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COVID-19 Diary No. 2: Being Together Apart

Welcome to Zoom World, where the calendar consists of weekends separated by Monday, Tuesday and Blursday and extends to the next weekend. Your new office sits on top of what used to be your dining room table or your living room couch. Your day consists of e-mails, texts and back-to-back Zoom calls. Outside Zoom World, our society is dealing with three historic and intersecting crises: a global pandemic, an economic downturn and a historic reckoning regarding issues of race and social justice.

In this context, how do we keep inspired, focused and connected to others and fight off the feelings of physical and mental exhaustion, isolation and burn-out?

As a facilitator, I am in the business of bringing people together to form a connection, focus on a common purpose or help solve a problem. Our current context rules out many in-person events like workshops, retreats, conferences and regular meetings that are the stock-in-trade of your garden variety facilitator. Sometimes, I get lonely just thinking about it.

Before COVID-19 hit, I relied heavily on the advice of Priya Parker, whose 2018 book “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters” sharpened my vision of the role of the facilitator. I tried to set conditions for success by putting people at the center, paying careful attention to purpose and place, and understanding what I, as facilitator, should or should not do for a successful gathering.

In Zoom World, I have had to rethink that approach – keeping people at the center while they are physically apart. Here are some tips I’ve found:

Meet People Where They Are

As I wrote in an earlier COVID-19 Diary entry, finding out what is going on with your colleagues and meeting people where they are is the first step in keeping people at the center when thinking about facilitating an online meeting or event.

For extreme extroverts, working from home these many months may have left them starved for the energy created by in-person contact and physical gathering. Many will have adapted to the “new abnormal” by getting more comfortable with alone time.  Introverts may have enjoyed, at long last, the space for contemplation and focus, but now they find they miss the regular human interaction brought by in-person meetings, informal banter and the cup of coffee with a colleague.

With this in mind, reading the virtual room requires checking in to see what’s going on with participants, using a playful opening query such as “What was your last cooking experiment?” or “What new or old hobby have you discovered?” This allows you to inject humor and lightness into the gathering while you check for mood and energy. To save time, these queries can be posted into the chat box as participants arrive and get settled.

Create a “Threshold Moment”

Parker talks about what she calls “displacement” as a way of transporting participants to a new place where the meeting or activity can unfold, which subconsciously breaks the group away from their everyday routines. Displaying a picture of a “threshold moment” – a sunrise, an action photo or other unique image – can stimulate the brain away from the mundane and quotidian, to a new place with a new sense of energy.

Parker shares the Japanese idiom ichi-go ichi-e, or “one moment, one meeting” which invites participants to appreciate the uniqueness of this particular gathering of time and place that has never occurred and will never occur again, asking all to bring a focus and presence to the meeting even when physically separated.

Review Online Meeting Etiquette

Like other meeting ground rules, it’s always good to decide on rules and to know how to use your virtual room’s functionality.  Go over how to use the chat function or whether to use it at all.  Let people know if you plan to share screens. And above all, have a facilitator introduce or call on people by saying, “Please come off mute and share your comment…” This is a good way to avoid the ubiquitous dead air while we acclimate to new technology. Be prepared to instruct working from multiple platforms including laptops, phones and tablets.

Convene With Clarity of Purpose

It’s always good to know why you are meeting. Is it a meeting to check in and share information? Is it a planning meeting? A brainstorm? Or a meeting for decision and action? Just like it was in our pre-COVID-19 world, virtual meetings benefit by having a clear purpose, an agenda and having the right people in the room.

Get Up, Stand Up

Breaking up an unbroken chain of constant Zoom calls can be accomplished by getting people out of their seats, allowing them to stretch or walk and check in with their own bodies. Introducing a breathing exercise or brief meditation is a good way of breaking people out of their usual meeting routines while maintaining presence and purpose. Add humor by having a colleague introduce a pet as a new co-worker or a family member as a virtual intern to keep things light.

A novel coronavirus means we don’t yet know the full extent of the effects of the global pandemic. We do know that it will end eventually, and that right now, how well we are able to be together apart, is part of becoming resilient in the face of an ongoing, serious challenge.

Neil Levine retired from federal service in 2017 after 30 years. He taught Strategic Leadership at the National Defense University’s Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Policy. Neil is a certified professional coach with over 20 years of experience in advising individuals and groups on setting the conditions for success. Neil has a M.S. in National Security Strategy from the National War College (2008), a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University (1986) and a B.A. from Earlham College (1983). In 2017, he received his Executive Coaching certification from the College of Executive Coaching.

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