Intentional silence or dead air?
20 May 2013 | Permalink
Wayne Turmel | Communication.
It's a common complaint when presenting or leading a meeting online that not enough people participate or contribute even when asked for their input. Meanwhile, participants often feel that presenters speak too quickly and overwhelm their listeners.
What these two issues have in common is that they can be traced back to the meeting leader being uncomfortable with silence. Basically, they can't tell the difference between silence and the dreaded "dead air".
Dead air is that uncomfortable silence when it's obvious the presenter has lost their place, or a question is asked and there's no one filling in the gap in conversation. You can almost hear people squirm. Silence, on the other hand, is intentional and allows a lot of good things to happen. Dead air should be avoided as much as possible. Intentional silence, though, needs to be appreciated and part of your planning and facilitating tool-kit.
Dead air echoes in the presenter's mind, and often adds to the panic they feel, which makes them even less confident; it's a vicious cycle of negative energy. Your audience can almost hear the flop sweat hitting the keyboard, and it reflects negatively on the presenter. Credibility can take a real hit.
Intentional silence, though, offers a lot of benefits to both the audience and the speaker. First of all, it creates a chance for the presenter to actually stop and take a breath. Without the visual cues from the audience to pace us, we often have a tendency to speak faster and faster, like a snowball rolling down hill and picking up speed.
Intentional silence also gives the audience time physically to participate more fully. It actually takes time to process what's been said, formulate a question, check that no one else is speaking and unmute your phone, all before you can speak at all. Most presenters are so afraid of the silence they don't give the audience sufficient time to respond. After a while, "any questions?" starts to sound like it's rhetorical. If you aren't going to give them a realistic chance to respond, why bother?
Silence makes people uncomfortable, and you can always use that to your advantage as a speaker or meeting leader. When nothing is being said, someone will jump in just to break the tension. That's why negotiators often believe that the first person to speak when an offer is made is the loser. Generally speaking, when training or leading brainstorms, if you let the question hang there long enough, someone will speak up. We just aren't any more comfortable with the silence than our audience is.
The key difference between awkward and intentional quiet is the word, "intentional". When silence is created in the right place and for the right reason, it can be a powerful tool. It adds weight to whatever has come before it: the audience actually has a chance to think about what you've just said. It can move people to action, so plan in advance the best places for discussion or where questions might lurk.
It takes two things to create effective silence. The first is the courage to let the silence hang there. A good rule of thumb (totally unscientific, but it works) is that the silence feels about twice as long to the presenter as it does to the audience. Rather than go by feel, try counting silently to yourself for five beats. If there's no response, rephrase the question and ask it again, or move on. Sometimes silence really does mean agreement.
The second thing it takes is planning. When you're in the middle of a presentation or meeting your brain is telling you to finish up and get out of there. You often miss obvious places to pause, or where questions might lurk. Identify those places in the discussion or presentation and make a note to yourself to stop, pursue input or just take a breath.
Yes, reminding yourself to breathe seems silly, but it's amazing how many presentation problems stem from just plain running out of steam.
The point is, silence by itself isn't deadly (in fact, no human has ever died from awkward silence, although a few may have wished for it). The trick is to use it to your advantage, and use it on purpose instead of having it just happen by accident.
The most surprising things about presenting online
14 May 2013 | Permalink
Wayne Turmel | Communication.
Around eight out of 10 people who use webmeeting tools or take part in webinars have either never been a participant in a well-run virtual presentation before being expected to present one themselves and / or they have never received any training or coaching in how to be effective.
Bearing that in mind, these are the most common things that surprise people when they're first starting to get to grips with presenting online – the things we hear about all the time when we teach online presentation classes.
It's amazing how much it throws off your timing when you can't see the audience. We get a lot of unconscious cues from our audience about when to slow down, speed up, and check to make sure they're following. Without those cues we tend to speak too quickly, and (worst of all for your audience and your objectives) just keep firing information until they are too overwhelmed to actually understand what you're saying, let alone participate. You need to build opportunities for check-ins and feedback throughout your presentation. By the time it's Q and A, it's really too late to engage them.
These presentations can be so much more interactive than you first think. Many people have never been involved in an interactive, well-run webinar or webmeeting that actually got people involved. It's almost impossible to use any technology well if you've never seen it used well in context. When we teach classes, one of the things we hear most often is, "I didn't know you could do all this stuff". Kind of sad at this stage of adoption, but true.
The tools actually work a lot better than they used to. If it's been more than two years since you ran a webinar, you'll be amazed how much easier it is than it used to be. There have been huge advances not only in the presentation tools, but in the audience's equipment. Bandwidth and lots of memory have made it much easier to avoid the delays, freezes and problems that used to ruin webinars. You still need to use it well, but it's astounding. If you haven't used them for a while, go in with an open mind.
We need to get to the point a lot faster. No matter how compelling (you think) your topic is, it is actually a physical hardship to maintain focus and engagement online for a long time. That's why whole-day virtual classes ought to be against the Geneva Convention. You need to get to the point and get their input while they still have the will to participate. The longer you take to get to the meat of your presentation, the more they'll go away hungry and unsatisfied.
