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Is Zoomism the new office presenteeism?

9 steps to achieving true impact through elimination of unnecessary video meetings and optimisation of Zoom.

Woody Allen once said that 80% of success in life can be attributed to simply showing up. A comment those of us who grew up working in an office environment may recognise, even if we’re not comfortable with it. We all know colleagues who seemed to get promoted more due to their ever-presence in the office than their brilliance. Someone who would rage against this practice is a certain Tim Ferriss, who’s The 4 Hour Work Week I was gifted by my wife at Christmas (a hint perhaps?) and I’ve enjoyed devouring despite being 10 years late to this revolutionary text.

Ferriss’ book, for the uninitiated, is a guide to freeing yourself from the 9-5 and becoming liberated in how and where you choose to work - a process of definition, elimination, automation and liberation - that’s his D.E.A.L. OK, some of this 13 year old book is a little outdated - virtually all the time saving websites he used have been overrun by others and my god, he even talks about using magazine advertising. But that said, the book is stimulating and his rejection of standard office working practices really got me thinking about a new looming threat to our work life happiness and indeed mental health; Digital Presenteeism or Zoomism as I’m calling it (other video platforms are available but sorry Zoom, that’s what ‘genericization’ gets you).

If you’re a knowledge worker, you will have now likely escaped the office for the best part of the last 9 months, with plenty more ahead. This indeed is one of Ferriss' hopes for you. But I wonder how truly liberated you feel given the circumstances? Especially as all our work and much of our personal life has shifted to Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, FaceTime, BlueJeans, Slack, Houseparty, and so on.

By escaping the office and the issues around presenteeism of old - have we replaced this unpalatable office-based practice with a new one - Digital Presenteeism?

I’ve been talking to friends and clients all over the world and the common working theme is clear:

I’m back-to-back on Zooms, I’m tired and not actually getting much work done but I feel I need to show up”. Sound familiar?

This especially in organisations that have had reorgs and redundancies in 2020. The pressure to be ‘always on’ and available to join yet another Zoom meet at the drop of a WhatsApp is probably not overt company policy but it is felt and therefore being acted on all the same. If we’re truly honest with ourselves, we know there are countless Zoom meets in our diaries that are simply not that important, valuable or vital for us to join, but we do all the same.

Now that’s what I call Zoomism.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Zoom super-fan – it allows me to run my business remotely and yes I even run a training programme on how to make the right sort of impact on Zoom. Zoom is a great tool but like many pieces of stand-out tech, it is certainly overused and often used poorly. Leading to the well documented experience of Zoom Fatigue. Many of us are feeling this, myself included, as my coaching and training business has now become 100% video. To show up at my best and be of service to clients I have to be aware of how I’m feeling, how present I am and take action when I need to. It’s great we can still work together and see each other but we mustn’t kid ourselves that it’s ‘just the same’ as face to face. The demands on us as humans are really quite different and therefore Zoom et al require some specific approaches and ways of working.

Simply put the use of video is more mentally taxing for us and the fact is that video calls require more mental processing than face-to-face interactions. When we interact with another person through the screen, our brains have to work much harder. A crucial implication being our minds make mental short-cuts or heuristic cues when making decisions based on video calls or virtual presentations. Meaning how you come across as a presenter can actually outweight the excellence of your material in the eyes of your audience. So your personal impact is crucial, even more so than in real life.

Zoom gets especially tricky when we’re in larger groups during big presentations and pitches - according to psychologist Janine Hubbard, people tend to normally only make eye contact with one or two people around a table as opposed to that intensity of feeling all eyes on them at one time, that wall of Zoom frames we all experience. "Say you're someone who has some social anxiety," she said. "That's just going to magnify it."

So, given that working from home is on the agenda for the foreseeable future, video platforms like Zoom are only going to grow in use. The question is how we improve our usage and find the healthy balance of sanity and productivity.

My suggestion is you do two things, in this order - eliminate and then optimise.

First, take a leaf out of Tim Ferriss' book and eliminate many of the Zooms in your diary, or at least reduce the length and number of attendees to these meetings. And then seek to optimise and improve your use of Zoom. Let's start with clearing some mental space for yourself.

Here are 5 tips on how to eliminate and reduce your Zooms - taken in order of most effective but toughest to achieve (see point 5 for a great way to sell these in)

1. Say no to Zoom calls (and indeed all meetings) that aren’t a valuable use of your time.

Challenge yourself to say ‘no’ to meetings that aren’t valuable to you or your business. This can include projects where it’s too soon for you to be involved and meetings with people who haven’t taken time to prepare, etc. One way to do this is to ask for a clear agenda and/or pre-read for the meeting. It’s possible this document might mean you’ll be able to respond and resolve things asynchronously (meaning less distraction). In situations where you can’t, you have the information you need to determine whether the meeting is actually worth your time. This is a good approach without risk of confrontation.

