Priya Parker describes herself as someone who helps “groups have really complicated conversations that they need to have that they’ve been avoiding.” On so many levels—from racial justice to how to navigate human biases and relations amid new approaches to work—that precisely describes the urgent needs of many organizations and teams right at this moment.
Parker is a facilitator and author of The Art of Gathering, a guide to creating meaningful, productive group experiences, whether personal or professional. We asked her for thoughts on how we should return to gathering in the workplace, and how to best approach the complicated, needed conversations as we do so. Here’s a transcript of our discussion, edited lightly for clarity:
What should people be thinking about ahead of returning to the workplace?
The deepest question that underpins this moment of re-entry is the following: how should we be spending our time? It seems like a super simple, almost banal question. But it's actually the underpinning question around who and how, and when should we meet. Around what, who decides, what are the advantages and reasons of physically coming back into work? What are the advantages, and reasons to work from home, to gather virtually, to meet virtually?
Looking back, we've all had this 12- to 16-month experience where most of how we did things previously was just paused. To data mine looking in the past: during that period what did I long for? Or what did we long for that we couldn't do? Did you miss the water cooler, metaphorical or proverbial? The informal interactions that happen in hallways and corridors and in doorways often—so much of the real data and relationships and context of a group or a gathering happens literally when people pause on the way into doorways and pause on the way out of doorways. You don't have that on Zoom.
First looking back and saying, what did I long for? What did we long for that we couldn't do during this time? And there's data in that answer. What did we not miss or feel relief about? Around the beginning of the pandemic there was a cartoon going around that was basically well, we're finding out all those meetings that could have just been an email.
We also gathered probably too much and met too much before the pandemic. So really asking what do we absolutely not need to bring back? Then there's a second phase which is during this 12- to 16-month period where many of us had to learn how to work differently. What was invented that we want to bring with us? Hybrid work and virtual work have modeled what the disability community has been advocating for for years. We've had huge progress in certain spaces and certain ways that we work. So period A is looking at the before times. Period B is what did we see? What did we invent? What was new? What was literally invented, because of this pandemic? People virtually create new ways of coming together. And then what is it that we want to invent in this moment now?
And pausing and actually asking that of ourselves, but then also creating space as managers or as leaders to explicitly have that conversation as a team or as a company or in groups. So that you can pause and reflect, so that you can actually change and create, so that when you answer the questions 'how should we be spending our time? How do I want to be spending my time?' the way your week works actually reflects that answer. When you say how I actually want to be spending my time, how should we be spending our time, so that when you answer that question, the answer to that question matches how the company, or how the group, or how people are designing literally their time. And it's everything from how long should a meeting be—what's the norm of a meeting, should it be 30 minutes, should it be 25 minutes, should it be 55 minutes? Who decides should the camera be on or off? All of these questions, fundamentally go back to that we have a chance to design—more than we have in perhaps a generation—how we spend our time and we probably shouldn't blow that opportunity.
To better understand the question of how we use our time, what are some examples of conclusions that you might come to if you analyze that?
It can be super simple. I had an example the other day where somebody realized that even before the pandemic in their company and their workplace, the relationships were often formed after hours, like 5pm to 7pm at the pub across the street. They had kids and were on the train home at 5pm and often missed that social lubricant. Other people don't want to go, maybe because they don't drink or because that's not the venue that they want to spend their time in. And realizing in this moment where basically for 16 months, no one had those two hours of bar time.
It gives an opportunity for people to actually think about, well, what if we did Friday breakfasts instead as the social lubricant time? It's been so paused that often the way we gather and the way we meet is on autopilot and these deep norms that are hard to shift for all sorts of reasons because in this moment no one was doing any of that for some time, we have an opportunity to actually ask, is this the best way? Maybe those people will go back to the bar. But there was actually a lot of people who wanted to have informal time and not through that form of activity or that time of day, but really actually do want to have some social time with their peers. So they're finding a different way, like starting a bagel breakfast club in their work.
The ACLU, for example, early days they started doing either a weekly or monthly all hands meeting virtually because they were all working from home. They would like rotate people to kind of host 10 minutes or five minutes and share a talent. But the talent could be silly. One of the examples is a nine-year-old son’s magic show. Coming into it for the first time they saw a senior director in their organization's nine-year-old come and do a magic trick. It just expanded their notions of each other and notions of each other’s world in a way that wouldn't have otherwise happened.
There's all sorts of different asterisks to examples like that—what's appropriate to share in the workplace and who's sharing it. But people have really had an experience where, because of the pandemic, they're seeing other parts of their colleagues and are really grappling with the questions of how much should we see? How much should we share? What does it mean to bring your whole self? Is that a terrible idea?
