Making Virtual Meetings Efficient and Engaging, with Nancy Settle-Murphy

Gabriela Molina

Nancy Settle-Murphy s the owner of Guided Insights, a training, facilitation, and consulting firm with a specialty in virtual and cross-cultural teams. And she’s the author of the book Leading Effective Virtual Teams, Overcoming Time and Distance. 




Nancy Settle Murphy

Read the transcript

Luis:

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to another episode of the DistantJob podcast, your podcast about building and leading awesome remote teams. I am your host, as usual, Luis and my guest today is Nancy Settle-Murphy. Nancy is the owner at Guided Insights, a training, facilitation, and consulting firm with the specialty in virtual and cross-cultural teams. She’s the author of the book Leading Effective Virtual Teams, Overcoming Time and Distance. A side note that I made when making my research for this program, she also has some of the best LinkedIn recommendations I’ve ever seen.

Luis:

Her LinkedIn has gushing recommendations, so it’s with a lot of pleasure that I welcome you to the show. Nancy, thank you so much for coming on. Did I forget to mention anything important?

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Not at all. Thank you. It’s really an honor and a privilege to be here with you today and your listeners.

Luis:

Yeah, it’s great. Let’s start with the beginning of your relationship with remote work and how that has, I guess, guided, molded, shaped your career. We were talking just before starting that you said it started with 9/11 or maybe I got that right, maybe 9/11 was a pivotal moment in that influence in your career. Could you tell us that story, please?

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Sure. Up until 9/11, 2001, so 21 years ago, most of my work consisted of onsite facilitation and training, often in the area of facilitation skills. I’m a meeting facilitator, so I did a lot of meeting facilitation all around the world. Well, when 9/11 hit, one of my biggest clients for whom I had done dozens and dozens of two-day onsite workshops around the world, they suddenly said, “Our employees are not allowed to fly anymore. We will be running all of our meetings indefinitely virtually. You need to figure out how to take this two-day workshop you’ve been running and do it virtually.”

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

I said, “It absolutely can’t be done.” They said, “Okay, well, we’ll find someone who can figure it out.” I said, “Wait a second. I think I can figure it out, but it’s going to take me time.” Indeed, it did. It took me, I’d say, three times as much time to redesign, to go from a two-day to a series of virtual meetings, but I did. For a long time, many people were not flying, so I decided, “Hey, this is a good niche.” I dove in to the world of virtual work. Then, at the same time I was raising twin toddlers pretty much by myself. I thought, “Hey, this is a great field to be in because if I practice what I preach and I become an expert in virtual work, then I can work virtually as well, so I can be home for my kids.” It was a combination of forces that led me to this field.

Luis:

Got it. That’s very interesting. I want to go down this path for a little bit, though, eventually, I want to get to talking about your book and the other things that you’re doing. But let’s start with the education part, because I personally find that it’s harder for me to, even though I’m one of the remote work guys, I find that it’s very hard for me to learn online. I just find that it’s harder to be engaged. It’s harder to get takeaways. I find that a lot of what facilitates learning for me is having that time and physical space, and then actually interacting with the cohort, which I don’t think … I know that’s not what you do, but the standard online course is you pay up, you go to a web portal, you have videos that someone recorded, and maybe you have some chat rooms where you can interact.

Luis:

If it’s a high quality course. I know that’s not what you offer, but I’m wondering, you said that it was challenging and it took you a long time to get right, which I believe. What were one of the main things that you felt you needed to get right for people to be able to learn effectively online?

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Well, a couple things I want to say. One is, I do think, and I do a lot of real time instructor led training. I develop my own and deliver, let’s say, facilitation skills, designing and engaging virtual meeting. I think a key for successful instructional design to keep people engaged is to space it out over a couple days. Have bite size or manageable modules, maybe 60 to 90 minutes long, plenty of opportunities to interact multiple ways especially. One thing I’ve learned is you need to really think about the introverts or others for whom let’s say the shared language is not their native language. They need more time to pause, reflect, think, and then play back.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

When we are providing learning programs virtually, we need to create that space for the pause and reflection. Therefore, I think the time spent in the workshop, in the real time, should be in conversation and not hearing someone narrate a bunch of slides. I think for me, it’s taken me really many years, I think, to crack the code and to really think about how our brains retain and embed and apply knowledge. Then, how do we do that in a virtual world? In fact, I just read an article, I think it was in Harvard Business Review, that actually, what’s being shown today is that well-designed virtual learning programs are more effective in terms of people remembering and applying what they’ve learned than a face to face workshop.

Luis:

Oh, that’s interesting. I’ll have my producer look that up and include it in the show notes. It’s Harvard Business Review. Do you remember any keyword from the title?

