“Zoom, Zoom, Zoom” may seem like the title of a children’s song, but for many of us, it’s the reality of the workday—a string of Zoom meetings that take up the brunt of one’s time. And while virtual meetings have been a great way to stay connected to colleagues and hold brainstorming sessions, they can be a real hindrance to productivity.
It’s important for CMOs and other leaders to help their teams Zoom smarter, not harder. In this week’s episode of Renegade Thinkers Unite, Smartsheet CMO Anna Griffin shares tips and tricks for facilitating effective brainstorming sessions, like starting meetings with a frame break and assigning ownership. The process passed the test, as the Smartsheet team pulled together and published their recent global survey within a week of their initial Zoom ideation session. Be sure to tune in, you won’t want to miss it.
P.S. You can now watch the entire interview on our YouTube channel!
Full Transcript: Drew Neisser in conversation with Anna Griffin
Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Thinkers! Here’s a question for those of you who used to work in an office: are you more or less productive than you were before work-from-home quarantine? Now, I know the answer will vary depending on your living conditions, the length of your former commute, how many kids you have in your home, if any, the number of hours you’re spending a day on Zoom calls, and the nature of those calls.
Funny enough, this week I heard a CMO mention something called the “Zoom economy” and boy did that strike me as where we are and what we’re in. Like it or not, we are now in the Zoom economy, and suddenly individual and team productivity comes down to our collective ability to manage in and around these video calls. Ask CMOs and they’ll regale you with stories of virtual coffee breaks and happy hours and lunch-and-learns and book clubs and other ways they are helping employees feel connected.
But what happens when you survey younger employees like Gen-Z and millennials? How are they feeling about the Zoom economy? Well, recent research from Smartsheet suggests that they’re not so thrilled with work-from-home. In fact, 82% of Gen-Zers feel less connected and their biggest complaint is all of the Zoom meetings. In fact, 61% of Gen Z and 57% of millennials identified video calls as an obstacle to their productivity which begs a lot more questions that we’re going to address in this episode with Anna Griffin, who is the CMO of Smartsheet. With that long introduction, welcome to the show.
Anna Griffin: Thank you so much, Drew. Happy to be here.
Drew Neisser: So, first of all, where are you, and how has work-from-home affected you personally?
Anna Griffin: Well, I’m in Raleigh, North Carolina instead of Seattle and working from home. It’s been wonderful to be at home and to be a part of my children’s lives and my dog’s and my husband’s and the things that you don’t always get to do when you work a pretty aggressive executive life.
But I tell you what, I agree with the research. It can be very difficult and it’s certainly a trying time, I’m finding, for everyone that I speak with. We’re connected, but wow, we’re not quite as productive.
Drew Neisser: You know, it’s so interesting. My kids are grown up and out of the apartment and we just have a dog to deal with. This has actually been, frankly, pretty darn easy. If we actually had a full kitchen, we would be in a perfect situation. But you have kids at home. You’re a CMO, you’ve got kids, and you’re also a teacher. How are you juggling that and how has that created a little bit of extra empathy for all the folks on your team?
Anna Griffin: I commuted for work probably the last 12-15 years, so I’ve always been out of the house. The children knew that when mom is away, she’s working, and when I was at work, all I did was work. Then, on the weekends, you know, Mom was home.
Now I feel like I have much greater empathy for every working mom out there because that balance and that struggle—someone walking into a Zoom call, they have no understanding that you’re on with the board. To them, it’s just you’re on your laptop. Why can’t you help with their homework or answer the question or tell them what we’re going to do this weekend or not going to do this weekend because of COVID?
It’s super challenging and I have such great respect for people who have had to master this every single day of their lives.
Drew Neisser: It’s amazing. And I do too. My heart goes out to those folks because it’s three jobs now instead of two and what’s funny, as you were talking, I was thinking about—I’m sure that you’re doing Zoom calls with relatives and friends where the kids are involved, and so they all are thinking, “Oh, well, we can just join this, why not? This is what we do. This is how we talk.”
Anna Griffin: Exactly.
Drew Neisser: From a leadership standpoint, from your perspective, as you’ve been in Raleigh—your team’s and Seattle or wherever else they are—how has this impacted how you’re approaching leadership right now?
