“I know the people on the phone can’t see this, but …”
By the third time our meeting facilitator offered the same apology, I began to suspect we were doing something stupid, or at least ineffective. But most likely stupid.
I’d been through this before, of course, on both ends of a telecom. We all have. Dialing in remotely to a meeting where wall charts and whiteboards are used but not broadcast can be an exquisitely frustrating experience. The people in the main room can see what’s going on. They can post sticky notes on the wall and move them around. But the remote “participants” — and I use that word loosely — can only listen and imagine. Except for when the audio is bad or the speaker turns away from the microphone, in which case they can do less than that.
There are plenty of tools and technologies designed to improve interactions among geographically dispersed teams, and some of them are quite good. But there are also barriers to using each one.
Sometimes the barrier is money. Even a token fee might be more than a team cam pay, either because they lack funding outright or because their bureaucracy does not provide them with an easy and timely mechanism to authorize the small payment. There are simply too many steps, too many approvals required to justify the small expenditure. Interestingly, there are usually no approvals necessary if we want expensive employees to spin their wheels in unproductive meetings.
In other situations, particularly for government and military projects, the issue is security. The discussion itself may be entirely unclassified but local network restrictions still prevent users from installing unapproved software or logging in to certain sites. The process for gaining approval to use these tools can be difficult to uncover and even harder to follow. Even if a dedicated and persistent team leader jumps through all the necessary hoops to secure permission for using a collaboration service at one location, someone else will have to do the same thing for any other locations that want to join in. So we end up using a party line circa 1960 and repeatedly apologizing to the people on the other side for our inability to communicate.
Surely there’s a better way. I confess I did not think of this specific solution in time to use it in the aforementioned workshop, but afterwards, it occurred to me that we might mitigate this particular headache using a simple strip of cloth.
Here’s my plan: The next time I find myself in a telecom where the main group in one location is trying to collaborate with a handful of invisible partners on the other end of a telephone wire, I’m going to put a blindfold on someone in the main location. For optimal results, we’ll pass the blindfold around the room until everyone has had the opportunity to spend five or ten minutes in darkness. I do mean everyone — even the boss, even the scribe, even the facilitator. Absolutely everyone. Even me.
The point of this little exercise is to foster empathy for our distant partners who can’t see what’s going on. When we have a first-hand experience with not being able to see, when our ability to understand and contribute to the conversation is restricted, we will be more likely to take positive action to include the whole group — including the people who aren’t physically in the room. Also, the sight of someone sitting at a table wearing a blindfold will serve as an unavoidable reminder that the visuals are not equally available. The best part is once we put the blindfold on, we’ll discover that “the people on the phone” includes me. That changes everything.
Perhaps the idea of deliberately blindfolding people will be intolerable to some. Perhaps they feel it would be too disruptive, would slow down the discussion and would reduce people’s effectiveness. If that is the case, one might ask why we put up with ineffective telecons in the first place.
Of course, our friends and colleague who are visually impaired already know what this is like, and businesses are supposed to make reasonable accommodations. Being blind and being on a phone are two vastly different situations, to be sure, but I think the same principle applies and can shape our approach.
The bottom line is that teams work best when we are all engaged, when everyone makes an effort to ensure everyone else can contribute. Teams work best when nobody is left out and all involved have empathy for each other. Teams work best when we understand each other’s limitations and strengths alike. And sometimes the shortest path to fostering such empathy is a simple strip of cloth.
(This post first appeared on SmartBlogs)