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

I have it, I’m going to put it right in-

Luis:

You can just send it to me after the show then, please.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Yeah. Okay. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I do think it’s possible to design engaging courses, but you have to be super thoughtful and make … My mantra is, no more than 20% passively listening time and 80% actively engaged. That applies to meetings and virtual learning programs.

Luis:

When we are on the other 80%, what does the approach tend to be? Or, maybe there’s not a fixed approach, but in case there is, is it more a Socratic thing, where you ask questions and the circle of students interact? Or, is it more of a debate situation, where everyone is saying their piece taking in turns? What does it look like, that shared learning experience?

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Yeah, that’s a great question, Luis. It does vary. I use a combination of activities and techniques. Really, it depends if this is about skill building or is it about knowledge creation, is it about sharing lessons learned? But I’d say the combination are, as you said, the Socratic learning, asking really provocative, interesting, engaging questions. I think that’s one of the most important elements of engagement. Then, it might be the use of chat, varying the use of chat, the use of polls, putting people in breakouts of two or three or four. Asking people to record their breakout sessions in a place everyone can see, so you avoid the pretty boring recitation back of the content of each group.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

It’s really a variety of means, but all serving the purpose of the learning goals versus a fun activity that has really nothing to do with what you’re there to learn. I think that can be off-putting to many people.

Luis:

How do you think about the prompts for the breakout sessions? This is something that I’ve seen gain traction over the past couple of years. I’ve been in a couple of those sessions and I find that sometimes, oftentimes, two people are dropped into the room with very little idea of what they should talk about or a very ineffective question. Something that doesn’t really feel like they can talk about that at that time. How do you avoid this problem?

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Well, I think that’s another great question. First of all, I try to test all my questions in advance for something, for an important session. All of my client sessions are important. I will test with someone else, someone I’m working with, perhaps, “Does this question make sense? Is this answerable by the people in the breakout?” I tend to have asked each breakout a slightly different question so that when we come back to debrief, we don’t hear the same thing over and over again. But I tend to put the question both in a slide before we send them into breakouts and then paste it into the main room chat before they go into breakouts.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Then, I really like to have, either have them share their responses in a shareable Google Doc, or I use a tool called XLeap from MeetingSphere, where I create space in this conference area and each group, as they’re discussing, can type and capture their ideas so that when we come back everyone can quickly silently scan to save some time, and then we talk. But I think it’s having the question in several places and making sure before we send them to breakouts, to make sure, “Is it clear what we’re asking you to discuss? Is it clear what the intended outcomes are or the output that we’re looking for?” I never assume clarity, because I’ve asked questions that have fallen so flat and I think, “Oh, that made no sense to anyone. I’m going to rephrase it.” I always test it a little bit with them.

Luis:

I know the feeling, right? This is close to my 200th podcast episode and after 200 of these you can be sure that I’ve learned that some questions felt quite flat. You do learn, the more questions you ask, how to ask better questions. I actually think that’s a very, very valuable skill overall, how to ask better quality questions. Absolutely, I love that expression, that you don’t assume clarity. That should be one of the remote work mantras as far as I’m concerned.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Well, and especially when we work remotely, whether it’s a training session or a team meeting, I can’t tell from your pixelated image on Zoom if you grasped what I said, if you understood it, if you agreed with it, I don’t know. We have to be really explicit when we work virtually.

Luis:

Yeah. It’s not just that. On my worst days, I go over my, because so much of the conversation in remote work happens written. On my worst days, I go over my Slack history, seeing how I communicated with people and I’m like, “Oh my God, I sound like a crazy person.” This is something that I’m always telling people about, that they need to pay attention, that it’s amazing the amount of information we assume the other person knows, the amount of context we assume they has, when we’re writing, because there really is a lot missing. It’s amazing how even me, I’m doing this remote work thing for about a decade now, maybe even more than that. Sometimes I still write something along the lines of, “Hey, how’s that thing we discussed the other day?” Which is the worst thing you can write.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Yeah, I think it’s a real balancing act to include enough information, enough context so that it’s crystal clear what I’m … Let’s say I’m sending you a request for information, that it’s crystal clear in a very short period of time what I’m asking for so that you can respond. Rather than airing on the brief, overly brief side, and trying to be really economical of words and give you no information, which will cause a chain of two or three more emails between us until you get the information you need. Then, there’s the other extreme, where I give you three screens full of detail that you don’t need. You just need the bottom line. I think writing is one of the most important skills we have to be successful in a remote world, especially when we rely on asynchronous communications, which many teams do, and I think more should, especially when they span time zones.