The most surprising thing, though, should be no surprise at all. It's how - aside from the technology - there is very little difference between online presentations and the kind we're all familiar with.
Engaging your audience, using the tools at your disposal appropriately, and getting to the point are all concepts that are applicable to any communication you engage in. In fact, our attendees often mention how many of the concepts we teach in class are applicable in more conventional settings.
WebEx, Lync and the others are just part of an evolution in communication technology. They shouldn't get in the way of what you already know about communicating effectively. What's most different is that we actually have to stop and think about what we're doing instead of running on habit.
That's probably not a bad thing when you stop to think about it.
How to make web meetings work like real ones
02 May 2013 | Permalink
Wayne Turmel | Communication.
Many people claim that online meetings are a big waste of time, and that they'd rather get together in person. As an inveterate extrovert, I get that (boy do I get that). Still, reality is reality and it's not always possible. So how can we make our webmeetings work as well as our in-person meetings do?
The obvious answer lies in looking at what makes in-person meetings work (when they do, and that sure isn't all the time). Here are three factors of successful meetings, and how to replicate that experience, whatever virtual tool you're using.
In successful meetings, everyone can see each other. This does a number of things that help your team work together. You build human relationships by putting faces to names. You can read body language which can take the sting out of humor that doesn't come across well when you can't see the person is joking.
In a regular meeting, you can arrange the table so people are in eyeshot of each other. There's a reason King Arthur made that table round—he was keeping an eye on that weasel Kay and diminishing jockeying for position. How do you replicate that experience online?
Obviously if you have webcams, that's a good way to do it. Make sure that you set it up your screen so that you can see everyone. Most platforms have a "thumbnail" view that allows you to see more than one person at a time. Some platforms allow only the speaker to be visible to everyone, but that's okay as long as you get everyone to contribute somehow. That's especially at the beginning of your meeting.
If video isn't an option or it's a distraction because of bandwidth problems, then have everyone load a profile picture so you're not just a bunch of sinister- looking black boxes.
When people show up to meetings prepared, good things happen. This doesn't matter whether you're in person or not, but at least if someone shows up without a document to the meeting they can look at someone else's or get a copy in a hurry. The secret here is a good agenda . What's in a good agenda?
A good agenda gives people plenty of notice not only what will be discussed, but expectations, desired outcome and electronic access to any documents, research, or other information they'll need. Electronic access does not necessarily mean attaching a document in an email. That's a great way to ensure you spend the 20 minutes before the meeting emailing it again to people who deleted or misfiled it.
Use links to permanent archives like SharePoint or Google Docs. Train people to find the latest versions of critical documents on their own like the adults they are. If they come prepared, you spend less time on administrivia and can make the best use of everyone's time.
Pretty much everyone knows how to use a flip chart or whiteboard. We do a lot of things unconsciously at work. Heck, some of us spend most of our workday that way. The technology around traditional meetings doesn't throw many people. You have a white board or flipchart in the room. The hookup to the computer for showing visuals is usually a simple plug and play arrangement. If it's not, there's usually someone within earshot to remind you to push "F7". Online, we are facing technology we're unused to. Some of it we've never seen used before.
There's a huge difference between knowing there's a "whiteboard" function on your platform and knowing how to use it comfortably. We don't often feel compelled to do everything ourselves in a normal meeting. We ask someone to scribe for us or take notes. There's no law that says you have to do everything yourself in a virtual meeting. Let others scribe. Ask another participant to take notes or help monitor the chat. Involve everyone. Practice until you're comfortable, and don't let the technology get in the way of what you're trying to accomplish.
For almost any function a regular meeting uses, you can find a similar tool in your online platform. The trick is to learn what it can do, and plan for its use. Notice I say ALMOST any function. If you're on a webmeeting, you will still have to get your own doughnuts. But I'm sure someone is working on that one.
What beans are you counting?
25 Apr 2013 | Permalink
Wayne Turmel | Flexible Working.
Most of us work remotely because of decisions our employer makes. Maybe they decide to let people work from home rather than come into a central office. Maybe they want to expand their geographic reach to grow the business. Maybe they just want to pay less money to the airlines. But is money saved the only measure of how well you're working remotely?
There are a couple of reasons we focus on cost savings when we're talking about remote work, project management and collaboration. Top of the list is that it's critical to keeping businesses profitable. No organization wants to spend more money than absolutely necessary. The second reason is that it's deceptively easy to figure out the cost savings. A couple of grand for WebEx or Adobe Connect licenses versus the savings in travel, accommodation and other obvious line items seems like math even I can do.
The suppliers of technology are perfectly happy to be of service in this regard. ILinc, for example, offers a "Green Meter" that attempts to measure how much fuel you're saving by holding a particular meeting, as well as keeps a running total of the year's totals. This offers the dual benefit of saving money and your Karma because it's "green". Of course, there's no line item for Karma, and the metrics on that one are a bit shaky, so we settle on the bucks involved.
Sometimes, this comes back to haunt you. Yahoo, Best Buy and others have suddenly halted their telecommuting and remote working efforts and demanded a return to the mother ship. This is probably something of an overreaction (again, I don't work there so I'm guessing) but that response is based on a realization that the real costs of working that way weren't being measured until it was obvious something was wrong.
