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To Mute or Not to Mute

“Of course, we want people to mute unless speaking.” I said presumptuously while preparing for a virtual retreat I facilitated earlier this year.

My client graciously responded, “Actually, we have been asking people to stay unmuted unless there’s distracting background noise...We have found it leads to more engagement. Unmuting creates a delay that kept people from speaking up as much as they would have otherwise.”

"That makes a lot of sense!" I replied contemplatively. "We will do it the way that has been working for you."

What I love about this story is how well it illustrates the illusion of best practices. As the world took to Zoom last year, having participants mute unless they were speaking was widely accepted as a must do. It makes sense for many reasons - unlike at in-person meetings, video calls will only carry the sound of a single microphone through our speakers.

That means when someone else is speaking and a dog barks at another participant's home, all we hear is the dog barking and not the speaker.

But not all background noises get picked up by our microphones. There's an audible train that goes through town near my office. I've asked on multiple Zoom calls if participants can hear it and they can't even though it's quite loud.

What's more, it takes time and effort to unmute yourself on Zoom that can disrupt the flow or commitment to sharing. This poses challenges during meetings where engagement and organic conversation are desired. Often times we miss valuable contributions because people started talking without unmuting first.

Many have joked that "You're muted!" was the catchphrase of 2020.

The forced shift to remote work in the last nineteen months has offered a living laboratory for experimenting with the ways we work. It's brought our awareness and attention to the impacts seemingly small details have on our experiences. To mute or not to mute is just one of the many questions leaders have had to ponder as they guide their teams' through unchartered water.

The pandemic has served as a great reminder that there is not one right or wrong way to manage a team. Rather than force your team or organization to fit into a best practice, perhaps it's time to shift the approach. We can do that by asking questions like, What is best for us to thrive? What practices best fit our culture? What's the best way for us to fulfill our aspirations?

Such a subtle shift drastically changes the power dynamics of a team by giving everyone agency over how they collectively show up to work. Instead of striving to get buy-in for engaging in a best practice, leaders are giving their team a chance to co-create a way to be their best together.

Perhaps the best way to foster engagement is by demonstrating the belief that everyone's voice matters. We can start by inviting people to contribute to crafting what work will look like in a post-COVID world and throw the notion of best practices out the window. Answering the question to mute or not to mute is just the tip of the iceberg!

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