Luis:

Yeah, I think that part of it is also how we are. We’re becoming trans-human. Our brains are slowly merging with the computers and the phones. There’s more of a tendency of what’s in your brain, going straight to your arms and fingers to your keyboard, to your screen. But obviously, what’s in your brain has a lot of context that what ends up in the chat doesn’t. It’s like we are getting more fluid in putting our untranslated, uncensored thoughts in chat. But obviously, there’s a lot of information that doesn’t come with that, and we’re not used to that. We essentially trained ourselves to think that other people can mind read, which obviously they can’t.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

I agree with everything you said, and as a consequence, I think our brains are becoming less able or maybe less willing to synthesize key information and to filter out extraneous stuff that’s rambling inside my brain, but may not be relevant to you, because that requires critical thinking skills. That is something that, as you mentioned a minute ago, that is with our brains merging with our devices, people who grew up as digital natives, they have lost forever, which is scary, the ability to think deeply. Because they’re so used to bouncing from quick snippet to snippet without thinking, “Well, what does this mean? What is the kernel of this idea that matters most?” Some people literally can’t do that anymore if they ever could.

Luis:

Yeah. I wouldn’t say I’m a digital native, but I did get the internet right at 14 or 15 years old, so that wasn’t bad. I noticed that a lot in books, so I guess I’ll use the segue to start talking about your book, but I noticed that it’s harder and harder to read books these days. I used to be a huge book reader. I still am, but not as much as I used to be. In any case, one of the books that I read recently was your book. Congratulations on that. I quite enjoyed it. I want to leave the small disclaimer that I usually leave, that we’re going to talk a bit about the book, but this podcast is by no means a cliff note of the book. If you enjoy our conversation and if you think that the concepts we discuss are useful, you should still go and buy the book.

Luis:

Because there’s no way we are able to cover anything of significance in this short interview, so that’s my disclaimer. I want to start by the first note that I took from the book, where there’s a passage where you say that maintaining a deep trusting connection with colleagues is tough for any of us at work virtually. But for someone who is reluctant or introverted, and this goes to the point that you made about introverts before, those deep bonds are almost impossible to create and keep up when working from afar. This, maybe you can explain me why, because obviously, I’m very interested in learning why that was not my experience. Now, as a medically diagnosed, I guess I can say, introvert, I am 98 percentile on the introvert scale.

Luis:

I really am a hardcore introvert. To me, remote work was something that I always wanted and I didn’t even know that was an option, but it felt like it really clicked for me because it felt that it was much less draining on my energy as an introvert. I knew that this kind of social experience was possible because I had the internet in my teenage years. With the internet, came online communities and came online games. I built a huge circle of friends, some of which are still some of my best friends today, thanks to those video game communities and video games. I came from a background from a personal lived experience where as an introvert it was the internet that made me be able to craft the kind of relationships that I really loved and was comfortable with.

Luis:

This is perhaps one of the first things that I read in the book, and perhaps the point that puzzled me the most, because I tend to agree to 99% of what you say in the book, but this part really puzzled me. How did you get to this conclusion?

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Well, another great question. This book, I wrote a few years ago, before COVID so I’m going to say, I will take back what I said in a way because I think what the last two and a half years have proven is that in reality being at a leveled playing field with everyone across the table, being equal more or less, let’s say, assuming we use Zoom or Teams or something like that, coupled with Slack or Trello or whatever tools people use, SharePoint, et cetera. I think that has created a more leveled playing field between introverts and extroverts. In that we have at least two ways of communicating verbally, as well as typing into chat, so that people who are reticent to speak for whatever reason, they have a different way to communicate.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

I actually think, since we’ve become all virtual it has, and I’m going to generalize and say, favored, not favored introverts, I think the world still favors extroverts. We still reward those people who blurt things out the most quickly and et cetera, because it’s easier to facilitate meetings where some people are talking. But I think this is contrasted to before COVID when you had some people remote and some people virtual or hybrid, which many companies are going back to, that were once hybrid. I think in that case, especially when the remote people were more introverted, it was harder, doubly harder for them to participate. I would say for introverts, who I know in general, this whole leveling playing field has really been a boon, really encouraged their participation, created a safe space in which they can communicate.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

I will say that for introverts I think the operative word is safety. If I want to have a virtual happy hours, many companies did during COVID, I know, or many people I know had virtual happy hours, that kind of cocktail party conversation, that kind of forced conviviality, that can be particularly painful for people who are introverted. I think I am cautious about planning activities, whether virtual or face to face or hybrid, that force people to have that kind of cocktail party conversation chat. They can be really painful for some people who are introverted. I think they’re better served by having some of those focused questions and saying, “Okay, let’s have … I’m breaking into small groups.”

