Interview with Frank Murtha co-founder of MarketPsych

Improving Group Communication in the Time of COVID – and beyond.

Where I live, most parents can’t go into work and children can’t attend school.   This means that parents have become de facto school teachers.  It is a drag on work productivity.  But the upside is you learn stuff.

Take for example my 11-year-old son’s recent assignment in Science class.  The subject was energy transfer in the food chain (the natural food chain, not the corporate one).  An interesting aspect is that when lower organisms on the food chain are killed – err, “consumed” – only 10% of their natural energy get transferred on.  This inefficiency continues at every level, so by the time you get to a golden eagle or a Bengal tiger, 99.9% of energy has been lost. 

It struck me that, in this COVID world of virtual meetings, the same thing that is happening with information.  

A financial company recently asked me how to make their group investing decisions more effective given the virtual nature of their interaction.  Below is a modified version of what I told them, namely three tips for organizations to improve the efficiency of information transfer.

Cameras On.  A huge source of virtual information leakage is due to people not paying attention.  This happens in all settings, but what is a trickle for in-person meetings becomes a haemorrhage in virtual ones.  For one thing, speakers’ non-verbal communication is diminished.  But more importantly, the audience isn’t fully engaged; they are texting, going on Facebook, checking sports scores.  If you see a camera off, you can assume the person you don’t see is less than fully engaged.  Heck, sometimes they’re not even there.  Organizations should implement a “cameras on” policy for meetings of any significance.  This is not a cure-all, but the policy itself conveys the importance of staying focused and will mitigate information leakage via disengagement. 

Actively Solicit Input.   When gathered around a table, people with something to say typically change posture – their eyebrows go up (or down), they lean forward, they tend to raise their hands slightly.  This behaviour leads to exchanges such as:

Meeting member: “Was there something you wanted to add, Henderson?” 

Henderson: “Well, I was just going to say…”

Now, Henderson may simply want to ask if you were going to get those little cream puffs again for lunch, you know the ones that have chocolate on them… profiteroles, I think they’re called?

But he/she might also have a particularly valuable insight which prevents a major misstep or introduces a new possibility.  

The point is in a virtual environment, the cues we use to volunteer and elicit information are diminished.  It takes a concerted effort to collect the same volume of information.   Direct solicitation of input from members at appropriate intervals (e.g., times, agenda items) is a useful tactic to harness the brainpower of your meeting members and minimize virtual information seepage.  

Written Follow Up.   Even at the best meetings, most of what is said never transfers from short term to long term memory.  A written summary of the discussion and the consequent actions will help recoup information that leaked out and solidify that which was retained.  Note:  This is only helpful if people read the follow-up communication.   Embed in the summary a couple of items that require some brief response to ensure people have read it.

Many of us are craving a return to normalcy – especially those of us who still struggle with 6th grade math. For better or worse, virtual meetings will be a big part of that normal going forward.  Employ these three simple tactics to improve your meeting productivity and fight information leakage. 

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