Anna Griffin: You know, in leadership, it’s so important to stay connected. Everyone knows that. You want everyone to feel a part of things. But what we’ve lost is that ability—the drive-bys, the chance for a smile or a high five in the hallway. There are little tiny things that say, “I’m thinking about you. I’m proud of you. You’re on my mind. Way to go.”
You lose that or, when you try to replicate it, to your point, you have now scheduled another 30-minute window for video conferencing and it’s really taxing. I’d say from a leadership perspective, trying to find those moments that are reminding people, “I thought of you, you’re on my mind.” “Congratulations.” “How’s your daughter doing?” “Hey, did you guys get that new puppy?” Just the tiniest little things to let people know you’re still there even if you’re not in a meeting. Like, what is your version of a hallway drive-by?
Drew Neisser: Is that a quick “Hey, attaboy!” on Slack? I mean, how are you actually doing it? It’s hard. On one hand, our lives are much more exposed than they ever have been. We were talking about this before the show—kids showing up and Zoom calls and dogs—but on the other hand, we’re disconnected. We’re not physically together, so how do you deliver these virtual “attaboys?”
Anna Griffin: I try to break out of the classic Office Suite of tools and try to use something different, so in social media, they’re not looking for it or they don’t expect it. Sometimes a text, there’s an app that we use—Marco Polo. It’s Snapchat for old people. It’s a little video that I make non-work related and it says, “I’m thinking about you” or “I had a free moment,” but it doesn’t feel like a workplace video call. It’s reaching them in a personal modality instead of in the confines of Office Suite.
Drew Neisser: It’s funny—one of the CMOs I was talking to last week, she’s actually just calling people, which is kind of old school, but she’s calling her team and just saying, “Hey, just thinking about you wondering how things are going.” But your video idea, I love that too because they can do it at their own time. I think that’s part of this era that we’re in—work is when you can get to it, not 9 to 5. If you send a video like you described and they open it at 10:30 at night or they open it during the business day, it doesn’t matter, has the same effect. That’s really interesting.
Let me step back for a second. Staying connected has been a big challenge. What about collaboration in terms of getting folks to work together when we’re all in isolation?
Anna Griffin: Yeah, there is a blessing and a curse in it. I’m finding that the collaborating is getting everyone together but you get size, and anytime you put size into the mix, you get people pulled back and there are crickets. I’m trying to go, “What is the right size for the best type of collaboration?” There’s a piece where you want everyone to be included, but also the more you include, the more silent calls become.
Like, “Does anyone want to jump in?” and I think people get that scared feeling because there are 20 people, and someone might not like my idea or that might make someone angry or I’m just going to be quiet. There’s a little bit of that. I’m trying to find the right size for that.
But I will say the blessing of the collaboration is that you are able to take ideas and action them almost real-time. You can literally take brainstorming and start to action it in real-time. In our world, we use Smartsheet so we use a sheet, clearly. But it takes that “Oh, that’s a great idea,” it gets captured, it gets assigned, and before the meeting even ends, everybody knows exactly what to do, who’s on point, who’s doing it. It’s taking collaboration to a different level that perhaps doesn’t always happen and in live rooms.
I’m loving it. I’m seeing collaboration plus execution and those two things together, man, that’s where real things happen and happen fast.
Drew Neisser: I love that idea and I want to come back to it. In fact, we’ll probably spend the whole second segment on that, but I wanted to stop and put a punctuation point on one thing.
Clearly, there is an optimum size for meetings depending on what they are, and Zoom meetings in particular. I have found that the minute you get over 10 people in a Zoom call, the participation, the interest of people, they start to look at their email. It just happens. But if you can keep it under that—that was one point.
The second thing that you spoke about and I heard from another CMO was the nuances of decision making. This one CMO told this wonderful story about how they made a decision not to go with a particular marketing technology. Then the CMO got an email, no, a LinkedIn message from that vendor saying, “Hey, I think you have to think about it for these three reasons.”
She went back to our team and said, “Hey, team, did I make a mistake in this decision?” and they said, “Yeah, you did. You should have gone with that vendor.” She said, “Well, why don’t you tell me?” Well, it was the context of the meeting and I think one thing that we have to be careful about as CMOs and as leaders of organizations is that you’re going to miss some of that in a Zoom call.
