With rampant concerns about #COVID-19, many of us are #flatteningthecurve by moving face-to-face meetings into a virtual environment. Whether you’re new to the world of online meetings and telework, or you’ve been connecting with colleagues and clients online for years, follow these basic steps to keep your virtual meetings virtually flawless. (See what I did there?)
Prepare the Tech
It never fails. Despite conducting and hosting hundreds of virtual meetings and coaching sessions, it’s alwaysthat one busy time—when I come careening into my desk chair at the last minute to hurriedly log on for a meeting—that my computer decides to crash. (Incidentally, this is the same principle that ensures children will need to go to the bathroom 30 seconds after you pass the last rest stop for 50 miles).
Needless to say, thirty seconds before you’re scheduled to give your supervisor a key presentation is not the time to discover that your computer needs to install 45 minutes’ worth of critical updates, or that the Wi-Fi is spotty in your home office because your neighbor is in a Call of Duty tournament.
At least an hour before your first meeting of the day, ensure the necessary software (e.g., Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.) is installed, updated and functioning. Test the audio and video to make sure your equipment is working properly. This is especially important if you don’t teleconference often or you’re using a new platform.
Keep It Down, Kids
Veteran virtual workers will tell you, one of the most distracting and difficult things about online meetings is that every attendee brings the disruptions of their home environment with them. [Remember that guy whose kids interrupted his big moment as an international news expert and turned it into his big moment as a viral video star?]
Even when they’re not creating hilarious internet sensations, barking dogs, crying kids, garbage trucks, vacuum cleaners and landscape crews are the bane of every virtual meeting.
While some of these are beyond our control, it’s nice to try to mitigate them in advance: close (and consider locking!) the office door, park the kids in front of the television or some healthier activity, put the dogs outside, etc. And don’t forget to keep your microphone on mute whenever you’re not actively speaking to keep background noises to a minimum.
Video Killed the Speakerphone Star…
Videoconferencing can have huge advantages over conference calls, most notably the ability to share screens and the addition of body language and other non-verbal cues. These visual cues can add connectivity, personality and information to the meeting.
But, listen, y’all: Video means you are visible.
This seems obvious enough, but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve been in virtual meetings where the participants appear to have given no thought at all to how they are presented on screen. I’m not referring to personal appearance, necessarily—see below for a marital dispute on that topic—but basic things like lighting, framing and background.
I recently had a video meeting with someone whose webcam and chair were positioned such that I could only see the top-right quarter of her face (and the pictures on her office wall) for most of the conversation. We’d never met in person, so not being able to read her full facial expressions put me at a disadvantage when it came to connecting with her. It also gave the impression—whether she intended it or not—that she wasn’t terribly invested in our conversation. Eye contact is a huge nonverbal indicator of attentiveness; but your eyes do have to be on the screen for it to work.
So, there are a few additional considerations when using video. Before you log on to a virtual meeting, do a test run with your webcam to see what is visible in the frame. Make sure your ENTIRE FACE is visible, and that you’re comfortable with how you appear on screen; adjust the angle of your chair, phone, or computer accordingly.
When you’re working at home, no one expects you to have a modern art sculpture or pristine white wall behind you. We’re all human, we all live in our houses; and everyone knows that. But do make sure you’re comfortable with what can be seen in the frame.
For example, I’ve had colleagues who attended virtual meetings from a closet or even a large master bathroom because that’s where the Wi-Fi or acoustics were best, or it was the only room in the house where they could be assured their family would not disturb them. Totally fine, as long as the view doesn’t include the actual toilet, hanging lingerie or your spouse’s athlete’s foot powder. As a rule of thumb, don’t have anything in the background of your webcam that you’d be embarrassed to have on your desk in the office. And if you have either lingerie or athlete’s foot powder on your desk at the office… Well, that’s a whole different article.
Even when it’s not potentially mortifying, too much personal clutter in the background can be distracting in itself. Some people choose hang a curtain or solid sheet behind them for simplicity; but you needn’t go that far. Just check that things are neat, the main light source in your room is above or in front of you, especially if you’re seated in front of a window or other lighting.