And when you do say no - be honest and open as to why you're saying so. Just not turning up will be considered rude and/or reputationally damaging.

2. Designate a Meeting-Free day as a team

Talk to your team about establishing a day in the week free of Zoom. This is one whole day a week that your entire team agrees not to book any video meetings in. “Meeting-Free Wednesday” is a popular choice right now – as it avoids key beginning and end of week catch-ups getting blown out. You can do this on your own, but it will be much more effective if you get your team on board. Imagine 20% less Zoom with this simple step.

Importantly, try to measure both your energy levels and productivity on the day you’re free of Zoom meetings – this will be vital for long-term acceptance and habitual change.

3. Establish ‘No Meeting’ time blocks

Go to your calendar tool and book blocks of time for focused working. That time when you can actually think, write, produce, create and be truly productive – what we used to call work but is now labelled ‘deep work’ (meaning everything else is 'shallow'?!)

If you like, you can label these according to what you plan to do during them. But simply naming them “No Meetings” or “Do NOT Book” tends to work well as it’s pretty unambiguous.

You might even agree as a team that you all have a preference for your key Zoom meetings to be first thing or then end of the day.

4. Reduce Zoom Calls by going back to email

“Well, that meeting could actually have been an email” said so many people, so often. Email gets a bad rap but if you use email correctly, this approach will force you to think through your ideas (at least a little bit) before sharing them. It also won’t be as disruptive to your colleagues’ day.

Additionally, as you’re probably using one form of cloud-based collaboration options already, Google docs or MS Teams. Try these for your next brainstorming session vs yet another Zoom.

5. Making it happen

If any of these new approaches is either hard to sell into your boss or you fear push back from colleagues. Try the ‘Puppy Dog Close’ technique. Essentially a sales technique borrowed from pet shops where you offer a trial period with a no-quibble return.

“How about we give No Meeting Wednesday a go, after 2 or 3 weeks if we don’t feel it’s worked, we can put those meetings back in. Does that sound reasonable?”

Of course, that’s reasonable. And make sure you have some data points to back it up at review time.

OK now you’ve eliminated many needless Zooms from your diary and freed up hours of more productive time, it’s time to optimise your use of this brilliant platform and ensure the Zooms you do are the best you ever had.

I run a training programme called "Own the Zoom Room" which goes deep into attitudinal, behavioural and some technical aspects of video presenting - but here are some tasters from that course for more effective presentations on Zoom.

1. Develop a clear, agreed agenda and stick to it

If you’re going to have a meeting on Zoom - then make sure all attendees understand the P.O.S.T. of the meeting. Its Purpose, the desired Outcome, how you’ll Structure it and of course the Time it will take. Diageo have used this for technique for years and I find it brilliant for setting up an action-orientated and collaborative agenda.

And on the T for timing, keep it tight - think of a number and halve it. See Parkinson Law on this – as we tend to use the time we are allotted even when we could achieve the same in less time.

2. Energy awareness and breaks.

As we’ve explored already, video calls are more demanding on our minds than in person meets so be aware of everyone’s energy – physical, mental and emotional. Especially as many people turn up to Zooms already drained from the last hour or two of video they just came from. Make a point of calling this out - have a planned re-energiser if your meeting goes over 25 mins (can be as simple as standing up and stretching).

Carefully plan time in the P.O.S.T. agenda for proper breaks - at least 5-10 mins off screen per hour - refuel, hydrate and stretch. I also build in some Breathework into longer sessions (with a max of 2 ½ hrs online) - good at the start of a session to centre everyone. It’s not woo-woo, it’s simply good for you.

3. Set Up For Success

Prepare your Zoom frame with care and thought. Now you’re going to do fewer Zooms, do them better and make a greater impact.

Focus on your background – ensure it's not hectic or untidy as this plants seeds in meeting attendee heads. Have some personal items that say something (positive) about you. Curate this carefully as you would your appearance in a real life meeting.

Think about lighting and sound – avoid sitting in front of a bright window as you’ll be a dark shape to your audience and not the full you. And think about the sound your mic is picking up - yes you can mute but if you are presenting you need a quiet space perhaps with some basic baffling (duvets and throws work well).

And get your angles right – no one wants to look up your nose or just see the top of your head.

4. Personalise your presentation

As the person presenting can be as vital as the content they are sharing in Zoom, make sure your audience gets to know you. Use a few words of personal introduction, break the ice with a smile and comment about where you are and importantly if there is a child-running-into-the room scenario - don’t be embarrassed, embrace it – we’re human, home is now the office, and this happens.

Also try to avoid hiding behind your slides if using Powerpoint – make sure you open without slides so everyone sees YOU not your document first. Use a personal story or fact to make a key point. People love stories, now as much as ever.

There are so many demands on our time right now I really hope these tips make a real difference for you, I'd love to hear how it goes. There are of course even more approaches to really take your Zoom to the next level – and I’d be happy to talk to you about running a webinar or training programme for your business.


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