So that's another example, in really asking like what should we be sharing of ourselves? There was an article in the Times op-ed section a couple of months ago called something like 'I'll never love my company again.’ Thank god. There's a growing question around what should our relationship to work be. It happens one conversation at a time, one gathering at a time where we are really, really grappling with what should our relationship to work be and what should our relationship be to each other. These are fundamental questions that are being asked. Great managers are actually creating spaces to listen, to have them, and then find clear ways to make and communicate the decisions.
Do you have any even more tactical advice for how, if I'm leading a team, to initiate and hold the conversations that you're talking about?
First is to think about how do I want to get this information? What's appropriate, in terms of what should be anonymous and what should be in front of each other. Anytime you bring three more people together for a purpose, there are power dynamics. Particularly in work. So the first thing I would just think about as a manager is what is it that I want to know? And what's the most appropriate way to gather this information? For some people, it might be a poll or a survey with a lot of context so that you're not putting more weight on people with less power to speak up in a room about how they want to work.
So some of this need not even be conversations—it's listening to your people and there's a lot of ways to do that. The first is figure out what you need, what it is you're wanting to ask. And then thinking about how do you do this in ways that gets real answers without putting disproportionate or inappropriate weight on people with less power in the organization while still truly listening to them? The second is if you are going to host some kind of meeting around it, whether it's a team or a larger organization or company, then think who needs to hear this.
One of the mistakes we make when we gather is we just assume everybody's going to listen to everything. And we under-highlight what the role and what the purpose is for each meeting. For example, whether or not you just want to have people listen and get some feedback too, or are they going to actually help? Are you loosening the reins as a team? And you want to actually co-create your meeting norms with your team of six? Those are two different decision-making frameworks. And so the second is who is are you listening to and how are you listening to them? And then also who's making the decisions and why: is this a conversation? Is this a brainstorming? Is this a focus group? Is this just shooting the shit? What is the purpose of these conversations?
One of the words I've most internalized out of this pandemic is this word—it comes really from racial uprising—it's this idea of centering. Who are we centering and why? And we talk about centering blackness, centering as a verb itself as in whose voice do we most need to listen to and why? And really ask that. Studies show that when we give people a choice to do virtual or come into the office women are more likely disproportionately to work from home, or parents are more disproportionately more likely to work home, disabled people are more likely to work from home. Younger people are more likely to work from home. Really think about it for each company, for each manager, who are you wanting to center in these conversations? At the deepest level, what is the purpose of your company? What is the purpose of your meeting? Who needs to be at these meetings? And it shouldn't necessarily just be opt in because opt in has power dynamics.
Do you have small conversations? If it's a small team, it could just simply be sending out an email and saying, let's reflect on reentering. We want to just hear about what your experiences have been, what they are now and what they should be. And then sending out an email and asking literally these questions: What did you notice that you long for pre-pandemic that you want to make sure we bring back? What did you not miss and want to make sure we host a funeral for? In the pandemic, what ways of working really worked for you and why? What were some of the best-run meetings and why? What were some of the worst-run meetings and why? Again, think about anonymity. And then what are some of the norms that you would create or suggest for this team about how we meet and when we meet? Then finally, are there ways that you would most want us to meet or think about or gather or work as we come back? Explicitly ask these questions and then gather the information and think about if you're going to actually share in person as the meeting, how do you want to run that meeting?
Are you wanting people to share? If it's a six-person meeting that's very different than a 200-person meeting. Why do we talk? We talk in part to listen to other people's experiences and put them into the context of our own, perhaps hopefully to broaden our understanding of people's experiences in this workplace. But then also to, particularly if you're a manager, have power to expand your notion that people with less power in an organization than you might be experiencing it differently. And it's your job as a manager to figure out how do you get them to safely tell you what that is.
Research from the Slack Future Forum shows that people of color are much less likely to say that they want to return fully to the office than their white colleagues. The Future Forum analysis is that there are microaggressions and code switching and other emotional costs of being in physical work environments that some workers would rather opt out of. When you think about gathering in person, how would you approach that?
At a deepest level, it has been laid bare in most companies and organizations around the country that—not just the way we were working in terms of the manic-ness of it—the way that power is distributed, the way that whiteness works, the way that all of these various power dynamics works, isn't working for a lot of people. There's one thing to say, let's poll our people. And if the people with less power or the people of color or women are disproportionately likely to not want to come back in, then the question becomes, 'well why?', and to really listen to them. The long-term solution is not to have the people who are experiencing microaggressions stay at home. And then you have an even whiter or more male or less-diverse in-person group.
The real question is how do we actually shift power within this company? Fundamentally what is it that they're telling us? If I look at what's happening in Basecamp and the way that things have exploded over there, I think reckonings are happening at companies and organizations all over the country over the past 16 months. The deepest question becomes what is it that people are telling us that we are not seeing? How do we actually fundamentally not see—just to follow the example of Basecamp—the customer list of awkward names or whatever it was called just as an aberration. But the fact that it's just sort of existed quietly for a decade as a sign of a larger malaise.