Collaborating in the Zoom economy puts extra pressure on the CMO to make sure you’re going back and getting input and it may be a quick chat like, “Hey, I noticed you were tuned out for a second. Did you have a different opinion?” because you may not be getting the opinions that you got in a group setting because you can’t really see what they’re doing. You’re competing with it.
Anna Griffin: And body language. Yes, we see each other. We don’t see each other’s full—I’m looking at you and we’re looking at each other’s heads. You don’t see my shoulders shrugging, you don’t see the things that you would see that you just can pick up in a room. The lack of body language and the ability to read that to really know. To your point, context is huge.
Drew Neisser: This is the first podcast that I recorded in short pants. I’ve got my golf pineapple short pants and no one’s going to know that ever (except for the fact that I just shared it) and it is true, you can just be from here, up on Zoom.
In the Zoom economy, first, number one as a leader, we need to be thinking about the fact that you’re not getting all the messages that you thought you were, that you used to get. You’re not getting the opportunity to give high fives and congratulations, so you have to step up and do more. Alright, we’re going to take a break and we’re going to come back and really going to zero in on this notion of collaboration and productivity. Stay with us.
Drew Neisser: Okay, we’re back, and we’ve talked about the challenges of collaborating in the Zoom economy, but I want to really get into this because you have a notion that you can have these meetings and you can collaborate, but—what was the term? It was “collaboration without” what?
Anna Griffin: Execution.
Drew Neisser: Execution! Right, collaboration without execution. We’ve all gotten together, and we said, “Hey, this is a great meeting!” Talk us through the collaboration and execution idea.
Anna Griffin: The beautiful part of collaboration is more blue sky, new perspectives, lots of different people, so people are feeling creative and their juices are going. But how do you turn an idea into action? I mean, that’s always been the proverbial challenge and it’s becoming even more of a difficult challenge now, when your entire day is filled with 14 hours of Zoom meetings. You’ve already lost maybe the three or four hours that was going to be your “get work done” time because now it’s gone into overdrive of “meet to connect” time.
The idea of how do you take those beautiful, brilliant, creative moments, and can you quickly assign them to an action or a next step or who’s on point or who’s going to explore that further and who’s going to drive that? Those are things that would traditionally be what I call “rope on a dope.” You might go into email for a week and then someone forgets about it and all of a sudden you lose the impact of an idea.
But then you couple that in a COVID market, where your response time and your ability to be there, to meet customers where they’re at, to meet colleagues where they’re at, to meet the market, to meet communications where they need—you have to be able to ink that dot because the expectation to output real-time is there. You have to work in a fashion that allows that to happen.
Drew Neisser: Interesting, and there are several thoughts that I want to, again, keep going deeper into. The first one is “idea into action.” It’s a great phrase—you have to get to idea first. Okay. I want to talk about that and then we can get into the rest of the things because I think there’s a lot more to talk about there.
One of the biggest complaints that I’ve been hearing about the Zoom economy is that real, true creative brainstorming, whiteboarding, all of those things—every CMO I talked to since has said, “I miss my whiteboard.” I’m wondering if you have any tips or thoughts on getting to idea, before we get from idea to action, just getting to idea in this Zoom world?
Anna Griffin: I think the first thing in any meeting is, to where do you want to ideate? Not necessarily just get work done, but you’re coming to ideate. You want to create a frame; give the room space. Start it different and take it completely out of the traditional “Okay, I’m glad we’re all here, this is the purpose of the meeting, this is what we’re going to do today” nonsense and just start with something completely off the top of your head. It can be a joke, something you saw, a “can you believe this?” or “who’s going to do this?” or “Is anyone going to pull a prank on their mom for Mother’s Day?” Whatever it takes to get people off guard because I think we’re so on guard right now.
“Okay, here goes the next call” and “I can’t be late” and “Now, we’re in” and “They’re looking at everybody’s faces” and “I’m here”—that already sucks the creativity of the room, so you have to enter into it with a frame break. I can tell you a joke we did that was a frame break for a meeting. I had a colleague on the phone, he runs the website. Total prank—we said, “Oh my gosh, we were just on Squawk Box. What happened to the homepage of the site? You go to it and instead of “COVID,” it has a big Corona beer. Did we get hacked?”
