Updated: Apr 4, 2020
If the mullet haircut was business in the front and party in the back, the virtual meeting is business up above, authenticity down below.
The strange world we live in is now one of tiny squares filled with just the top halves of people we've known forever, or worked with for years, or regularly bump into at the grocery store--legs and all. We weren't so tightly wedged into four right angles. What does it do to us now that we've become so two-dimensional?
Sculptors would argue it's not their finished piece that is the art, but rather all that was cut away. I feel the same as a writer. My strongest choices are not the words I use, but the ones I exclude. And so now that we have much of our bodies hidden, but all of our private lives on camera, what we choose to hide is more important than what is actually in sight.
During a crisis, authenticity isn't just important; it's all we've got. So how can we authentically show up when so little of us is seen?
1) Watch How Much You Watch Yourself
The most drastic change from an in-person meeting to a virtual one is that you can see yourself. Just imagine if in-person meetings had a mirror propped up in front of you on the conference table. How much would you manage your expressions, or fiddle with your hair, or practice better posture?
There will be difficulty in turning away from yourself on camera. Which means there also will be difficulty in avoiding the self-criticism that comes with that. This isn't to say you can't enjoy or learn from the brief glimpse into yourself that others have always seen. But watch how much you watch yourself. Any time you watch yourself, you'll change the way you sit or react or hold your face. As best you can, keep your eyes moving around the virtual room. And I know what you're about to ask, and no, you don't look as tired in person as you do on camera.
2) Make Small Talk Big Talk
Small talk is usually thought of as a nicety we extend to people in the few minutes before truly diving into a meeting's agenda. How are the kids? Can you believe this weather? But in a time of crisis, small talk becomes critical. Because those little seemingly nothing conversations are the escapes of self that bubble up to the surface the minute our squares populate the screen. Pay attention to those because they are now no longer small talk. They are big talk forced into a small amount of time.
One thing I've noticed is that no meeting can start without the same old lines about, "How are you holding up?" And someone else will say, "Oh, it's crazy, I'm stressed, which seems so silly because I know others have it worse!" And then everyone kind of mutters in agreement and moves on. But there's an opportunity to explore the roots of those small bits of dialogue that often point to fear, conflicting emotions, or guilt (for not being worse off and still being stressed). When you meet with your team, or one-on-one, devote as much time to talking about how they are doing and feeling--or Tiger King, if what is needed is a distraction--as you do about the task at hand. That is to say, in the middle of a crisis, carving out time to check in on people is the task at hand.
3) Don't Hide What's Just Outside the Box
Everyone hides their personal life in some ways, usually by trying to work as if they don't have kids. And everyone shows off their personal life in some ways, usually by wallpapering their office with pictures of those kids. But now, there is no line between work and home (though, here's a hint, there never really was). As it is now, the only thing that feels like the office is the tiny square you take up when the camera and the microphone are on. Which means everything outside that box is somehow supposed to be hidden. How much effort do we put into making our children be quiet? Just yesterday I realized I was saying the phrase, "Shhh, daddy's on a call" more to my kids than they were hearing phrases I usually say, like "I love you," or "Stop hitting your sister."
Point is, your professional life and your personal life have always been impossible to separate, and nothing brings that home more than your child yelling for a string cheese across the house while you pretend you aren't wearing sweatpants during a virtual call on your makeshift desk.
If all of this crisis has given us anything, it's an opportunity to be stripped of pretense, posturing, and pretending. It’s a chance to give only the most authentic version of yourself because the weight of everything makes it feel like you have so little of yourself to give. We may all be deeply concerned, panicked, and full of fear. So let’s not squander this time being anything less than who we are. Sweatpants, screaming kids, and all.
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