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What 5-Year-Olds Can Teach Us About Zoom

Emily Fogarty
Emily Fogarty

At Part and Sum, remote work has always been part of our toolkit. It supports our personal lives and lets us connect with clients no matter where they are. But now, like so many other professionals, we spend all day, every day on Zoom. Even our strategy workshops—which we describe as “getting the right people in a room”—happen in virtual rooms.

Recently, during an internal discussion about videoconferencing challenges, one of our team members mentioned that her five-year-old was going through a similar experience as he navigated first grade on Zoom.

We realized that kids have a lot in common with anyone who has to do remote work, and their teachers have developed some techniques that can help us work better together, even when we’re apart. Here’s what we learned from speaking with JJ, an elementary school teacher, and Julian, a first-grade student.

“Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and bored on Zoom. And I think, I'd rather be riding my scooter right now.” -Julian, age 5


We’ve all seen that faraway look that says someone is reading email, responding to a Slack, or browsing wilderness retreats instead of focusing on Zoom. Maybe it’s even happened while you were leading the meeting (yikes). How can you prevent attention burnout?

Don't over-Zoom.
Video meetings are best for check-ins and relatively brief discussions. No one wants to be stuck on Zoom all afternoon. When a long Zoom is unavoidable, take steps to make it easier on everyone (keep reading).

Set an agenda.
Break your meeting into segments and share the outline with attendees. Keep key elements concise, and if necessary, define a time for open conversation or brainstorming.

Know your One Big Thing.
Make the most of your Zoom time by focusing on the one big thing you want to decide or get across. “I think about what I really want my students to get out of each lesson,” says JJ. “I know I have two or three minutes of their undivided attention, and then they’re off playing a video game.”

Set expectations.
Make sure everyone understands their role and purpose in the meeting, and how that connects to the project you’re working on. Nobody should wonder, “Why am I here?"

Use asynchronous work for presentations, learning and responses.
“We expect kids to log in once a day,” JJ says. “Then we’ll provide flexibility by recording lessons they can access whenever they want. That independent learning is more valuable than spending the whole day logged in.” To ensure continuous dialogue, JJ uses Flipgrid, which lets students record messages for teachers to review later. At Part and Sum, we like Loom for recording presentations.

“I don't want my friends to see my room if it's messy."

Zoom puts our living spaces on display, and that’s not something everyone is comfortable with. The house might be a mess, there may be piles of toys in the background, another family member may be trying to work. Or maybe you just haven’t brushed your hair in a while. Remember, too, that some folks are camera-shy, even if they have no problem with IRL meetings. Here’s how you can ease this stress.

Normalize audio-only participation.
Unless there’s an essential reason for everyone’s face to be on screen, let people know it’s OK to dial in without using the camera at all.

Get creative.
Turn virtual backgrounds into a team-building experience. Distribute custom backgrounds for everyone to use—a photo of the office or classroom can make Zoom feel more familiar (or you could send everyone to outer space). Suggest background theme days, like favorite colors or places.

“It would be annoying if everyone talked at the same time. We have our ways of keeping people quiet."

Any large-group interaction presents logistical challenges. Even if there’s a designated meeting leader, people will interrupt and talk over each other. Whether you’re dealing with kids or adults, here’s how to keep people in line.

Establish meeting norms at the start.

Let people know how (or if) they should use Zoom chat, what materials they should have handy, and so on. Perhaps most important, explain mute/unmute protocol. We suggest muting everyone, then unmuting the next speaker individually (just give them a heads up when their mic is about to come on).

Don’t say it, signal it.
Julian’s first-grade class uses hand signals to communicate without speaking over each other (see below). Too silly for grown-ups? Maybe, but it’s an easy way to keep conversations on track. Try coming up with your own!

One thumb up: I’d like to say something
Tap fists on top of each other: I’d like to add on to what was just said
Extend thumb and pinky, shake back and forth: I agree
Draw index fingers together: I don’t agree

Break out.
Take advantage of Zoom’s breakout rooms to continue conversations in smaller groups, so everyone has a chance to share their thoughts. JJ tells us three to four people is a good breakout room size.

“I want the coronavirus to go away. I want to play with my friends like before.”

The truth is, the “new normal” still feels weird. Zoom connects us, but it’s also a daily reminder that we can’t work the way we used to. Here’s how to reduce that frustration, or at least avoid making it worse.

Chat, play, chill.
In addition to building engaging activities into meetings, make time for play. At Part and Sum, we often conclude a Thursday meeting with a round of Hey Robot, Quiplash, or Listicles. We also set aside time in morning meetings for chitchat—after all, that’s exactly what we’d do if we were in the office.

Go easy on each other.
These days, everyone is going through something different. We all occupy the same box on the screen, but you don't necessarily know what's behind it. Collaborative work is all about connection, trust, and empathy; remember that everyone’s doing the best they can in a particular moment. Sometimes the struggle comes through on screen, and that’s OK.

Adapt and look for positives.
As JJ says: “You can’t use Zoom the way you taught normal classes. You have to find other ways to teach.” That’s true in the office as well as the classroom. Luckily, there can be upsides to new approaches. “We’ve learned new songs on Zoom, and watched videos together,” Julian says. “There are new Zoom activities we do, and most of them are pretty fun. I’m still learning about my iPad, but I have learned a lot. That’s the whole point, right?”

Next time you have the Zoom-scaries, rethink how to approach video call meetings by putting yourself in the shoes of a 5-year-old. Using these pointers, you can prevent attention burnout, ease stress, and reduce the daily frustrations. Give it a try!

This article was written by Cecilia Bergman, Emily Fogarty, and Mary Phillips-Sandy.