Promoting Psychological Safety in Virtual Meetings

22 Mar 2021 9:30 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Virtual meetings offer a practical solution to lockdowns and the closure of offices. How could we have functioned without them during the current pandemic? According to the Harvard Business Review, many people find online meetings are worrisome. They fear voicing an opinion, concerned that no one will agree with them or stand up for them. Under such circumstances, an individual can feel psychologically unsafe, isolated, and lonely. Their fears keep them from speaking up, which prevents the team from hearing diverse views. As a result, questions and concerns that should be raised during these meetings too often go unmentioned.

We do not know how the COVID-driven shift to remote working will impact workers in the long run, but it’s clear that virtual meetings are hard on some people. In response to this trend, leaders and managers are increasingly concerned with these questions:

  • How can we build psychological safety, engagement, and collegiality into the work for virtual teams?
  • How can we create an atmosphere that helps people who dissenting views speak up and share their ideas?

Here are This post suggests some answers to these questions.

Identify the causes of discomfort


Many factors impact individuals’ feelings about online meetings. For instance:

  • The difficulty, even the impossibility at times, of detecting social cues or non-verbal agreement
  • The absence of natural responses such as a supportive nod or smile from across the table
  • Distractions from kids, pets, emails, visitors, phones, and so on
  • Home and family responsibilities that interfere with work
  • The added pressures of life during a pandemic during which social unrest is running high

Build camaraderie and trust

While team leaders can’t change the pace of life in participants’ homes, here are some ways to smooth out some of the anxiety people have about online meetings.

Connect beforehand

There’s a big difference between entering an online meeting without knowing a soul and establishing a relationship beforehand. Anonymous surveys or one-on-one interviews before a gathering can boost engagement by creating a sense of connection. Friendly one-on-one calls to team members – especially newbies – can assure individuals that the leader takes an interest in them. And the leader could encourage similar conversations among individual team members – perhaps even a buddy system.

Add some fun to the agenda


Including a quick game, some show-and-tell or something as simple as an anonymous mood barometer poll can help establish a sense of camaraderie into a virtual meeting. A small investment in a group activity can yield significant gains in mutual understanding and productivity. Here are a few simple ways to inject some fun into the mix:

Ask people where they are calling in from and displaying the answers in a word cloud.

Set a theme for the meeting and ask participants to use a Zoom background to reflect the theme.

Share some unexpected facts about team members and have their colleagues guess who the facts pertain to.

Play two truths and a lie using information attendees have provided ahead of time and set up an anonymous poll asking team members to select the lie.

Have each team member share a favorite possession and tell why it holds meaning for them.

Check in after the meeting

If someone was reticent during a meeting, engage with them afterward via text, calls, or emails. Perhaps ask them for their suggestions and ideas. The more engagement team members experience between meetings, the more comfortable they will feel attending them.

Use built-in tools for sharing thoughts and feelings


Standard tools available within online meeting platforms can make it easier for people to make their views known without feeling exposed and criticized:

Hand-raise function

Providing a leader or facilitator keeps a close eye on the participant list, Individuals can get attention by clicking on the hand icon instead of waving their hand to indicate they would like to speak. Waiting to be called on helps prevent people from interrupting each other.

Polls

The speed and anonymity of instant polls remove the fear of expressing an opinion. A clear explanation of the issue at hand and some reasons participants might favor the different responses frees them to choose whatever makes the most sense to them. The host can instantly share poll results and then ask participants to elaborate on their views, offer additional information, suggest options, and perhaps reach a consensus.

Polls use different question formats:

  • Likert scale
  • True/False
  • Yes/No
  • Multiple Choice

Green checks and red X’s

Another quick way to gauge agreement and disagreement is to have participants click on a green checkmark or a red X’s. This method does not allow the anonymity of a poll, but it offers an instant way to gauge opinions and encourage everyone to chime in.

Chat

People who feel nervous about speaking aloud may be more comfortable expressing their ideas in the chat window. The leader can set the tone for this by reminding everyone of this option and welcoming brief, candid thoughts. The chat messages can be saved for later consideration.

Breakout rooms

Creating small groups provides a more relaxing environment for everyone, but particularly for individuals who hesitate to speak up within a larger crowd. Assign a task or topic for each group to channel their energy toward a manageable goal. After sharing ideas among a few colleagues, each small group can present their findings to the larger group. A spokesperson for each small group can summarize what was said and share the various points of view without pinning them on an individual.

Video or Still Photo

Although appearing on video during a meeting offers some clues about how people respond to ideas, video images can also be distracting. (Choosing “speaker view” cans down on distractions.) Some people feel more self-conscious on video, so they prefer to display only their profile photo. Individuals who don’t mind appearing on video but find it distracting to see themselves (something that does not happen during face-to-face meetings) can select “hide myself.”

Conclusion

Virtual teams and online meetings have enabled organizations to function at a distance. They are not ideal for everyone or suit every purpose, but a creative, welcoming approach assisted by technological tools can help draw reluctant participants into a group and encourage them to voice their opinions without fear.


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According to the World Economic Forum, new and emerging technologies are affecting our lives in ways that indicate we are at the beginning of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. This new era will build and extend the impact of digitization in new and unimaginable ways. The Fourth Industrial Revolution can be described as the advent of “cyber-physical systems” involving new capabilities for people and machines. This will see new ways for technology to become embedded within societies and even our bodies.

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About the Guild's Founders

Eric Shepherd an accomplished leader of international businesses and associations focused on talent, assessments, and success. Eric recently stepped away from a CEO role where he worked to build a SaaS company into a multi-million-dollar international assessment software business. Eric has also led industry and standards initiatives to promote best practices for assessments, learning, and interoperability. He currently serves as Chair of the IEEE P1484.20.2 working group developing Recommended Practice for Defining Competencies. Eric has previously served on Boards and working groups for:

  • HR Open Standards that defines interoperability standards for HR technology.
  • Association of Test Publishers and the European Association of Test Publishers that represents providers of tests and assessment tools.
  • The IEEE P1484.20.1 Standard for Learning Technology—Data Model for Reusable Competency Definitions working group.
  • IMS which defines interoperability standards for educational technology. 

Eric was instrumental in developing the IMS QTI interoperability standard and assisted with the US Department of Defense Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative to define the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) and the Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee (AICC) to define launch and track standards for Learning Management Systems.

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