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Global Flipchart #18

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April 2020

Zoom Dynamics, not Mechanics

Rebecca Sutherns

Two weeks ago, I led a webinar on effectively facilitating online meetings. (It seems like an eternity ago). Since then, dozens of similar offerings have filled my social media feed. I've also spent hundreds of hours on Zoom calls, "practicing what I preach." And I'm starting to notice some interesting group dynamics that compel facilitators to move well beyond learning to use the whiteboard feature or digital breakout rooms. Here in week three of #stayhome, we might be ready to take our online facilitation skills to the next level. Here are five observations to get us started:

Eye Contact
Depending on the size of your meeting, even in Gallery view you may not be able to see everyone at once. It's a challenge to see the group as a group rather than as a collection of individuals, or to get a sense of the vibe in the whole room at once.  And even if you can see people, you need to choose whether you look at their face on your screen, or look into the camera to make it look to them as though you are looking at their face. That's an awkward choice I'd prefer not to have to make.

Embodiment
The way we interact physically is clearly influenced by digital spaces. Body language is more limited, and we express our physicality differently. We have fewer physical cues or differentiators. It's harder for participants to "hide in the back." We are also constantly managing a tension between being alone and being together.

The Great Equalizer
Recognizing that not everyone has equal access to computers or bandwidth, I am noticing that online meetings can contribute to minimizing power dynamics. Everyone takes up the same amount of space within their Zoom square. It's harder to hang out with your buddies and ignore the people you don't know or like. Participants tend to speak one at a time. It seems people tend to dominate the conversation a little less. (Maybe we're all being just a little kinder these days...?)

Intimacy
Most of us are participating in Zoom meetings from home. Even if it's our home office, we are in a more intimate space than usual. Our children and pets might be part of the picture -- unless we choose some odd digital background. We are subject to different distractions than usual and different from each other. We are forging new scripts for relationships, and they may be less predictable or less formal as a result. We might not love it...

Multitasking for Everyone
Facilitators are accustomed to multitasking in face-to-face interactions. We're running activities, listening to the conversation, watching the group dynamics, taking notes, thinking about the next exercise, minding the clock... In the Zoom room, multitasking is still required but across different channels: we are checking people's raised hands and Q&A, sharing our screens, monitoring the chat, talking, managing slides etc. while still doing many of the same things as we would in-person. It feels oddly like muscle memory, but cross training in a new sport.

Participants are being asked to multitask too, more than they would in an in-person space. They may also be learning a new platform. As one person in a quiet room of digital participants explained to me, "I can't listen to you, read your slides, remember instructions, type in the chat and read the chat all at the same time!" Fair point.

And it might be their fourth Zoom meeting of the day and fifteenth of the week.

And one more thing: we're dealing with a global pandemic. Oh yeah, that.

Steep learning curves, major changes and high stress levels are tiring for everyone. As the person holding the space, the facilitator is actually forging new territory. It requires us to up our game on more than the technology.