So if we don't just look at the obvious savings, how else do we measure whether something is working or not? When should you save every possible minute, and when do you take the expenses as a cost of doing business? Here are some questions you should be asking yourself:
What tools are available to replace face to face communication? Has your organization actually got a plan for helping people work together? At an individual, team and organization level what are the tools, policies and best practices that will ensure productivity and help people get their work done?
Will people actually use them? Have your team members had input to how they want to work together? They should probably be willing to use whatever tools are at their disposal and be able to use them fully. Will they get training and support (hint: a bunch of recorded tutorials is helpful but it ain't training)?
Have you looked at other critical metrics? If we're not measuring cash spent, what should you be looking at? Among the costs you need to look at are things such as rework, missed deadlines and turnover due to poor working relationships.
This is not an indictment of the bean counters and budget hawks. Let's face it, if it were up to people like me, my company would be bean-less in very short order and someone needs to be the grownup. The point is, sometimes you cut costs, sometimes you invest. When you do which should be a conscious decision based on careful thought, input and monitoring results as you go.
Too often, it's a quick look at the balance sheet and back to counting beans.
Three reasons you can't get webinars ready on time
12 Apr 2013 | Permalink
Wayne Turmel | Communication.
One of the most frequent complaints about preparing webinars and online presentations is that they take too long to prepare. It seems like no matter how hard you try, you're always prepping until the last minute, and they feel like you're getting them in just under the wire. If that sounds like you, odds are you're guilty of at least one of these three productivity killers:
Everyone wants to give their "constructive feedback"Just when you think you have your webinar ready to go, someone gets wind of it and offers input. Or someone you let sit in on your rehearsal has three pages of notes to "tweak it a bit". Maybe marketing wants you to use the new template. Sales doesn't like how you've positioned something.
Whatever the reason, it results in last minute sweating over the PowerPoint slides and maybe a late night. It's not that the comments aren't valid (sadly, sometimes they're dead on), it's just that the timing is bad.
THE ANSWER :Try letting people know in advance what you're working on and ask for their input earlier in the process. Send out a rough draft of the visuals along with your talking points. Also, let people sit in on a rehearsal at least a week before the event. If the first time you practice is the day before it goes to a live audience, you deserve to sweat it out.
People don't meet their deadlinesIf you are relying on your speakers to get you the visuals or script, make sure you can hold them to their commitments. One of the scariest things I can hear from my clients is, "Our CEO will be the speaker". Not that he or she isn't terrific, but most people aren't comfortable telling them they have to have their presentation done at least a week before the event and be willing to noodge, cajole and pester them until they deliver. If you need input like content, expertise or artwork from someone, it can make for some tense days leading up to the event.
THE ANSWER: First of all, if this event is worth doing, it should be treated as an important project and not as an afterthought. When people commit to presenting, the delivery of a first draft (tell me you do more than one draft!) is a deliverable, and not at the dress rehearsal. Secondly, whoever is putting the presentation together needs to put a project plan together at the beginning of the process and get buy-in from all the stakeholders. They should also have someone they can go to for moral support when the VP of Sales doesn't deliver the PowerPoint on Tuesday as scheduled.
People are too busy doing their "real job"I don't know anyone whose sole job is building webinars for their company. They're in marketing, or sales, or training and are doing this webinar thing in addition to the thousand tasks they are expected to do during the day. Let's say you expect to spend eight hours total in preparing for your web presentation. It can seem like an onerous burden.
THE ANSWER: Nobody has that time in their life. But we probably have 40 minutes here, 20 there. Lay out a plan to build your webinar a little bit at a time and lay it out like a project plan. You'll find that if you give yourself sufficient lead time (and hold yourself and your contributors to it) the job becomes a series of "bite-sized" tasks instead of a big job. Also, by scheduling rehearsals (notice the plural!) when you put the plan together you're not scrambling at the last minute to get on peoples' calendars.
In our book 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar we suggest 6 weeks for a first webinar, and then rescale once you've worked out the bugs in your system, but whatever the length of time, be realistic and hold yourself (and everyone involved, including the VP of Sales) to it.
Treating a webinar or any virtual presentation or training like a project, rather than a single task will help save your sanity and ensure better results. It will look so easy someone else might volunteer to do the next one. Hey, you can hope.
The ROI of bad webmeetings
02 Apr 2013 | Permalink
Wayne Turmel | Communication.
If you feel like you're wasting time and money with online meetings that don't get the job done, you're probably right. Do you know how much you're wasting, though? The answer might surprise you.
The numbers we're talking about are fairly conservative, and I'm warning you that if you play along you'll probably get a little depressed. The good news (once you dry your eyes) is that at least a healthy percentage of that lost investment can be reclaimed with some forethought, planning and effort.
First, let's start with the basic facts, then plug some numbers into them:
Okay, so let's do some simple math:
Now, how many meetings a day do you hold. WebEx alone hosts over 11 million meetings a day. The numbers are now making my head hurt.
What if you could get some of that money back? Heck, if you could make it so only half your time was wasted, wouldn't that mean real money?
Help your team and the people in your organization learn to use technology to really produce productive work, and build the leadership skills to make these tools work. Remember, Genghis Khan ruled half the world without GoToMeeting. What's your excuse?