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

It’s a lot easier and safer to speak with a couple people than to speak my mind in front of 20. I think for introverts, we have many more tools at our disposal and we’ve gotten a lot smarter about what it takes to engage different kinds of people deeply.

Luis:

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. In our own team at DistantJob, we used to do birthday parties. We found that a lot of people were very uncomfortable in the birthday parties. Personally, when I went to real life birthday parties, I was in the corner hanging out with the god kids just sipping my drink quietly while everyone else shattered away. The virtual birthday parties weren’t much different. What I found, this may be has to do with the fact that introverts, not always, but often they’re more interested in things and systems than necessarily people. We found that when we transitioned from birthday parties, online birthday parties, to games, suddenly the introverts were much more participative, because there was a social component to it but there was a mechanical. There was the gameplay compound into it.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Yeah, and some predictable consistency, some rules they could follow versus really free form. I think that’s a really good point. When there’s a purpose to the conversation, and I understand what we’re supposed to do, and I know my role, that feels a lot safer and easier than when it’s just free form.

Luis:

Yeah, absolutely. We were talking a bit enough that you’re doing some work, focusing more on parts of diversity and inclusion. I do want to talk about how do you think the online space and the remote workspace specifically, and maybe then we can move to it, but has influenced that? I have a very different experience from that because I’ve never worked. I’m assuming, maybe I’m assuming wrongly, that you’ve worked a lot in the North American space, with North American companies. Me, when I was working physically, it was always in Europe. I’ve been working for many years with North American companies, but it’s always been remote.

Luis:

I never got to experience the co-located environment, but I also played enough video games. Again, going back to the video games. I worked in the video game industry for a long time. I played enough video games to know that the online world is also not all unicorns and rainbows. When I was doing high level semi-competitive gaming in World of Warcraft, part of a raiding guild with a lot of people, like 100 people. There was a certain ambient level of misogyny that I encountered there that I didn’t see, obviously, in the workplace. Now, not as much as the media likes to put it, much less than a media likes to put it, but it did exist. It wasn’t like the online was the ultimate safe space. There were definitely problems there.

Luis:

From my experience, it’s also one where I really don’t fully understand what the transition to remote work brought positively to a North American audience. I guess that maybe we can start there. I’d like to know what are your thoughts on that?

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Well, I think in terms of a DE&I perspective, first of all, when COVID hit, especially when schools closed, it does generally fall to women, I’m generalizing, to be the caregivers for children, to get them, whatever age they are, they could be toddlers, they could be in high school. Still that responsibility feel to women. What we experienced during COVID, yeah, it was really hard to juggle for sure, but it also gave us an idea. Not just women, men too, that, “Hey, now that I’m working from home, I can go to my kid’s soccer game. I can have breakfast with them and then get back to work. I don’t have to leave my house at 7:00 every morning.” I think it’s that workplace flexibility that favored some people in particular.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

It’s usually the people who were more the primary caregivers, because that gave us a new lease on life. I think that’s one thing. Another is, and there are a number of articles that point this out, that people of color in particular and so women of color really in particular, because women and people of color, it’s very exhausting to have to code switch. Meaning, when I actually show up at work, I have to maybe have my hair a certain way, dress a certain way, talk a certain way that isn’t authentic, but I am trying to fit in. I’m trying to assimilate into the, let’s say, dominant culture of my organization. But when we work virtually, the dress, the fact if our hair is a certain way, we can be a lot more authentic.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

We can show you who we are because we have, before we could blur backgrounds and put virtual backgrounds, you see, here’s where I live, here’s the artwork, here are the books, here’s my kid running around in the back. I think it’s about being able to be authentic. I think for people who are differently abled, especially people who have mobility issues and site restrictions, the fact that within in a virtual world there’s closed captioning, there’s the ability to have audio amplification. If I’m physically disabled, I don’t have to figure out how to get the bus or find a car or get into my car to get to work. I don’t have to deal with those steps in the elevator. I can just be here.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

I think for a whole host of people this move to virtual has been a godsend, has really been a lifesaver. I think that explains why so many are reluctant to go back for many good reasons. But I think in terms of creating a more leveled playing field between the differently abled people from all different demographics, if I might have lived in an area where I have to take two buses to get to work because I can’t afford to own a car, well that’s created a leveled playing field because now I don’t have to own a car. I think in a lot of ways it created a leveled playing field that then going back to a physical office is going to shake that up.

