Made in Handforth: the good user guide to effective zoom meetings

It’s lively in Handforth, Cheshire. A Parish Council meeting’s shenanigans on Zoom has put the local council centre stage in a human drama that puts our own video-conference fumblings into perspective.

Jackie Weaver, a long-standing councillor, was smiley and undeterred as it all kicked off as a meeting descended into shouty acrimony and chaos, with Handforth knocking Barnard Castle off the top placed Trust Advisor destination to visit post-lockdown. She gained notoriety as the unfolding drama ducked the usual epic ideological fights of local politics, and showcased a mini soap opera of personal feuding and power battle. The recording of the Handforth Parish Council Zoom meeting was an internet sensation:

This expected humdrum online gathering of local brokers played out like a piece of staged performance art, depicting the absurdity of the lockdown video-conferencing dystopian genre we are all wrapped up within. It celebrated the English idiosyncratic character, sharing favourite one-liners and in a setting Laurel and Hardy would have been proud to create. And another fine mess you’ve got me into.

It gave us insight to the passionate, frolicking world of local councils, previously mocked and maligned as peopled by the quiet and well-intended, but the twenty-minute viral clip has everything in a Thespis acted Greek drama: the abuse of power; the rise and fall of leaders; constitutional crisis; tragedy with the big themes of lost pride; and appalling rudeness and bad manners, followed by a golden fleece over to seek unity over division. Typically for the Greeks, the main protagonist of a tragedy commits some terrible crime without realising how foolish and they have been. Oh, we had that too.

Scene One: The Planning & Environment committee. Chairman Brian Tolver started the meeting by announcing the meeting hadn’t started yet, but wondered if it should. Another councillor, the aptly named Englishman John Smith, asked if he could make a point of order about the meeting, possibly about the fact that it hadn’t opened, but the Chairman reminded him that the meeting hadn’t opened so making this was a moot point. A promising opening scene to any farce.

As with many Zoom meetings, it had protagonists ill prepared at the scheduled start time: some had cameras off, some pointing at midriffs, up nostrils, the ceiling and chins, and others with ‘Frank’s iPad’. But enter Jackie Weaver, sent in from a higher authority, the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, to gather these enthusiasts into The Meeting. She’s off stage at present, her silent authority a lurking presence. It seems the previous conference call of the group had been abandoned as some got rowdy and disruptive – the Chairman being one – so Jackie was parachuted in to knock some heads together and bring decorum.

What followed was a fine English insurrection, awkward and brief, but memorable. There was yelling, insults, points of order with hands raised, smirking and smouldering rage. Even Frank’s iPad joined in. Hierarchy in the form of I’m taking charge, and Read the standing orders!, then the endearing sight of raging speeches tempered by He’s on mute. Characters seemed to fall as rapidly as on those early episodes of Outlander.

Jackie Weaver admirably kept her feet on the ground – well, it was a planning meeting – and yet facts don’t detract from hope. Just because she called herself Britney Spears doesn’t mean she is. It replaced my long-held image of parish council meetings being of volunteers arriving straight after a full day at work in the local library after hours, setting up and packing away old trestle tables and stacking chairs in the corner with a crafted agenda that would not take deviation even under AOB. Did everyone receive the minutes of the previous meeting? No? Anarchy!

The debate will go on as to what triggered the behaviours in this Zoom cacophony, passion ego or desire for societal good, and whether citing standing order 10b to remove the Chairman without a vote was correct, or whether the citation of standing order 16b by the Chairman in declaring the meeting unlawful remains unproven. There are bundles of lessons here for our own Zoom meetings, where no less passion, adrenaline and energy is on show.

1.        Ahead of the meeting

Invite the right people – and apply the ‘One Pizza Rule’ It’s difficult to hold a remote meeting with a large number of participants, due to the capabilities of the technology and the everyone’s ability to contribute to the conversation. For years, Jeff Bezos has used the ‘two pizza rule’ to keep meetings productive. If the group gathered can’t be fed by two pizzas, there are too many people and nothing will get done. If you want everyone to participate in your virtual meeting you have to go small and put Bezos’ pizza rule into action. I’ve found five to six people is a good number, because if there are too many people on the call, you won’t get flow and engagement in the conversation. And you’ll not get any pizza yourself.

Plan the agenda and share in advance Gathering together for a remote meeting takes effort, so have a plan with specific items to cover and stick to that agenda. It is better to share the agenda ahead of time to those who will participate, so that everyone can prepare. An agenda of questions creates a more effective meeting in my experience, getting participants to focus on solving something rather than being presented to. For example, instead of ‘Marketing Strategy Review’, include “How will we deliver £1m in SQL by September?’