The first two minutes of your webinar
26 Mar 2013 | Permalink
Wayne Turmel | Communication.
Have you ever heard someone (maybe even yourself) say something like, "when I first start my presentation I'm really nervous, but after the first couple of minutes I'm fine".
That's great, there's only one tiny problem. People make up their minds in the first two minutes whether they're going to pay attention and be engaged in your webinar. By the time you're relaxed and confident, they've already tuned out or decided this is going to be a long day and you've dug yourself a deep hole.
Right or wrong, human beings are used to making decisions very quickly. First impressions are lasting, and if we decide that someone is not credible, or doesn't seem like they'll hold our interest, we suddenly find more interesting things to do. That's why so much email gets answered during webinars when people should be paying attention.
So what can presenters do in that first couple of minutes to help get their audiences focused and positively motivated?
Make sure people know why they're there and why they should give a hoot. All of us have been involved in presentations where the primary question in your mind is "so what? What does this mean to me?" The longer they go without an answer, the more likely their brains are to wander off and never return.
To be fair, a lot of this happens before they even appear online. The agenda or invitation should be really explicit about what is going to happen, and what participants can expect. But don't believe that once they're online they are good to go. Be explicit about what the webinar will accomplish. If you're a trainer, you are familiar with learning objectives. The best thing you can do is complete this sentence and share it with the group: "when my presentation is over, you'll be able to……."
Be set up and ready to go. There is a lot of administration and setup to a good webinar. Just as with a traditional presentation, nobody wants to see you set up. Figure out what tools you're going to use in your web presentation, and have everything prepared in advance. Polls should be built and ready, white boards can be prepared in advance. This way you can greet participants by chat or voice as they join in, just like you'd greet them at the door of a traditional meeting or presentation. They would rather not see you flailing about, looking unprepared. That leads us to….
Know what you're going to say. EXACTLY what you're going to say. Nothing creates a bad impression quite like having the first words out of your mouth be, "Uhhhhhhhh so, um good morning everyone….". The first impression you create should be that your voice conveys confidence and they know they're in good hands.
While I loathe scripts, it is never a bad idea to write out your opening sentences. Take a deep breath, pause, and greet them as if you know what your'e doing. (they can't hear all the negative voices in your head, fake it if you have to!)
Get them involved early and often. The longer the audience sits passively, the more they're likely to stay that way. If you want people to be engaged, you have to get them to DO something. I often send chat greetings, to encourage them to use the chat function. Conducting a (relevant) survey, asking for a virtual show of hands or just greeting them by name and asking how they're doing are all simple ways of encouraging interaction and demonstrating that your calls for their attention are genuine.
Lay out the ground-rules and show you mean it. When you're ready to start your webinar, ask people to turn off other tools and distractions like email and instant messaging. Some of them will dutifully comply. If they don't, at least you've set the expectation. Check for understanding immediately by asking if they have done it. Some people will say yes, and the ones that didn't will be caught off guard and suspect that maybe you were actually serious.
If you're going to take questions throughout, make sure they know that you'll be taking questions as you go and actually answer the first one that comes in so you have credibility. Once the first question or comment comes in, they tend to come quickly after the ice is broken.
These are just a few simple techniques for having the first couple of minutes of your presentation set your audience's expectations and help you establish the credibility your content will confirm. Why make things harder on yourself than you have to.
Working remotely and the odds of promotion
19 Mar 2013 | Permalink
Wayne Turmel | Flexible Working.
If you are more productive than your coworkers, you'd expect to have a better chance of promotion, right? Not so fast. A new study says that remote workers might be working at a disadvantage compared to their coworkers in the office.
According to research done at Stanford University and reported in Talent Management Magazine, people who worked at home reported a 13% increase in productivity, but had a 50% smaller chance of being promoted.
This matters when, by some estimates, over 9% of workers in the US are now working at least one day a week from home. Is convenience trumping your odds of getting promoted?
The study showed that those who worked from home had a higher retention rate than those who commuted into the office, but had a 50% less chance of getting promoted. Now, this is not necessarily bad news. Many people will gladly take the convenience of working from home over playing office politics any day. But what does this mean for remote workers who covet promotions?
The article is careful to point out that this is a small study and individual company culture plays a huge role, there are some things that workers should do to keep themselves in line for promotions:
Communicate constantly (and proactively) with your boss and your coworkers. This doesn't mean being needy and sticking your nose in where it doesn't belong, but one advantage your on-site coworkers has is continual access and the ability to make small talk. Your bosses get to know them and get to value their input and accessibility.
Let your boss know you're interested in promotion. Many times people choose to work remotely for convenience, and we trumpet the benefits of that all the time. Very often, then, employers assume you enjoy working from home for convenience reasons and aren't interested in a real career path. When you have your one-on-ones with your boss (and you ARE having one on one conversations, right?) don't be shy about letting them know your goals and aspirations.
Visibility is key. Your boss is busy, and very often it's "out of sight out of mind". This doesn't mean you get all needy and clingy, but keep your profile high by contributing in meetings, volunteering for high-profile tasks, and interacting with your co-workers. People talk, and positive buzz about someone will reach the right ears.