The entire web team was panicking. They were going into their accounts saying, “We don’t see that!” then we said, “Prank!” It was just a silly thing that we did but then everybody just broke into laughter and our connection after that moment of now starting to think about what we were going to talk about and ideate, it just gave everyone an “Okay, we can have fun. That was silly. And now, my mind is actually opening up for a different type of thinking.” Frame break is my number one tip.
Drew Neisser: As I’m imagining as your web team, I hope you sent them some champagne or a sedative later because their hearts must have been racing.
Anna Griffin: It does sound a little cruel, but it was funny in the moment.
Drew Neisser: Yeah, it goes into the category of everything is funny unless it happens to you, because we’ve all been there with that and that is a scary moment. But I get the point and it’s a good one, and good for you for pushing the boundaries. I love the idea of a frame break. We may take it for granted, but when we used to do brainstorming sessions as part of our process with clients, we would walk in with all sorts of fun things to throw at each other and we had all sorts of exercises.
Besides the frame break, what else have you seen that has worked to help you just get to idea in the context of these video calls?
Anna Griffin: A casualness. I think everybody approaching things in a more casual way—“This is going to sound stupid, but what if we did this?” There is a formality about being live, how we dress, the room, the rules, even the whiteboard. There is a formality about a live meeting in some sense. Taking advantage of the casualness allows more people to participate and more things come in and out of the conversation than if you were an “Uh oh, we’re going to write it on the whiteboard now, so it better be smart.”
Drew Neisser: It feels like there’s a whole new role for a virtual collaboration leader who knows how to run these things.
Anna Griffin: An entertainer.
Drew Neisser: Entertainers to move it along and so forth. Okay, so keep it informal, and as you were talking, I’m thinking—are we hurting ourselves by doing this on video instead of just audio? But then it occurred to me, the minute you don’t see my face, I’m looking at my email.
Anna Griffin: Yeah. You have no idea who really is, to your point, even on a Zoom or a WebEx call. The larger the group, you’re still only going to view x amount of people and everybody is going to be doing email, so I do think some kind of visual contact is important.
Drew Neisser: One of the CMOs I talked to has actually gone so far as to have a camera on a whiteboard and assigning someone a whiteboard, so there’s actually a screen that includes the whiteboard as they go in, just to help folks realize, “Okay, we can do this.” But that’s a little extra work; you need an extra camera and an extra Zoom account.
Anna Griffin: Well, no. You just need Smartsheet!
Drew Neisser: Ah.
Anna Griffin: That is essentially what a sheet does. It is that ability to capture anything. You can put anything on it, any kind of view that you want, and you can pop in images and attachments or films or clips, so it does give a unifying platform. And look, I’m not trying to sell my platform, I’m sure there are others who may be able to do this as well—but to take a brainstorm and to give a unifying platform for data input and capture and attachments and views, you get the same feeling of being in a room, but it’s just done in a sheet. What’s beautiful is that it’s always recorded, it’s shareable, and it’s updated real-time, unlike a traditional whiteboard. It’s a great tool for ideation.
Drew Neisser: Perfect. Alright, so we’ve got a bunch of ideas. We have to sort through them somehow. Somebody has to make a decision. We’re going to pursue those 2, 3, 4, 10, whatever it is. Now we’ve got to, as you said, turn it into action. I think we’ll take a break and come back and talk about that.
Drew Neisser: We’re back and we’re talking about how you’ve had brainstorming sessions via video, you’ve come up with a bunch of ideas, and you’ve narrowed those down. Now, you need to turn those into action.
First of all, you need to turn those into action, which is just a reminder that you don’t want to leave a brainstorming session without having some sort of sorting process and a plan, which is a big point that you made in the first segment. Let’s talk about that. What does that really entail?
Anna Griffin: Number one: Who’s on point? If somebody is not feeling the ownership—and I think that’s the number one thing to getting things done—in group meetings, everyone can feel like, “Well, we’re all there, so I guess we’re all owners and therefore, nobody’s the owner.” Having some type of ownership—you have your action plan, but somebody has to own their pieces or their part. It doesn’t mean that they’re not going to collaborate and work across, but they’ll have that sense of ownership. The other thing about a clear sense of ownership is that it’s empowering.