Luis:

Yeah, I definitely agree. Especially in the case where we are talking about the differently abled people. That was one of the reasons why I switched my careers to doing this work right with DistantJob, was because I figured that it would be very impactful. I used to work as a dental surgeon and I felt that it would be more impactful because I had those people in my life. I had a couple of disabled people in my life that were highly talented, but it was just very exhausting for them to progress in their careers. Even assuming the best circumstances, even assuming fully equipped offices and the proper transportation, et cetera. At the end of the day, they still, due to their differently abledness, they still shoulder a disproportional burden.

Luis:

It’s harder for them to do stuff that is just basic for us. That cost really infringed on them having the career that they could have and that they deserved. That’s when I figured out that there must be a better way to do that. That’s when I shifted my career to try to help people on the remote work front. I completely understand where you’re coming from. But now that we’re switching to hybrid, where does that leave us? Because I’m a bit afraid, I don’t think it’s an unsolvable problem, but I think that one of the challenges now is that as those people keep working at home, but others go to the office, there’s this effect of out of sight out of mind that could potentially negatively affect their careers.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Oh, for sure. I think it’s the companies that are intentional about overcoming proximity bias or the tendency to favor those who are close, that will succeed in the hybrid space. I know one of my clients, he actually said to me, he didn’t say it out loud in front of other people, but he said, “I’m not going to give people who choose to work remotely the best assignments. They made a choice.” I just said, “Whoa, wait a second. You’re going to punish them for this choice?” “Well, yeah, because they don’t want to be with us.” I think, “Well, you got to reframe how you’re seeing this.” I think companies, I think first of all, it depends on the company’s policy.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

I see many companies mandating some arbitrary number of days in the week in the office, two or three is the most common, for no apparent reason other than everyone else is doing it. Then, there’s some that allow and encourage all virtual. Some are forcing people in almost every day, but I think the organizations really need to think about. I believe they need to design for remote first. I don’t mean that everyone should be remote all the time. By that, I mean think about how you can integrate and incorporate the remote people as your design, your main design principle, and then think about how you can integrate the face to face people.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Otherwise, I fear that we’ll go back to how it was before COVID, in a hybrid world, which is we think about the remote people as an afterthought. They don’t have visibility. We don’t give them the best assignments. We forget about them when it comes to giving some really important life changing information about the group. My fear is that those who felt marginalized when they worked remotely before COVID, and then they got this wonderful leveled playing field during COVID, are at risk of being marginalized again if companies aren’t very intentional about treating people equally in terms of welcoming their contributions, giving them an opportunity for great assignments, career progression.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Caring as much about their careers as they do the people they see every day. I just think that’s going to be so important and it will be very easy to lose sight of if they’re not really intentional.

Luis:

Yeah, intentionality is a big word here and an important one, because I do think that there is space in the world for companies that want to be like, for example, Elon Musk envisions Tesla, which is a fully here, fully staffed location, no remote work kind of company. I do think that those companies could and should exist. Obviously, they’ll pay some cost in not being able to attract certain kinds of talent, for sure. But at the end of the day, I recognize that just as I love remote works, some people might hate it. I would like there to be companies where those people can congregate and live their best work lives. But like you said, it needs to be done with intentionality. If a company decides that we are just going to be the kind of company where people come to the office and that’s that.

Luis:

Then, I do think that it’s incumbent on you, even ethically, to help the people that are not on board anymore, that have discovered remote work, to find good positions elsewhere. To give them nice severance packages, et cetera, take good care of those people because the world has shifted. If you want to shift in another way, then fine, it’s in your right. Again, I do think that there are a lot of people that love that and I don’t want them to have a bad work experience just because I say, “No, no, no, no, no. It’s all remote all the time.” But I do think that we need to reorient the people that are of one kind of mind to one side and the others to another. That’s why I find hybrids so challenging, because I do think that it is.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

It is really challenging. Some feel it’s not sustainable, that it’s like a bandaid, that this is a temporary period we’re in and we have to sort out what the future of work really looks like. Because it isn’t, I think, what many companies are finding, that 9:00 to 5:00, those hours that were created in the time of the industrial revolution for manufacturing purposes that have carried over until now, that I think a lot of us are questioning, “Well, why do we even need those hours?” For some companies 9:00 to 5:00 or whatever set hours will be important, and meeting face to face either all the time or during intense project of certain phases will be important. I do think, I like what you said, Luis, about having people on both ends of the spectrum, really.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

To try to come together at least to understand and appreciate that there can be an in between, and that that in between may not be permanent. It might be for the next six months while our product, while our company is launching X. We need to be together more than we’re apart. We want department heads to determine when people really need to be together. I get very sad when I hear people saying, “I went into the office today and it was like a ghost town. There was no one there. I just sat at my desk and got on Zoom meetings that I could have done at home, but they make me come in.” I think, “Come on, if you’re going to enforce people to come in, give them a reason.”