Polling people and just giving them what they want is not necessarily the way you run an organization. It's the data. The next level begins to ask why do people feel this way? What is it that we need to do as an organization to shift the organization so that people aren't feeling that way? These are really complicated questions. Schools are grappling with this right now. In schools where there's say three classrooms and 10% or 20% or 30% of people of color, do you spread the people of color out across classrooms so that each class is diverse? Or do you make sure that the people of color have other people of color, even if that means two white classrooms? These are really complicated questions that a multiracial democracy should be deeply grappling with. And we have an opportunity at work to face these very complicated questions that are being revealed to us.
Research and people's preferences suggest that a hybrid approach is the right place to start for a lot of organizations. How do you have a gathering of people where some people are in person and some people are remote and have it be good, or at least not awful?
I agree—I think you start hybrid and this needs to be a time of deep experimentation and bets. A tip for managers is to announce this is three months of experimentation. In three months, we're going to do a post-mortem around the last three months. Otherwise what's supposed to be an experiment just ends up being the thing. So really we commit to a year of experimentation. We're going to do it in quarters. Truly carve out space for experimenting, and then having people reflect and then try something else.
Hybrid gatherings solve one problem. You allow people who want to work from home to work from home, and those who want to come in, come in. But virtual gatherings are really bad for informal interaction. And informal interaction is really important for trust. Over time, it's very difficult to have interactions that are cross hierarchy. Like bumping into someone in the elevator, in the hallway, grabbing lunch with somebody that's not super formal. It's also very difficult to be able to have what I call minor notes in conversation rather than major notes, like Zoom or any of these platforms where you're talking in front of everybody. Yes, you can use a breakout room. But hybrid gatherings for those who are virtual over time you're going to have the cost of not having a wide range of informal tools relationally.
Think about who you want to center in most dynamics when you have a hybrid gathering. If you have in-person and hybrid, if you have 10 people in person and two people virtually the dynamic is going to benefit the group in person. If you have two people in person, and say 12 people virtually naturally the group going to orient to the majority. So one is think about the size.
The second is have a facilitator or a host who's responsible for the virtual experience and one who's responsible for the in-person experience and have them be coordinated. Have those two people, particularly the one who's virtually, have power in the organization, whether it's relational power or positional power. Then, depending on what the context is, if what you're trying to do is center specific groups of people's experience, and the majority of people who are working from home are parents and women of color and disabled, the people in person each take the call from their own computer. Just because you're in person doesn't mean there may not be some meetings where actually it's more efficient for everyone to just be virtual.
And then finally, spend time at the beginning connecting people to each other, both in the room and across, and spend time, the last 5% of a meeting, closing in a way that that again helps people understand what transpired here, what are our marching orders, and how do we close. Specifically, that could be starting the meeting with the purpose of a meeting— what's our desired outcome? And then spending the five minutes in breakout groups or in smaller groups, or asking a question in the chat that just gets everybody warmed up for the day. It's simple, simple stuff, like put into the chat, 'What did you do over the weekend?’ Or 'what's a movie you recently saw that you'd recommend to people?' Or 'what TV show are you bingeing?' Or 'what's your song of the summer?'
It's not just kind of a nice to have. Studies show that people are much, much more likely to participate if they have participated in the first 5% of a meeting. So if you are wanting people to create a norm that they will speak up, that they're going to put stuff in the chat, that they're going to tell you, what's going on, create a mechanism for them to all do it within the first 5%. So that you're creating a norm of openness ahead of time and not just hoping. Otherwise the same people who feel comfortable will talk and the people who don't feel comfortable for any reason, won't. You're just basically perpetuating the dynamics that already exist.
You've written that a gathering should have specific, unique, and disputable purpose. How do you apply that to meetings? Is that an appropriate bar for how we think of our workplace gatherings?
It's a necessary bar in part because otherwise you're wasting people's time. We're already doing this, but we're backing into purpose. So it's like, I thought this was a brainstorming meeting—why is legal in the room? They all shut down everything. When we don't think about in advance the true purpose of a meeting, one, we over-include and two, people spend the first 30% of the meeting literally trying to figure out what their role is in the meeting. Am I listening? Do they want ideas? Are they just telling me this for information? Can I ask a question? And so for every meeting, whether it's ahead of time, particularly for standing meetings, to really get clear on what is the purpose of the staff meeting. The biggest mistake we make when we gather, particularly for meetings that we do again and again, is that we assume that the purpose is shared and obvious.