I think in a lot of group meetings and ideations, people are empowered because they see what’s possible, but at the same time, are they the ones who are going to make it happen, or is it the agency? There’s this ability to create real empowerment in working this way, so ownership is step one. It’s also amazing assigning ownership. You kind of know who they are. In a room of ten, there’s always one that I call the “can-doer.” That can-do person. When you can assign ownership to the can-doer, man, you really get an activation that can take off.
Drew Neisser: So, it’s not just identifying what the actions are, it’s attaching an action to somebody on your team who you can count on to push it forward.
Anna Griffin: Yes, yes. And then giving them the tools to connect because ideas don’t happen in a vacuum. They have an inside and outside of your walls. There’s an ecosystem of people that have to touch ideas and have the ability to weigh in or produce or connect. I think it’s about having the right kind of tools so you can connect that wide ecosystem. Everybody has a single or common source of truth and there’s somebody who has ownership of the driving. That clarity of who owns and how everyone can action and where things are in real-time is a gift in moving to execution quickly.
Drew Neisser: I’m wondering—since early March, we’ve all been virtual. Have you put this process to the test? What have been some of the outcomes? What have been the ideas to actions that you’ve been able to execute and get to in these last few months?
Anna Griffin: Well, I think you opened your segment with it beautifully. We created a piece of research that had been published. That was a Sunday afternoon video call that we connected to a sheet and we were in the market two days later with a partner and a survey, and we had results back five days later. We were able to take what still felt like really good insight and actually build something that could be a campaign in literally a week based on real insight.
It wasn’t like, “Hey, let’s take some pre-canned stuff, and now’s a good time to be in market so let’s be in market.” It was like, “Let’s take something that’s insightful now that could actually cause people to think or want to take greater action.” Ironically, it might have worked because we’re taking the action through this podcast today, so I like to think that it worked.
Drew Neisser: Yeah, if I think about it, you probably had a number of ideas. First of all, a Sunday video call says there was some urgency in that you had a need to do this to ask your team to work on Sunday and to really be in that moment. Then you probably had a bunch of ideas. You identified this one and said, “Oh, we can do it. It’s quick.” You assigned a can-doer.
Anna Griffin: Yep.
Drew Neisser: A can-doer who led that, and then someone found a partner, brought it together, got the research, and so forth. It’s a great idea. Research is always a weapon for marketers as a way of generating PR and interest in having something to talk about, giving your salespeople something to talk about. It’s a great methodology, it’s an action versus words. It shows that you’re thoughtful.
I’m curious—as you looked at the reason to do that research, did you link back to any of the earlier brand work that you did? In other words, one of the things that often happens when we give someone a tactic, like say, “You ought to do research,” they go off and do research, but it’s not on point. It might be in the moment, but it’s not on point and it doesn’t connect back to the brand.
Ultimately, we’re in the business of starting conversations, but does it connect back to the purpose of the brand? I’m just curious because I know you did a lot of purpose work in your first year.
Anna Griffin: Absolutely. Our brand is about achievement and the people that we serve are those who can-do. That is why we make the product that we make, so they can do more, so they can achieve. They don’t want to work; they want their work to matter. They want it to mean something.
I think when we pulled together, we were about three weeks into this work-from-home and we were like, “Oh my god. Is everybody feeling like this? Are we really achieving more? I know we’re spending more time together. We’re all working 15-hour days, but are we achieving more?”
We could see a really challenged world, so we knew what our hypothesis was that people are not more productive right now, which is the irony of, “Oh, but we’re all collaborating and connected so we must be more productive!” That essentially came right out of the brand purpose: is something getting in the way of your human achievement? And what can we do to help you with that? Let’s go find some facts and then let’s go figure out how to help you solve that. That’s what we want to do. Remove the barriers to achievement.
Drew Neisser: I’m so glad I asked that question—a good brand purpose, when you have it like that, you can apply it to yourself. You can say, “Gee, are we achieving more?” We’re looking around going, “Well…” What’s interesting about this is that, from my informal research, marketing and sales in general are not achieving more but the developers out there, the coders, the engineers, they’re in hog heaven and they’re just coding in a dark room happy not to have the interruptions there.
Some of it really depends on you as an individual, but I think in general, there’s a lot of “I’m on a lot of calls, but I’m just spinning wheels.” You guys identified that as a problem that related right back to your purpose, and then you went out to do the research and, of course, the research confessed, as it often does, to identify the problem. It allowed you to say, “Well, okay, productivity is an issue, collaboration is an issue, by the way, we might be able to help with that.”