Keep your eye on the company, not just on your team. One of the advantages of working remotely is you don't get distracted by gossip and idle chatter. Unfortunately, that buzz is very often where you hear about openings, potential reorganizations and other opportunities for advancement. If you're interested in more opportunities within your company, you need to know what's going on throughout the organization. Check the company blog, subscribe to its twitter feed and contribute to discussion boards.
Be willing to go into the office if you have to. Very often, a change in job means a change in the way you work. Are you willing to make that commute or travel more in exchange for a bit more money and promotion? Really? Be honest with yourself and your boss.
If someone is more productive and gets the job done, you'd think that would be a positive when seeking promotion—and it is. Unfortunately human nature dictates that those who are visible will get first consideration, and are often thought of as more appropriate for promotion.
If you want to be promoted, don't sit passively and expect to get noticed. Use the communication tools at your disposal - and your gumption - to stay on the career path you choose.
Are managers the biggest problem with webinars?
11 Mar 2013 | Permalink
Wayne Turmel | Technology & IT.
I had an interesting chat with a prospect yesterday, who told me sometime explicitly that I have felt in my gut for a while but couldn't quite articulate. They've identified the problem with rolling out webinars internally. It's not clueless senior management. It's not the lazy and inattentive attendees. It's the managers in between.
If you stop to think about it, this makes sense. Senior management with an eye to the bottom line are thrilled not to pay for travel or have people lose desk or floor time to meetings and training. Studies show that participants like webinars and short "lunch and learn" formats because they can get useful information without having to get way behind on the other 87 things they're expected to accomplish that day. So what's the problem with managers?
In working with clients around the world, I have discovered three reasons managers don't embrace webinars as much as they could. You might expect me to say "should", but some of these reservations are actually somewhat valid and shouldn't be discounted as simple Ludditism or stale, 20th Century thinking. Yes, some of it is generational (those darned kids really ARE so much more comfortable with these tools than those of us who have reached – um - maturity). Most of it, though, has to do with the way technology has been introduced to managers in the real world.
1. They don't get enough face ( or at least voice) time with their people as it is. One of the unspoken advantages of traditional meetings is the ability for managers to get eyeball to eyeball with their people. Maybe more importantly, they get to see the team interact and pick up on the dynamics that can make or break a team. Does Joe get along with Alice? Why is Rajesh not speaking up when you know he's got strong opinions on this topic?
Many managers view working virtually as a handicap to their working as a team, not as an adjunct. They view using webmeetings and webinars as another sacrifice of their hard work on the altar of cost savings and expediency. Right or wrong, these feelings are real and not enough companies have worked with their managers to address them honestly.
2. The technology is seen as more trouble than it's worth. It's easy for IT or finance to send out a memo saying, "congratulations, you now have a WebEx license, try not to hurt anyone with it". It's something else if you're the one who has to take the time to learn the software on your own, try to run effective meetings using brand new tools and not embarrass yourself or sacrifice the quality of the work in the process.
Very few people make that transition smoothly, and organizations traditionally do a lousy job of rolling out these tools at the project management level.
3. Managers have never seen these tools used well in context. When we work with clients on training webmeetings or virtual presentation skills, the most common comment is, "I never knew it could do all of this".
Most human beings learn about a tool by seeing how it solves a real life problem, watching someone else use it, then trying it themselves. We are in a technology paradigm where tools are available that have never been used before. Most managers came up in a time before the advent of virtual meetings, cheap teleconferencing and sufficient bandwidth. It's one thing to know that product X or service Y has a very good whiteboard feature. It's something else altogether to see someone run a good brainstorm using that tool and think to yourself, "hey, we could really use that".
The same is true of webinars. If they've never seen a good one (and 63% or so of attendees still claim they're unimpressed with most online presentations), how can they be expected to do them themselves. What are you doing to help your managers really understand the tools at their disposal and see the potential?
I believe these are all valid reasons that managers don't use webinars and online presentations as well as they might. You will also recognize that, as with most valid objections, there are also solutions if we take the time to assess what's really going on and look for ways to bring managers into the conversation, instead of imposing technology and restrictions on managers who are simply trying to get the job done in the face of very long odds.
Managers need to see tools used in context, be allowed to learn and practice them without innocent victims on the other end, and be given the tools and training to apply them directly to their work. Otherwise they'll continue to be the main barrier to making virtual work successful.
How to avoid yahoo's telecommuting chaos
04 Mar 2013 | Permalink
Wayne Turmel | Flexible Working.
When a news story hits the internet and makes a splash, some people lose their darned minds. That seems to be the case with Yahoo's announcement that it wants more people to come into the office and quit working from home. Some people think it's a wise decision and it's about time we put a short leash on those slackers working their pajamas and too lazy to come into work like grownups. Some are convinced it's the coming of the Evil Empire and are screaming about the inherent unfairness of it all.
The point is, the conversations Yahoo is having in public are being replicated on a less dramatic basis hundreds of times a day. As I pointed out in the last column, I don't know what's right for Yahoo. Unless you are an employee, shareholder or manager there, neither do you and it's basically none of your darned business. What we can do, however, is make an educated guess at some of the challenges that led to this decision and the associated drama. Maybe we can avoid some of the trauma.