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

I always think, make the office the nuance, make the office the new offsite. Make it a reason, create a reason for them to come together, not just free cake. That’s not going to cut it.

Luis:

No. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. That’s the worst possible solution. The worst possible situation where you’re forced to go to the office and then it’s just like if you were at home.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

It is for so many because companies haven’t thought through, why are we bringing people back? How do we make this an engaging, enjoyable experience? How do we make it matter that people are in the office or not? I think a lot of organizations are struggling with that.

Luis:

Back to the point about intentionality. I wanted to go back to one of the parts of your book that I enjoyed the most. Because this was something that I struggled for some years when I transitioned to fully remote work, which is building leadership credit. Look, being a leader is tough. Especially if you’re a young guy or a young lady put in charge of a team of people. I’m saying, so if you’re new to management, if you’re just promoted, you’re new to management, even in a co-located situation a big part of the learning curve in being promoted to management is developing that leadership ability and that trust with the team. Making sure that people trust you, trust your judgment, trust your capabilities.

Luis:

I did this before in a co-located setting and I found it hard, but I found it 10 times harder when I transitioned to remote work. I feel that yours is one of the few books that actually confronts that problem and give some tangible solutions. A lot of them I have to go back, come back to your point about intentionality. Would you like to talk a bit about how you figured these things out?

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Well, yeah, I think from a leader’s perspective, first of all, I think that many leaders assume or organizations assume that leadership skills that work well in a co-located environment automatically translate to a virtual or hybrid environment, which is not true. Certain key skills, yes, but there are a lot of new skills that need to be learned. I think one of the toughest things is trust building both between the leader and the team members and across the team. I think it’s hard even when people are co-located, but in a virtual world, especially when the team members generally have one conversation a week, let’s say 18 meeting a week, and everyone is there versus having small pockets of conversation.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

I think one of the ways a leader can build trust across team members is to think about what tasks need to be done or what work needs to be done by the team in support of our shared goals. Now, who can I delegate? I’d like to delegate it to two or three people who will actually meet, who will actually speak, not meet in face to face, probably not, but actually have real time conversations so they can learn from each other, they can deepen relationships. They can come up with better ideas than would be possible if we were together as 10 people on a call or if people worked entirely independently. I think assigning, thoughtfully assigning tasks to small groups of people and rotating those groups of people is one of the best ways to build trust across the team.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Because they need to have small group conversations to do that, so I think that’s key. I think for the virtual leader, to have one-on-one meetings with their team members regularly, predictably do not … they should be sacrosanct. They should be never canceled unless there’s a really extenuating circumstance. Have time to check in with people. This is where good questions come into play too. It isn’t just like, “What have you got on your mind? Anything I can help you with?” That’s lame. No, it’s more about, “Gee, I noticed during our team meeting you said X, let’s probe more deeply.” Or, “What have you learned this week?” Or, “What are some things that you’re curious about that I can answer for you?” Or, “What connections would be valuable for me to make for you?”

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Because that’s missing in a virtual world, those kind of casual connections where I might see someone in the cafeteria and introduce myself, how do you do that when you work virtually? It’s the team leader who needs to be that curator of connections and of knowledge. Then, a final thing I want to say before I forget is to have office hours, the equivalent of office hours, where maybe every Monday, from 9:00 AM my time to 10:00 AM I have a Zoom meeting open. People can come in, have their coffee. There’s no structure. It’s not mandatory. We can share ideas, but it’s that informal conversation that is so missing in a hybrid virtual world, that I think the team leader really needs to be thoughtful about. How do I encourage and enable those conversations?

Luis:

Yeah. That’s a great point. I do want to second the value of one-on-ones. I always did one-on-ones with my team. I think that one important caveat is that the employees, the people in the team need to know that that is not the time, that hour is not about them doing something for their boss or their manager. That time really belongs to them. The boss or the manager might bring the questions, but that time belongs to them. It’s for them to get whatever they need to get their job done well, or to improve their condition in the company, or their comfort to progress their careers, whatever. They are the priority there. They are the star, not the leader or the boss or the manager, but more than that.

