Reading the Remote Room in a Pandemic

Dear ATC,
I’m a relatively new chair, and I’ve found that I’m struggling with some of my leadership role as this pandemic drags on. Specifically, along with conducting online and hybrid classes, we’ve moved most of our department operations online. Committee and faculty meetings, for example, are now on Zoom, and I’m finding it increasingly hard to get any sense of whether people are at all engaged, if I’m asking the right questions, listening to the right voices (most people don’t even speak), setting a useful agenda, more useful than checking email, etc. Basically, I have no idea if I’m even doing a decent job. During face-to-face meetings I was always able to “read the room,” but Zoom feels like this black hole of response. I feel like I’m missing something or some valuable input, and I’m not sure how to get it, or figure out how to adjust what I’m doing. Any ideas?
—Prof. Illegibly Remote

Dear Prof. Remote,

All those things that are true of Zoom classes are equally true of Zoom meetings: no one wants to talk, there are awkward silences, and you’re slowly dying inside. So consider using some of the techniques you might use in a class that’s dragging. First of all, even though it’s a little cheesy, try an icebreaker. For example, have everyone report on a new skill, hobby, or obsession they’ve cultivated while we’re all stuck at home. Ask for photos of pets and do a quick slide show before you get started. Or play a little music as people are arriving. Anything to relieve the weird stress of the silence before a meeting begins and everyone’s staring at everyone else’s little box. Another idea: at department meetings I’m assuming that people are making committee reports. Have the committee chairs facilitate that part of the meeting, not you, to mix things up a bit. If there are specific decisions that need to be made, break people into smaller groups to discuss options and then have them come back to the larger meeting to report on what their group did. Then you can launch into a larger conversation.

In committee meetings, you could address the problem head-on, since it’s a smaller group and you’re more task-oriented. Start by saying that you’ve noticed that meetings are much less interactive and a lot quieter than they used to be, and what committee members think would be a good structure to the meeting to get everyone participating. Invite ideas for making the meeting more active and effective. One way you might do this, too, is to make meetings shorter. You can get a lot done in less time, and the meeting will feel less like molasses in January.

And be gentle to yourself. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were doing fine. People are still pretty freaked out about all kinds of things: the pandemic, the election, floods, fires, and I’m sure some of your colleagues are also having to supervise their children’s education. So their reticence to participate in meetings could have much less to do with you than their own feelings of unease. The more you can put people at ease and involve them in the meeting, even if not to participate substantively, the more relaxed everyone will be.

—The Chair

1 Comment

  • Miriam L Wallace says:

    These are some great suggestions. I have 2 small contributions:
    -for Division meetings (about 40-50 people) I’m posting agenda & documents in advance on Canvas (our LMS). I’ve tried creating discussion posts for more general topics–like what’s working for keeping up w/students. Some but not much response (more in spring). Meetings are closer to an hour than the previous 90 minutes.
    -Esp in Spring, but also now–some folks will carry on parallel convos in Chat. I’m kind of encouraging that—and that’s where more junior people seem to feel able to speak up.
    -Instituted a weekly coffee zoom (replaces an in-person w/treats and coffee/tea I started when I came in as chair). A few folks show up–sometimes more when I pose a question or topic. I’ve invited new folks from Disability Services, etc. sometimes… It’s more sociable and friendly for visitors than the formal meetings.

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