Anna Griffin: I was blown away, Drew, at the research. I generally felt that people were going to somehow feel less productive. I had no idea that millennials and the younger generation were—like, to me, I thought they just got everything they wanted. They’ve always wanted to work from home. They have more productivity tools, there’s an app for that, they work their way at their style and their preference, so I thought for sure, this must be their heyday; they’re living their best life right now. I thought it was super interesting that that demographic more than others was feeling less connected.
That power of belonging is still important, so we’ve got to figure out, with technology, how can you still belong and get stuff done?
Drew Neisser: I think that’s the challenge that remains to be solved. My personal perspective on this, as I look at a lot of universities who have gone virtual—the notion that a university experience could be replaced by a virtual experience is almost laughable because that assumes that going to university is, in fact, just transactional, that it’s just about the courses. It’s not. It’s about a lot of other things and the serendipitous interactions of people coming together and so forth.
I think we’re going to find, even though all these companies like Twitter say they’re going to be work-from-home indefinitely, I think we’re going to find that companies that also come back together physically are actually going to be more competitive down the road. You can’t solve all these problems virtually. I personally believe that because the notion that work is transactional underestimates how we feel about working. It’s all about, “I work with people who I respect and like. I get a chance to be with them.” Humans like to get together.
Anna Griffin: There is power in a union. There always has been, so how do you create union again? You either have to be so united on a cause or a mission and that becomes your union—and it’s got to be a worthy mission to get that real sense of union or you have to be feeding off the physicality and off the energy of each other. If we’re going to continue in a post-virtual world where this is very much not going away, this is going to be the trend—how are we going to find union?
Drew Neisser: To your earlier comment, I think companies that have a purpose and a clear purpose that makes it easier for employees to understand why they get up and get on their computer every day now instead of getting up and going to work is helping a lot. I think it helps more than others that don’t have a purpose will ever realize. That’s a huge part of it, so I agree with you there. I also think that there is going to be this moment where people are going to get back together and they’re going to go, “Oh my god, I missed you so much,” even though they’ve been talking all the time. They missed more than simply talking and chatting.
Anyway, I’m almost off-topic, but I want to wrap this up because I think we’ve covered a lot of ground. In a virtual world where we have no choice, we have to figure out and solve some of the problems that we’ve discussed in the show.
We have to figure out a way to make our Zoom calls more productive. We have to figure out ways of engaging with our employees as leaders in different and fresh ways so that we can give some positive feedback. We have to look for some of the nuances that you’re not seeing in a video call to make sure that when you’re asking for everyone’s opinion on a decision, you’re actually getting everyone’s valuable input and not just everybody nodding their heads because they’ve been on so many Zoom calls and they just want to get off the call.
There are a lot of interesting challenges that we’ve talked about, and you’ve also provided a lot of insights in terms of getting us from ideas to action, which is so important here.
Anna, I guess my last question for you, as CMOs are approaching the Zoom economy and it looks like we’re going to be in it for quite a while, give us two dos and a don’t.
Anna Griffin: Two dos. Do show up on time. For some reason, it seems less tolerable for people to be late to Zoom meetings than it did to live meetings. I don’t know why, so show up on time. Do relax it and create a frame break so you get the best out of people. It’s weird—that’s a juxtaposition. Be punctual yet be relaxed.
And don’t do it all day long. Just create the white space again for your head, for your team. You can only talk live to people for so long, and everything doesn’t have to be a meeting. Don’t do it for 14 hours a day.
Drew Neisser: That’s such great advice. I think a lot of the CMOs that I’ve been talking to have been putting virtual lunch breaks out there and saying, “Hey, you can join me for lunch, we’re not going to talk about work,” or they’re encouraging employees to do No-Zoom Thursdays, or they’re doing whatever they can do to give employees a break.
Part of this is that you have to realize that when you have a camera on you, you’re on. Studies have shown when a camera is on an animal or a person they behave differently, so you just have to be mindful of that and give folks a break. All right. Thank you so much, Anna. It’s been awesome having you on the show.
Anna Griffin: Thanks. Drew. I loved every second of it. Thank you.
Drew Neisser: My pleasure. And to all of my listeners, thank you as always for joining us. Until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.