Luis:

In my marketing team, we used to do a weekly scrum and we shifted, at one point, I decided to shift it to biweekly and replace the one every other week with just extra one on ones with all of my team. I felt that the difference was amazing. It was really much more productive. We could still do, we shifted to from a week sprint to two weeks sprint. Then, in the middle I had one on ones on everyone. Just the level of connectedness and the level of synchronization just went up by an enormous factor. It’s weird because you assume that the synchronization will be better if everyone meets everyone every week, but that was not the case. Those one on ones were actually a good, a great place for you, as you put it, to curate connections.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Luis, something you said before, you mentioned your Slack channel. I think the use of async communications enable conversations that used to only take place in real time. You’re going from having a biweekly team sprint and then with the one-on-ones, while you’re also having conversations asynchronously. It’s not like you’re missing those conversations. They’re just taking place at a different time.

Luis:

Absolutely, absolutely. I could go on for another hour, but I do want to be respectful of your time. I think that it’s time for us to wrap up with some questions, some more standard questions that nonetheless I think are interesting. First, I wanted to ask you about your virtual office. What does the place, well, the place, I mean inside your computer, what does your virtual office look like? What are the apps, the browser tabs that you start your day with, that you use to do whatever work you need to be done?

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Wow. Well, let’s see. I’m a heavy user of LinkedIn. I usually do some LinkedIn work first thing in the morning. I usually have an asynchronous conference going on in terms, let’s say I’m running a training next week for unconscious bias for one of my clients. I have an asynchronous conference area where people are coming in, asking questions, giving observations. I’m always checking my asynchronous conferences that are in play. Other than that, I use Twitter to some degree. I’m a heavy user of Word because I’m a writer. I love to write. I do a lot of my content creation in Word or in Google. I’m a big user of Zoom.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

If my clients, many of my clients are Microsoft shops, so they use Teams. I use Teams when they do. But left to my own devices, I know my way around Zoom and more people seem to know Zoom and can get through the firewall more easily than, let’s say, Teams.

Luis:

Yeah. Zoom is that thing that really rose to prominence with COVID. I wish I had bought stock. That was a bad call on my part. But anyway, so you mentioned asynchronous conferences, and I think it’s the first time I’m hearing the term. I can imagine what that looks like, but I don’t want to leave it to the imagination. Can you tell me a bit more about how you run an asynchronous conference?

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

I will set up. For unconscious bias training, I have questions about microaggressions you’ve observed, where does our organization fall short when it comes to blah, blah, blah. I set up a series of questions. I can make some anonymous and some not. If I feel like someone will be inhibited by responding an example of a microaggression you’ve witnessed, I make that anonymous. But if they say, if I ask, “What’s something you really want to take away from this course?” I want their name because I want to make sure I can follow up with them later and make sure they got what they wanted. I set it up and I use something called XLeap by MeetingSphere.com, and people can come in at any time.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

What I love about it is they can see what each other says and they can build on each other’s comments. You click on a comment, you can add yours, ask a question rather than a survey where I don’t see what anyone says and it’s no conversation. This is a real conversation that starts before we get into the training or before we get into a given meeting.

Luis:

Got it.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

I might have them brainstorm ideas about things. It’s a conversation.

Luis:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. It sounds interesting. Interesting. I’ll include the software in the show notes for people wanting to explore it a bit more. I wanted to ask you, in the past year or it could be six months, six months to a year, what has been the biggest purchase that you’ve made that was a game changer in your way of work? By that I can mean, it could have improved your productivity, your work-life balance, whatever metric you care by the most.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Well, I don’t know if this is a purchase or not, but I have signed on with a marketing guru. This woman named Samantha Hartley, who works with independent consultants and it’s called Profitable Joyful Consultants, to actually have more joy while working and deliver more of what clients value. It’s really helped me to sharpen my marketing focus, to be clear about what my offerings are, my pricing, et cetera. That isn’t a purchase of a product, but it is a subscription that I have invested in, and it’s really paying off this year. Other than that, in terms of software, the MeetingSphere, or actually that’s an investment too. I get a license every year, but that isn’t new for me. I’ve been using it for probably eight or 10 years. It’s grown over the years. It has many more capabilities, but I haven’t really bought any other new stuff.

Luis:

Got it. Well, joy sounds like a sound investment. If you’re going to invest in something, joy is probably a good way to go. Yeah. All right. Let’s talk a bit about books. Are you a book giver? If so, apart from your own book, of course, which I’m sure you’ve given out a bunch, what are your most gifted books?

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Geez, first of all, I’m a voracious reader. I’m a speed reader. I’m lucky I can read really fast, so I can go through sometimes a couple books a week, literally. I’d say some that come to mind, anything by Brene Brown, who talks about leadership and courage and vulnerability and psychological safety a lot. Presence by Amy Cutty. I really like that book about establishing presence. Oh, Susan Cain, the book Quiet, that really transformed how I facilitate in terms of understanding that introverts ought not to be punished for being quiet, and I need to find ways of safely pulling out their ideas. One of the first books I read, I think this was back in, well, when I started in this field, Mastering Virtual Teams.