Include breakouts and breaks on the agenda Having been on a multitude of virtual meetings, without doubt the most constructive have the opportunity to be involved in discussion breakouts. Use the technology to enable sub-groups to meet, and come back to the main body with their thoughts. Also, schedule breaks in your Zoom meeting agenda, we all benefit from a 15-minute comfort break to stretch our legs and make a fresh brew. And finish that virtual pizza.

Avoid scheduling Zoom meetings back-to-back It can be tempting to fill in blocks for meetings one right after the other knowing that you don’t have to travel to get to them. But your brain needs a break. Ideally, give yourself at least one hour between meetings to rest your eyes and brain. Check out the online calendar of all proposed attendees, and give them space. We all still need to be aware of our time and space boundaries and how to protect and preserve them. If you’re finding that three Zoom meetings a day is all you can do, make that your limit.

2.        In the meeting

Engage by showing your human side Now that virtual everything is the norm, it can be difficult to create engagement, but this is your opportunity to define your identity. Social distancing means we all appreciate the connection more than ever and want the opportunity for connecting. If you’re hosting the meeting, let attendees know they don’t need to apologise for the barking dog, talking toddler or the ringing doorbell of another Amazon delivery. Or Deliveroo. Set the expectation at the beginning of the call so everyone feels comfortable and supported.

Make time for casual conversation at the start Following on from the above, a few minutes of friendly interaction before diving into a meeting can build the rapport for a successful sit-down. Spend a few minutes at the outset checking in with everyone, catching up, or just having a chat about what’s going on outside of work. Don’t miss a chance to connect with remote colleagues and help them make their presence felt in the room. Having small talk helps to feel people connected.

Have everyone introduce themselves With a large meeting, it can be hard to keep tabs on who’s who. Having everyone introduce themselves at kick-off is a good way to help everyone recognise each other, connecting voice and face, and identify how they’re contributing to the meeting.

It’s not what, but how you say it Once into the meeting, Albert Mehrabian’s famous communication model should be born in mind: 7% of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38% through tone of voice, and 55% through body language. Don’t underestimate the power and tone of voice to make a positive impression, but it’s also the non-verbal aspects of communication here too, and the congruence of the three elements identified by Mehrabian. Siting slouched and gazing off screen, obviously not paying attention, creates an impression of laziness, and not being ‘in’ the meeting.

You may have also observed some of the quirky aspects of meeting via video-conference. Have you noticed what I call the ‘Zoom hair check’ – catching people adjusting their appearance when the video first comes on?

Make it interactive, get the room talking Virtual meeting overload is real. If you’re leading the session, it’s part of your role to bring everyone up and empower them, including individuals who maybe aren’t as comfortable vocalising. Structure the meeting in a way that gives everyone opportunity for their voices to be heard, like a round-robin-style discussion, where everyone gets five minutes to share an insight they’ve had on the topic.

If you notice that someone is trying to contribute but getting overshadowed by more extroverted team members, carve out time for them to speak and make sure the rest of the team is listening. Some folk may still be reticent to pipe up during a virtual meeting, so take the time to schedule a one-on-one to get their insights as a follow up.

3.        After the meeting

Send a follow up Most Zoom meetings seem to close rapidly as people exit, many moving onto their next ‘back-to-back’ session, so ensure to follow up with written action points, and the next steps from the meeting. This increases both the effectiveness of the meeting and reinforces the importance of remote meetings to your team. Make it a discipline, so the meeting participants will be waiting for your notes and follow-up after every meeting.

Check out action items are in progress Following on from this, it’s vital in remote working relationships that you are outcome-oriented with performance objectives and expectations set in the session. Diarise follow-up calls to discuss them as a result of the meeting, send via follow-up emails. Otherwise what was the point?

Take a Zoom sabbatical In this Age of Covid, time feels like an ‘endless Wednesday’, there’s no weekend because every day is the same. We sometimes lose track of what day it is. The habits and rituals that used to mark our days and weeks have dissolved. So there needs to be one day when you’re screen-free. God took a day off (see Genesis Chapter 2), who are we to think we can keep pushing without limits?

At first, we realised the many upsides of using platforms like Zoom. We delighted in realising it’s nice to just click a button two minutes before the due start time instead of having to drive to a meeting. We delighted in realising that we only had to be dressed from the waist up and could be in pyjama bottoms and slippers below the camera. It’s also a neat experience to see everyone’s faces at once, to take in the whole group in one sweep of the screen.

But remote meetings need to do more to bring everyone together, into the subject and become immersed. At the beginning of the lockdowns and the start of all-remote, we rushed to video-conferencing as a way to stay connected and not lose valuable time for productivity. As The Handforth debacle showed, you need leadership, structure and process for an effective Zoom meeting to keep people engaged and interested – and not jumping down each other’s throats!

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