It's like, 'oh, a staff meeting. I know what that is.' But actually it can be all sorts of things. I recently did a two-part conversation with Brené Brown about re-entry and in the second one I actually give her a meeting makeover. She brings her actual weekly leadership meeting. And we dissect it and and it's a beautiful conversation because she's super vulnerable and no one really knows what the purpose of the meeting is. So they waste a lot of time. The different team members are bringing questions up that should actually just be a one-on-one and everyone's kind of like, 'well, why are we all talking about this versus what is worthy of the entire group? Is this a report out? Are we wanting to just connect?' Often you can see people getting uncomfortable or irritated, because it's like, what are we doing here?
I know a manager at Google who, to book a meeting with her in the Google calendar invitation, requires you to fill out three things like purpose, what do you need from me? And what's the role here? She manages 50 people and it helps them think ahead of time, before they meet with her,. It helps her be really successful and help them.
Absolutely it's a relief to know what your role is. A lot of teams are also not embedded. Most teams you're hopping on and off calls. You know—you used to work at the Times. It's all collaboration. Like there's an ad guy, there's like three journalists, an editor. I would imagine there's a lot of different people in a room quickly. And so, yes, there's the weekly staff meeting, but actually a lot of meetings at work are actually people jumping in and out for different things for different reasons. And the difference when a host starts a meeting by saying ‘Welcome, thank you all for coming. This is why we're, we're here to discuss the feasibility of the launch of this product and whether or not we should launch in three weeks or we should postpone’—I'm making this up. Or ‘Welcome, we're here today to really land the decision on if this is the right direction for the brand.’ Or ‘Welcome, we're here today to really just look at creative possibilities of what the future of this brand could be.’
You're orienting your guests to literally, am I helping making a decision? Am I listening? Am I brainstorming? And because we don't orient our guests in the first 5% of a meeting, they spend a lot of time trying to figure out what their role is. Like, can I ask questions now? Can I not? Are they wanting me to respond? Or are they not? Is this just a rollout of information? When do I talk? And the beginning of every meeting, when you orient people, it's a relief to be able to know the role I'm going to play.
My day job is still as a conflict resolution facilitator. So I literally still go into organizations and facilitate very complicated conversations inside organizations or advise organizations on how to do that. I had a group of people coming in to begin to plan a gathering pre-pandemic, from like four different companies. This is true in events often. There's a designer team. There's the production team. There's the client, there's the ad team. You sit, and there's a norm that everyone should talk.
But in that context, actually, everyone shouldn't talk. Some people actually just really needed to listen, to hear about how the two principals thought about a problem. And it's actually a relief to say, okay, the purpose of this meeting is to really get the core idea, so these people are going to talk and I want you to listen to how they think. I want you to listen to how they're using language. I want you to listen. These four people are going to be our really strong listeners. And at the end, we're going to ask you what was most interesting, and this person's going to take notes. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief because you're orienting the room so that—you can't see me right now, but I'm weaving my hands as if I'm stitching a piece of fabric. It's like, let's get to work. You're helping a group coordinate itself so it can do brilliant work.
Some organizations taking hybrid, remote, and flexible approaches are planning to have frequent offsites so that colleagues can connect, build trust, and and do all of the things that might be harder to do without the same physical proximity. How would you think about that?
I will always say this: It depends on the context. And different gatherings are good for different reasons and size also really matters. Offsites are really good for that informal inter-stitching I was talking about. Offsites are really wonderful to allow people to wear multiple hats and have different identities in a way that feels appropriate in that context. Meaning (this isn't me), but like I'm a parent of my kid's soccer team. I'm a lawyer. I'm biracial. I'm a great swimmer. You may actually just realize that because, during the breaks, I'm swimming laps in the pool. Or offsites allow people to expand their identities a bit in ways that are appropriate for that time.
Offsites are a wonderful antidote for particularly fully virtual, fully remote teams because they allow for that in-person trust-building. But also if you have a project or a challenge that you really need 16 great hours of thinking on, bringing people together for three or four days and having four-hour sessions where you're all together, generating an idea, or working on big flip charts, or really trying to figure something out together, the amount that you can figure out together through pursuing one idea over time is completely different than trying to do that over 16 hours one week at a time when so much life happens in between those two hours. My background is in conflict resolution. And when I was a younger facilitator, our approach often with multi-stakeholder regional dialogues—this is more than a decade ago—would be to bring people together through this process called sustained dialogue, bring competing or warring parties together three times a year for three days at a time in an offsite.
And we would sit with 19 leaders of Arab opposition leaders and Americans and European leaders, all in a room for 12 hours a day in part because what happens over the course of an experience, even intellectually the thread a group can follow is fundamentally different for eight hours than even two, six-hour sessions over six weeks. You actually have different outcomes. So you have to figure out what's the purpose of an offsite? What's worthy of an offsite? But I think it's a wonderful tool.
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