Luis:

Mastering Virtual Teams?

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Yeah, if I look it up, it’ll probably say 2001, because I think I bought it back then or right about when I was plunging in, 1999.

Luis:

Wow.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

I collect books on virtual teams and virtual leaderships. Dan Pink, almost anything by him I love. I can’t remember the name of the one that I just read by him, but I tend to read a lot of management consultants books, Chip & Dan Heath. Yeah.

Luis:

All right. That’s a good reading list. Thank you for that. I do have a final question. The setup is a bit long, so please bear with me. But let’s say that we’re back at the space where it’s fine and safe to all have a big dinner together. You are hosting such a dinner. In attendance are going to be the decision makers from top technology companies from all over the world. The topic of the night is remote work and the future of work. Now, the twist is that this dinner is happening at the Chinese restaurant. You, as the host, get to pick the message inside the fortune cookie. What is the message that these people are going to read when they’re dining?

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Okay. As I’m thinking, I want to say I actually teach Chinese cooking. I’m in my favorite place in a Chinese restaurant.

Luis:

Nice.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

It would say something like, be flexible, be intentional, be inclusive, and you will have the world in the palm of your hands.

Luis:

Be flexible, be intentional, be inclusive and you’ll have the world in the palm of your hands. That sounds good. That sounds something that goes inside the fortune cookie and it sounds really good. I think it’s a great place to leave. Thank you so much for that beautiful quote, Nancy. Do tell, please, people where can they find you? Where can they learn more about your consulting practice? Where can they find your book? Everything about you. Where can they continue this conversation?

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

You can visit my website, which is guidedinsights.com, and on my website on every page there’s a chance for you to sign up for my free monthly e-newsletter called Communique, which typically focuses on some aspect of hybrid or virtual work. On my website, there is a button you can click to schedule a call. I’m always happy to pick up the phone and schedule some time to find out more about you and to learn how we might be able to work together. Then, if you want to email me without having to go to my website, it’s simply [email protected] I am in the Boston, Massachusetts area, so I’m on Eastern Standard Time.

Luis:

All right, I’ll have that on the show notes so that people can just refer to that, to go to the right places. Yeah, thank you so much, Nancy. This was a lovely conversation. I enjoyed having you.

Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Well, thank you. Thanks for having me. It was a real privilege.

Luis:

It was my pleasure. Thank you for listening, ladies and gentlemen, to the DistantJob podcast, your podcast about building and leading awesome remote teams. See you next week. We close another episode of the DistantJob podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please, you can help us out by sharing it on social media. That would be great. It’s how we reach more listeners. The more listeners we have, the more awesome guests I can get in touch and convince to participate in these conversations that are a joy to have for me, and I hope they’re a joy for you to listen to as well. You can also help a lot leaving reviews on iTunes or your podcast syndication service of choice.

Luis:

Reviews are surprisingly helpful in helping the podcast get to more listeners. Now, another thing that you might want to do is go to distantjob.com/blog/podcast. Click on your favorite episode, any episode really, and subscribe. By subscribing, you will get a notification whenever a new episode is up and whenever we get the transcripts of the episode up, so you can actually produce the conversations in text form. Of course, if you need to find a great employee for your team, a great remote employee, you should take the whole world into consideration and not just look to hire locally. Not just look to hire in your country. Look around the whole world because that’s the talent pool that contains the best talent.

Luis:

To help you with that, again, distantjob.com is the perfect place to start. You will tell us who you need and we will make sure that you get the best possible candidate, 40% faster than the industry standard. With that, I bid you adieu. See you next week on the next episode of the DistantJob podcast.

The pandemic led companies to shift towards a 100% virtual model. This not only translated into how teams collaborated and worked but also into how meetings took place. Zoom became the new conference room, and while for some teams, the transition was easy, for other leaders engaging their team virtually became a challenge.

During this podcast episode, Nancy shares key strategies to keep people engaged in online courses and meetings. Understanding your team´s dynamics is also useful for conducting meaningful conversations and meetings. 

Highlights:

  • How to keep people engaged in online courses and meetings
  • Insights about designing engaging online courses 
  • How to establish clear communication processes in remote teams
  • Introverts vs. extroverts: why understanding their differences matters when running virtual meetings 
  • Why leaders need to learn many other skills when leading virtual teams
  • How can leaders build trust in remote teams

Book Recommendations:

Don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE so you won’t miss all of the other interesting episodes that we have coming up every Monday!

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