leader within a traditional organization and didn’t grow up as a digital native, you’re being challenged to think differently about cultivating culture for a virtual workforce.

Generational diversity is one of the key trends in The Future of Work (or, just “work” these days)–and one of the ways it is playing out right now is in the varied expectations and experiences we are having as we interact via Zoom. 

Hierarchy does not command attention through screens––leaders have to earn it with digitally generous behavior that creates collective meaning, one Zoom gathering at a time. 

Boring Zoom calls that kill connection and culture tend to have one or more (sometimes all) of these fatal flaws:

#1 They aren’t meaningful and waste people’s time.

#2 They lack empathy for the human beings who are on the invite.

#3 They don’t have a level playing field for all participants to engage.

#4 They focus on overly complicated content instead of discussion.

#5 They are devoid of personality and humor, and too formal.

I believe the reason this is happening on millions of Zoom calls across the world is simply because the power to set virtual meeting norms and behaviors is often in the hands of leaders who have not had to think about this before.

The good news? It’s simple and free to fix, if you’re willing to think differently and step outside of your comfort zone.

Try these 5 tips to connect on a human level and get the work done more easily and effectively:

#1 Define the meaning and purpose of the interaction to make it a valuable use of time. 

Two years before we entered into this fully virtual world of work, Priya Parker wrote The Art of the Gathering, arguing that the gatherings in our lives (both personal and professional) are lackluster and unproductive because we rely too much on routine and conventions, when we should focus on the distinctive purpose of the gathering and the people involved.

Before scheduling a Zoom meeting, ask yourself:

“What is the purpose for this time, and is it meaningful and valuable to the group I’m asking to attend? Is it clear to every participant?” 

The way-we’ve-always-done-it model no longer works. Make a list of every single meeting you convene, and write out in a single sentence the purpose for each one, and the meaning behind it (where is the agenda going to get us, and how is that connected to our goals?) and share it with the attendees, asking for their thoughts, feedback, and ideas on how the group might stay closely aligned to that purpose. 

End every meeting by asking:

“How could this have been a more valuable use of our time?” 

If you’re still doing rote status updates or push-style information sharing sessions with large groups, consider alternatives to meetings. Could the information be covered in a living document, an app like Trello or a consume-when-its-good-for-you recording? 

#2 Develop empathy for every single one of your participants. 

People desire to be treated like humans and less like part of a homogenous experience, according to Amelia Dunlop, Deloitte Digital’s Chief Experience Officer. Being treated as a human is even more important in this frenetic, often impersonal digital age, and translates into loyalty and results.

In some ways, screens are giving us greater opportunity for face-to-face connection, says Toboccowala: 

“Even when we were sharing physical spaces, we were often staring at slides of numbers instead of looking at one another. Physical distance doesn’t matter. Meeting face-to-face over video and having real conversations instead of staring at PowerPoints is more effective.”

Before adding people to a Zoom meeting invite, ask yourself: 

“What does this person or group of people care about? What will they get out of attending this meeting? What can I do to make it as useful and valuable to them as possible? What can I do to better understand their needs, preferences, and challenges in engaging with the group?” 

If you don’t know, take the time to ask them.

Especially when interacting through screens, it’s more than just showing up: every interaction is an opportunity to create connections (or not), seize attention (or not), and build love and confidence (or not).

#3 Level the playing field to drive equality and effectiveness. 

According to MIT research, even participation–or every person having equal opportunity to contribute and have their ideas and voice actually heard–is critical to teams that achieve their goals. 

The days of monologues, interjections and talking over one another are over, and leaders are challenged to create space for everyone to belong and be heard.

Pay attention to who tends to dominate the conversation, and speak to them ahead of time to enlist their help in getting every voice heard.

Also pay attention to who isn’t speaking, or who is being cut off or talked over. Ask for their thoughts during the discussion to make sure they have the space to share. 

Engage your team in defining how they might collaborate differently and more thoughtfully to do this going forward. 

For example, instead of having mixed video / non-video participants, ask the group to decide ahead of time on what the preferred format is, and ask everyone to participate in the same mode.

If a person is not able to join by video and is relying completely on sharing auditory information, they are at a disadvantage for being heard by the group.

Clearly define the new behaviors and norms the group will be expected to demonstrate.

For example, share a key question or topic where alignment is needed beforehand, and ask participants to come with succinct, 1-2 minute reactions prepared. Ask a participant to play moderator to hold the group accountable during the meeting, or better yet, use features on Zoom like the countdown timer to structure the space for even participation.

#4 Use visuals and storytelling to capture (and keep) attention, and drive alignment.

In a digital forum, you have 8 seconds to capture your audience’s attention – that’s shorter than the attention span of a goldfish, according to scientists. Collectively, we’re finding it harder to pay attention and are constantly bombarded with email, text, pings, alerts, etc. (not to mention interruptions from wayward children, pets and the doorbell for deliveries in this pandemic).

Marketers have had to work with this deficit of attention for years, and know that to capture it, you have to use visuals and storytelling, not text-heavy PowerPoints and droning monologues.

Forego the dense PowerPoints, and invite visuals (even hand-drawn or rough diagrams work) to drive understanding.

There’s a psychological phenomenon called the “picture superiority effect” where concepts presented visually garner 180% more attention than text. Words alone have a 10% recall, but visuals increase that to 65%.

Use storytelling to share the “so what” behind the content, instead of lists of numbers and disconnected data.

Our brains are wired to remember stories, and almost every point we have can be structured into a story format or highlighted with an analogy to capture attention and make the “so what” behind the information easy to understand.

Using visuals and storytelling to present information allows people to look at each other and discuss possibilities, instead of trying to read and interpret text on a slide.

#5  Share your authentic self to lower fear and judgment impulses, and build fun into the process:

Model authenticity and vulnerability in how you engage.

Or, more simply put, show your personality and share your self (and your messy home) with the group. It has the opposite effect you’d expect, garnering genuine respect and lighting the way for others to do the same and feel as though they belong. 

Take the time to truly get to know one another on a human level.

One of the best leaders I’ve worked with does this by giving each member of the team a one-pager of key questions to answer about themselves, and then facilitates a group meeting to discuss and land on an effective collaboration model for the group. It’s always led us to become closely knit groups with deep respect for one another. 

Start every single meeting with an icebreaker that allows every person to speak, share something about themselves with one another, and even laugh!

One of my all-time favorite ice breakers that naturally leads to laughs is: “What’s your current mood, and the last thing you ate?” (My favorite answer came from a mom of two: “Stressed toast.”

Another one that would work well with a bigger group, designed to elicit empathy, is Yale School of Management professor Heidi Brooks’ empathy-building exercise where she invites her students to anonymously share one thing about themselves they’re afraid they’ll be judged for or held back because of it. “You can hear a pin drop” as she reads each one out loud to the group, she said.

If you’ve experienced one (or more) of these virtual work culture challenges, consider sharing this post with your team and inviting their ideas on how to make some simple shifts to how you collaborate. Assign one person to each item on this list, and convene the group to make decisions together on what you’ll do differently. Enlist help from your Millennial and Gen Z workers, as they likely have ideas to help the group work together in more digitally fluent ways.

(If you’d like a simple, free template you can share with your team to facilitate a conversation like this, share your email here and I’ll send it to you.)

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