Basically, the way I read it, there are several challenges they are trying to address. This is only a guess based on three things: the limited reporting I've read on the topic, my work with dozens of clients in similar situations, and a basic understanding of human nature. If anyone with actual knowledge of the situation there can weigh in, I'd appreciate it:
By the time Yahoo figured out there was a problem, it was too late to take small measures. With all the leadership changes and declining sales, people were too worried about the day to day tasks to take the long view. They were too busy working. Each team works in its own way, reporting in and managing its own tasks and work as well as it can and minding their business.
Only when deadlines are missed, turnover increases or there's some other highly visible signs of dysfunction across the organization do people stop what they're doing to ask "what the heck is going on?" Obviously, the Leadership there decided drastic measures were necessary to correct the problems.
The biggest complaint seemed to be about a lack of collaboration and team spirit. This is a common problem with workforces that aren't co-located. Here's the thing to remember, though. While it's not uncommon to have remote or separated workteams feel distant from each other, it's not a foregone conclusion that will happen.
As we've pointed out many times in this blog, there is a difference between remote distance (people are working together but are physically separated by time and distance) and virtual distance (people lack the human and organization connections that lead to productive working relationships). Many teams can function this way, obviously Yahoo could not.
Remember our motto around here- Genghis Khan ruled half the known world and never held a WebEx meeting. It can be done, it just ain't easy. Which leads us to the last point:
Management wasn't paying attention to the team dynamics, and that's on them. Were people working from home because they could be more productive, or because they just didn't like the atmosphere at the office and didn't want to go in? Were they working together effectively? How did they feel about what was going on with their team, their bosses and the company?
My guess is that those conversations weren't happening. Yes, the boss would check in that the Thompson report was on track, but didn't ask the hard, time-consuming but critical questions about how people were feeling about their work and what was going on with the company.
There are plenty of warning signs that a virtual team is in trouble, but it takes honesty and hard work to spot them. (You can read a white paper on the Three Reasons Virtual Teams Fail, here).
This last point is important. As Marissa Mayer points out, you get a lot of information just walking the halls and sharing lunch together. Managers who don't have that opportunity need to create ways to manage by virtually walking around. That isn't a natural thing for many of us. Training and guidance can help prepare leaders for that new environment. My guess is, there wasn't much of either provided to managers in this case.
Maybe getting people together physically will help re-create the startup Yahoo spirit. Maybe it will just tick off enough employees they go into a full-blown morale and turnover crisis. It will be fascinating to watch. Maybe, though, this can be an object lesson to those of us project and team managers who want to avoid things coming to such an ugly crisis point.
So how are things where you work? Are you sure?
Is Yahoo wrong about telecommuting?
27 Feb 2013 | Permalink
Wayne Turmel | Flexible Working.
When one of the world's biggest companies says they want people coming into the office instead of working remotely, you probably should pay attention. When it's one of the leading brands on the internet, it bears serious scrutiny. Yes, Yahoo has decided it wants fewer people telecommuting and more of them - in fact most of them - coming into the office.
A recent item in the Huffington Post caught my eye. Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, sent out a memo recently requesting (not very subtly) that people start coming into the office rather than working from home. Her reasoning is thus:
"To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home."
The internet immediately went crazy, and several employees posted the supposed-to-be-confidential memo, which you can read here in its entirety.
So what exactly does this say about the future of teleworking and virtual collaboration? Not nearly as much as it says about Yahoo's culture and the natural shifts in how companies work.
The pendulum shift is swinging back.
There are constantly shifts in how companies think they should be working. For years, the swing has been towards working from home remotely and saving money on travel, office space and infrastructure. It was going to solve everyone's financial problems, allow companies to hire the best people regardless of location and be so green you could almost hear the trees growing.
Almost inevitably, this went too far. Important meetings weren't held. People who would benefit from working together didn't. Teams never developed the chemistry needed to be truly creative, collaborative and productive. We saw the same thing in outsourcing when many jobs went overseas only to come back when quality, efficiency, or customer relationships suffered.
It says a ton about Yahoo's culture today.
Yahoo as an organization has been through seismic shifts. Take a look at how Meyers' memo refers to the employees. She calls them Yahoos. Personally, I think that's funny and ironic and generally cool. The world needs more Jonathan Swift references. It harkens back to their early days as a rebellious startup. But how many people working there today still feel like they're the insurgents rather than The Establishment?
I don't work there, but I'm guessing that the energy in the hallways of Sunnyvale as well as worldwide don't feel like they did then. Business hasn't been great. Market share is slipping. Meyers is there because things needed to be shaken up. What they were doing didn't work. Which leads us to the final point…
Every organization needs to stop periodically and take inventory of what's working and what's not.
Nearly every organization I know has developed their telecommuting working and communication policy on the fly, with very little forethought. They just woke up one morning and realized that things had changed. What's required is to take a look around and see what's working and what's not, then adjust.
My suspicion is that this is a bit of an overreaction to a legitimate problem. Some people should be together more often than they are. Some people are taking advantage of the convenience of working from home rather than focusing on the outcomes. On the other hand, this will probably result in more turnover than they anticipate, grumbling employees and a tougher time recruiting new people.
