COVID-19 CEOs: Is your use of your “Leave Meeting” button causing “ZOOM cruelty” and damaging your business?

Feelings of shame, hurt and anger, to name just three, were merely business as usual (“BAU”) at and after pre-COVID meetings at which people were physically present.

When I had a “proper job” in corporate life, I recall leaving meeting rooms and boardrooms in one of three moods:

  • Red-faced with shame: “And unlike Joe Bloggs, whose results were stunning, Ciaran’s department’s revenues were very disappointing indeed last month”. The D-Word used with devastating effect.
  • Beaming with pride: “And of course if only everyone in the business took a leaf out of Ciaran’s innovation book…” No turn left unstoned.
  • Rigid with boredom: “Ok, listen up everyone – my 30-slide deck on next year’s strategy is inspiring…” KMN.

But at least “back in the day” when a meeting ended, it didn’t stop. There was the ritual of the gathering of papers enabling football/opera/soap-opera conversations [delete as appropriate], snatched conversations with allies, snarls at enemies and, outside in the corridor/cafeteria/pub [or all three], an opportunity for fevered gossip:

  • “You got a right kicking there, didn’t you mate, LOL [or the nineties equivalent of LOL]…”
  • “Whose teacher’s pet this month…”
  • “I’m sure I must have zoned out at Side 3…”

The spectrum of boardroom and meeting-room behaviour was broad, from the Kafkaesque – see Chapter 12, The Fear Culture in Shredded on RBS by Ian Fraser – to the most benign and holistic – see Maverick! By Ricardo Semler.

But now at a time of “back to back of Zoom meetings,” everything has changed, utterly. The spectrum has morphed into something we don’t yet fully understand.

Academics and researchers are on to it. You will find a rich list of articles, many of them on “fatigue” if you Google “the psychological impact of video meetings during COVID-19”.  

But I know from my work that people feel upset, depressed, angry, confused, misunderstood, ashamed, and bullied after they press “Leave”.

And they are alone with their feelings at a time of global pandemic, with existential fear now part of “BAU”.

CEOs can’t afford to ignore this new reality from a human perspective and from a business perspective. Not that remote working is new. It’s that remote working by everyone at a time of pandemic is new. And ignorance of your unintended cruelty is not good enough. If you are a CEO, high emotional intelligence is no longer optional. At least if you want to survive a pandemic, it isn’t.

While we wait for the outcome of this research, I offer three simple steps CEOs can take to minimise the risks to their colleagues, employees and customers of “Zoom Cruelty”, intended or not:

Step 1: Leave five minutes at the end of each meeting for feedback.

Step 2: Give permission to all at the start of the meeting that no one should leave the meeting with “an itch unscratched”.

Step 3: Set up parallel systems for 1-1 feedback.

I facilitate 1-1, one to few and one to many Zoom meetings daily. Also, I have started to replicate, in part at least, “off-sites” for which demand remains strong.

While I can’t replicate the country house hotel experience on Zoom I can spread the “off-site’ over several 90-minute video sessions over many weeks and with heavy use of parallel systems: 1-1 email, What’s App and Slido, for example, for polling.

You can’t over-communicate with people working remotely from each other.

So, next time to you are about to press your “Leave Meeting” button, pause and be kind.

Ciarán Fenton

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