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Chris Gagné on Hand Signals for Zoom Meetings

Summary:
Many companies are starting to work remotely now, which could be unfamiliar and take some getting used to. For example: when you and your colleagues move from in-person to video-based collaboration, you'll miss out on some of the subtle body language that helps you know how to navigate or adjust your discussion flow.I’ve been an Agile Coach to the globally-distributed Agile teams at Holo for several months, so I thought I'd take a moment to share a little bit of what we've learned together. We've been using variations of these hand signals for a few years and have found them very helpful.Before you start using these hand signals on your next video call, make sure that everyone can see everyone else on the call on one screen. Zoom calls this “Gallery View” and there are similar settings on

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Many companies are starting to work remotely now, which could be unfamiliar and take some getting used to. For example: when you and your colleagues move from in-person to video-based collaboration, you'll miss out on some of the subtle body language that helps you know how to navigate or adjust your discussion flow.

I’ve been an Agile Coach to the globally-distributed Agile teams at Holo for several months, so I thought I'd take a moment to share a little bit of what we've learned together. We've been using variations of these hand signals for a few years and have found them very helpful.

Before you start using these hand signals on your next video call, make sure that everyone can see everyone else on the call on one screen. Zoom calls this “Gallery View” and there are similar settings on many video conferencing platforms:

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The “stack” to facilitate taking turns speaking

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The first set of hand signals is simply “the stack.” If someone else is speaking and you’d like to talk next, raise a finger. If someone already has a finger up and you’d like to speak after them, put two fingers up, and so on. I’ve seen stacks of up to five fingers.

When you’re done speaking, take a quick glance at everyones' video feeds and call on the next person in the stack. 

If you’re in the stack and still waiting when someone drops off the stack, lower one of your fingers so your place in line stays clear. 

Try not to lower your hand for long, because that signals to the rest of your team that you no longer wish to speak. It's polite to both go to the end of the stack if you still want to speak and let others get back in where they were if they try to return there.

The “C” to request a clarification with a question or comment

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A “C" hand signal means you’ve got a clarifying question or comment. Anyone showing a “C” cuts to the front of the line and gets to speak before others in the stack. Use your judgement and try not to abuse this privilege.

If you’re speaking now when someone displays a C, call on them next. I rarely see more than one person throw a C at a time, but I’m sure you’ll find a way to work it out.

The “delta” to request a change in topic

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Making a triangle with your two hands is called the delta. A delta, ∆, in math terms is a change. When you use the delta sign, you’re signaling that you’d like to see a change in topic or approach. If you're speaking, try to finish soon and check in with the person displaying the delta.

Wiggling your fingers or thumbs up to express enthusiasm or agreement

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If you are enthusiastic or agree with what someone is saying, you can put up your hands and wiggle your fingers with varying degrees of vigor. You could also show one or both thumbs up.

"Temperature check" to request feedback on a proposal

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Sometimes you want to get an analog temperature check on how everyone’s feeling about something. To ask, just say something like "Let's do a quick temperature check. This is 'I'm hot on this.' This is 'I'm luke-warm on this.' This is 'I'm cold on this." Then just give folks a few moments to respond accordingly.

"Roman voting" to gain consensus or feedback

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You can also get a little more decisive with what Agile coaches call “Roman voting.” You can ask people to show you a thumbs up, a sideways thumb, or a thumbs down.

A thumbs up means that someone agrees with the proposal, a sideways thumb means they don’t necessarily agree but will go along with it, and a thumbs down means they disagree.

I suggest holding three working agreements around this:

  • If nobody is displaying thumbs down, you can move on. If you've got nothing but sideways thumbs, however, realize your proposal's support is weak.
  • As the person seeking consensus or feedback, sincerely seek and consider the feedback of individuals displaying thumbs down.
  • If you show a thumbs down, be prepared to explain your objection and ideally what changes to the proposal could get you to a sideways or thumbs up.
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To use Roman voting:

  1. Make sure everyone knows your working agreement about what the hand signals mean and how you'll use your feedback. For instance, will you proceed even if you get a thumbs down that you can't resolve?
  2. Ask people to raise a closed fist when they've made a decision and they’re ready to vote. Having people put up their closed fist first and voting all at the same time helps you reduce the effects of peer pressure and group think.
  3. Vote on a quick count of three once everyone is ready.
  4. Make a decision and move on, or discuss and vote again if necessary.

You can use these hand signals in person, too

I find that many of these hand signals are useful even when you’re meeting in person.

The “stack” and “C” hand signals help ensure that more people have a voice. Without them, people who are faster to respond—often the highest paid people in the room—often speak before others get a chance. By creating a stack, you help ensure everyone with something to contribute can be heard.

The "delta" is a way of suggesting that the meeting might be getting off-topic or digging into something too deeply for the time or audience. Teams who use a lot of sticky notes can also display a pad of stickies like a football ("soccer") referee showing a "yellow card."

Be mindful of your cultural context

I can't think of too many hand signals that are both universally familiar and inoffensive. So it is important to choose signs that are appropriate for your cultural contexts. This is a balance of familiarity against potential offense: the "thumbs up" or "OK" signals are innocuous and familiar for the teams I support, but both are offensive in several cultures that we don't have represented yet. The specific sign is less important than the shared understanding of the intended concept, so work as a team to find familiar and inoffensive signs for your cultural context that represent the same concept.

In summary

You can use hand signals to augment your communication so that your team can work more effectively together. If you like these, share this article with your colleagues so you can come to a common vocabulary quickly.

What's most important to your organization isn't the adoption of these hand signals, but rather that you know you can add additional bandwidth to your communication using hand signals. You can always start with these and create new signals as part of your team's Working Agreement or at your next retrospective.

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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