I'm not as smart as Marissa Meyers, so I can't judge if this is the appropriate response to the situation or not. What I do know is that, whether you are a huge company or a single project team, constantly monitoring how your team works and occasionally readjusting policies and expectations in small steps is easier than the kind of sturm und drang going on with Yahoo.
When's the last time you looked at your company's policy on working and communicating remotely?
Why people don't pay attention on webinars
26 Feb 2013 | Permalink
Wayne Turmel | Communication.
I have been doing a lot of speaking to people about their webinars lately, and the main question is "how do you keep people interested and involved?" Well that's a good question, but if you're seeking a solution to that problem, the real question should be, "why don't they pay attention in the first place?".
Here are five reasons people get distracted:
There is a lot going on. Whatever meeting or webinar people are on in the moment is only part of an over-scheduled, hectic day. When they're on line with you, they're not doing something else. People need to understand how the time spent on your webinar will be an investment, not a depletion of a scarce resource (their precious time). Always set context for your audience by stressing the results of your time together, and why it's worth their attention.
They don't have to look you in the eye. We have said this before, the main reason people don't answer emails - or simply walk right out to do something they consider more valuable - in face to face meetings is social. You are a person, and it would be rude. Online they don't have to meet your eyes as they wander off or answer email.
One way to overcome that is to use a meeting platform that actually monitors attention (you can tell when they're on another screen on their computer or device). Set groundrules. Tell them you can see when they're not on the main meeting screen, and most importantly. Maybe send a private chat message to them if you see them "wandering off" or becoming strangely silent. Don't scold them like children, but hold people accountable.
It's physically difficult to maintain focus online for a long time. If you've ever fallen asleep in front of the television you know this is an involuntary response, but still real. Long sessions staring at a screen (over an hour, certainly 90 minutes) without breaks, are more than mere mortals can physically handle. If they are not actively involved (at the very least speaking occasionally) their brains seek something more stimulating than your project status update.
They've been trained and rewarded to multi-task. Be honest, we all sometimes confuse activity with accomplishment. To just sit when there are emails to be answered, or something done that we can do in addition to sitting passively in a webinar, we will do it just to feel like we actually accomplished something with our day. By the way, if you're sending them email or responding to it during the webinar, you're part of the problem.
It's really hard to maintain focus when you don't care. This one is on us as webinar presenters. Have we invited the right people? If so, do they come in knowing what the webinar is about and what's expected of them? Is the topic introduced in a way that addresses anything they care about or is it all about you and your objectives?
People will pay a ridiculous amount of attention on information they think is relevant. They have no time for something that won't benefit them. Is what you're presenting more valuable to them than whatever else is going on in their world? If not, be prepared to struggle for their attention.
Is your webinar or webmeeting planned, designed and delivered in a way that commands attention and focus? Or are you just another screen and disembodied voice that interrupts more important work?
Texts instead of email?
14 Feb 2013 | Permalink
Wayne Turmel | Communication.
Has email already become passé? If, like me, you still remember your first AOL or Compuserve account it's hard to believe. Still, there are a lot of changes in how people communicate today, and with which devices. The fastest growing segment of the training and corporate communication space is sending text messages.
If you have a teenager, like I do, then you've probably experienced the strange phenomenon of having to text or send a Facebook message imploring them to please check their email account for whatever message you sent days ago. It might not seem like a very grown-up or businesslike way of communicating, but millions of people would disagree.
One company, Train by Cell, is already using this tool to push learning out to the field. There are plenty of others such as well. My friend TJ McCue has a list of 12 here. While most of these services are geared at marketing, many companies are using these to replace email blasts internally as well.
According to Dave Asheim, Train By Cell's founder, there are plenty of reasons for this switch. The biggest one is that people have a Pavlovian response to text messages they don't have with computer-based email.
"Text Messaging is instant. Studies have people are more likely to read a text message within the first 5 minutes of it being sent than an email. We've seen the massive growth of text message alerts and communication from weather alerts to company changes to emergency meetings. There are endless possibilities when it comes to text message communication and texting provides a format that allows companies to manage mobile subscriptions, schedule text messages, and send messages out immediately", he says.
So when should a company or a manager send out a text instead of an email? Asheim advises companies to use text message alerts rather than email when you want to relay a message quickly. "People don't check their email as often as they should and if you want to get a message across quickly and easily without the risk of spam filters or the email being buried. With a text message, companies can link people to information, the company's mobile website, or lead them to a hotline where they can learn more."
Anyone who has ever tried to send a group text from their phone knows there are issues, so some infrastructure is involved. You'll need an administrative website and a common keyword and shortcode. From there, the company can manage subscriptions, collect phone numbers, and text messages through an administrative website. They may also download statistics and details such as subscriptions, unsubscribes, see who received the message, and text message alerts that were read.
There are also features like Geo-tracking which are much more effective in the mobile world than in traditional email. This starts to cross a line between efficiency and stalking many people aren't quite so comfortable with. IT people may also have some issues with this plan.
If you're going to start using mobile devices as part of the normal work flow, you'll also want to have a mobile-optimized website or social media platform for your people to use as most intranets are clunky and hard to manipulate on a phone as well as they are at a desk-based computer.
Basically text messaging is a great way to get word out fast, and then drive action. Don't send long screeds with lots of detail, that's what old-time technology like email is for.
Email is now old time technology. I think I need a nap.
What remote teams can learn from Mantei Te'o
07 Feb 2013 | Permalink
Wayne Turmel | Communication. Flexible Working.
What do your remote team members and a lovesick football player have in common? They may both be guilty of seeing more in online relationships than is actually there.
If you aren't an American sports fan, you may or may not be familiar with the strange story of Manti Te'o and his online girlfriend, who apparently died, then went into hiding from drug dealers, then turned out to be a slightly deranged young man's idea of a hoax, then an internet meme and public punchline.
I'm not going to go into the whole sordid saga here (here's the link to the site that broke the story for those who care) except to say there are some interesting lessons to be learned.
People project what they want to believe on a relationship. Because you don't see the other person your only evidence for their competence, work ethic, their willingness to help the team (and, in fact, their very existence) is what you see on the screen.
This is both good and problematic. For most of us, we assume positive intent until proven otherwise, which works most of the time, but sometimes bites us because we ignore warning signs that people may not be living up to their promises or giving their best effort. On the other hand, it only takes one missed deadline or snippy email to give us all the proof we need that person is incompetent, or a bad teammate. We operate from the evidence at hand, and then we pass that through our own filters.
Online communication has its own measure of time and space. In an article in this month's Psychology Today, relationship columnist Hara Estroff Marano wrote about finding love on the internet, but her point applies to working relationships as well. When communicating virtually, we feel time differently than we do in the "real world", which causes all kinds of stress. "…electronic communication compresses time so that waiting three days for a response feels like something has gone radically off track. [That] only encourages your own anxieties to work overtime," she wrote.
So while a normal human doesn't stress when a phone call or message goes unanswered for a day or two, virtual communication has us sitting by our email inbox stressing when we don't get an instant response. That gap in time can lead us to all kinds of nasty suspicions about the other person and can seriously damage trust in working relationships.
Using only the minimum technology doesn't really give us enough to work on . True communication happens on multiple levels. We need verbal, vocal, visual and (online) textural cues in order to get a real understanding of what someone says. One line in an email or a text isn't really enough, but it can lull us into a false sense of security or make us a paranoid wreck.
If I make a request of you, and you write back a one-word response like "fine", are you confirming your action? Do you mean "it's fine" like no big deal, or "fine" like when my wife suddenly realizes those dishes aren't going to do themselves and she has to dive in and complete the task. They are three very different interpretations of the same word.
I'm not saying virtual and online relationships can't work. I have a number of people I've corresponded and even done work with that I've never met in person. You just have to be smart about it.
So whether you're suspicious of your online lover or convinced your workmates are doing great work when in fact that deadline is barreling down on you, you can't accept virtual relationships at face, or FaceBook, value.
Running a country via Skype
05 Feb 2013 | Permalink
Wayne Turmel | Communication.
If you think running a remote team or project remotely is tough and you can't get anything accomplished, spare a thought for someone with a bigger set of problems than yours. Apparently, the country of Thailand is being run via Skype.
This article in the New York Times talks about how the exiled Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is influencing events and making important policy decisions through using Skype, as well various social media applications including WhatsApp and Line.
According to the article's author, while his sister is nominally the Prime Minister, it seems most of the really big discussions in the country still go through Mr. Thaksin. Need a major construction project approved? He can join the call from his iPad anywhere in the world, including his homes in Dubai, Hong Kong, London or his gold mine in Central Africa.
Now, it's easy to be snide (as clearly demonstrated) but there are some important lessons for managers here.
Technology allows us to stay connected in ways that get things done, but it needs to be used properly. One of the guiding tenants of my work with remote team is that "Genghis Khan ruled half the known world and never held a WebEx meeting". The former leader gets real-time information, consults with his sister and her team on the ground and gets their input.
Sometimes you have to meet in person. Suck it up. While video conferencing and the rest are convenient and cheap, when the stakes are high, he summons people to him outside Thailand. As a manager, you probably won't get arrested if you show up where your people are, so it's actually easier for you as one person to go to them than it is for multiple team members to come to you. The heck with the bean counters. Get in that car or on that plane if it's really important.
If you can't trust your sister, who can you trust? Whether you're Thaksin Shinawatra, or the project manager on the SAP team at your company, you need competent people that you trust. Hire well and hold people accountable. Trust is built on the three pillars of common goals, proof of competence and proof of motives. Technology is often blamed for alienating people, but it actually allows you to communicate in ways that Genghis Khan never dreamed of. You have to use it thoughtfully and well.
It helps to have a gold mine in Africa. Resources matter. So does having a quiet place to focus. I'm going to make a wild assumption that it's probably a little harder to think clearly and lead meetings from a Starbucks in Des Moines than your palatial hotel suite in Dubai. Think about your physical environment. Also, odds are he doesn't have to dial in to a VPN that keeps dropping him.
Building and maintaining high-stakes project teams virtually is possible, but it takes work, focus, the proper use of the tools at your disposal, and good people working with you. And when it all seems too much, imagine trying to run a whole country that way. It could be worse.
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