Personally, I like that the view from my webcam expresses a bit of who I am: my cheery yellow office wall, some artwork by my kids, bookshelves, and a totally-not-dead plant. I often get compliments on the background because it’s not what most executives are used to seeing in their own office environments. I always do a quick check before connecting make sure there are no piles of paper, empty Ramen cups or other chaos in the frame.
Pro tip: Skype even includes a background blur feature to help keep the focus on the conversation where it belongs (and so coworkers will assume all your books are smart books). With Zoom, you can get extra fancy and use a green screen to apply your own background. I mean, yes, we’re all sheltering in place from COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look like we’re at the beach or surrounded by puppies. I think you see how quickly this can go wrong.
Get Ready for Your Closeup
Okay, here’s where my husband and I disagree. We both spend a lot of professional time videoconferencing, so of course I asked him for his thoughts as I was preparing this article. The first words out of his mouth were, “don’t worry about how you look.”
And, to some extent, I see his point. The whole phenomenon of seeing yourself on screen while you’re having a business meeting is just…weird. It can be a little like trying to discuss the quarterly numbers at the mirror in the women’s restroom. You’re thinking about market fluctuations, but also dying to fix that flyaway curl, mascara smudge, or noticing that your lips look really thin in this light.
What he’s saying is, “listen, no one looks good on a webcam and we’re all just focused on the meeting content so don’t worry about it.” Obviously, it’s hard to take a meeting seriously when half the participants are fiddling with their hair, adjusting their collars, or applying lipstick. Just kidding. Neither of us has been on a call with someone applying lipstick… yet.
So my counterpoint to his slightly misguided point is this: DO worry about how you look, but worry about it before the meeting. Particularly if you’re new to videoconferencing or dialing in to a high stakes meeting, it’s important to feel confident in your appearance. This may sound superficial, but if the angle of your chair gives you a double chin on camera and that bothers you, fix it before the meeting. That way, you can focus on the content you’re sharing. You and your single chin can shine.
As for wardrobe, video meetings are usually more casual than office meetings. Sometimes people wear button-ups and blazers; sometimes hoodies are de rigueur. When in doubt, follow the lead of your supervisor and workplace culture. In general, I prefer to wear simple clothes in solid colors while on video, mostly because it’s less for me to think about. Whatever you decide, the good news is you don’t have to worry about shoes!
Share Screens, Not Germs
If you may be expected to share your screen during a meeting (to show a document, spreadsheet, presentation, etc.), practice on the platform in advance. Some programs allow you to share only your entire screen, while others let you choose specific windows or software programs and share selectively.
In either case, be sure to close any documents or programs that contain sensitive or confidential information before the call begins. This is especially critical if your call includes participants outside your organization, or if you work with personal health information covered under HIPAA.
Patience is a (Virtual) Virtue
Online connections usually have a short delay, which means participants tend to start, stop and talk over one another. This barrier produces an increased risk people will be steamrolled or feel uncomfortable sharing. Allowing longer pauses between speakers can help address this issue. If you are the facilitator or organizer of the meeting, make sure you pause between topics, and solicit feedback directly from participants who aren’t speaking up. Bring people directly into the conversation by name whenever possible.
In every online meeting, there are inevitable hiccups with technology—especially as large groups new users online for the first time. Wading through small setbacks with humor and a welcoming spirit will help get productivity back online faster and maintain those critical working relationships over the long term.
Someone Must Lead
Even if there is no reporting relationship or clear organizational lead on a call, it’s important that someone serve as the meeting’s facilitator. As with in-person meetings, virtual meetings need a clear direction (agenda) and a desired outcome (goal). With the additional layer of challenges mentioned earlier, that clarity becomes even more critical in web-based meetings.
The facilitator kicks off the meeting, troubleshoots connection challenges, reminds attendees of the meeting purpose, pulls out quiet participants, and reins in the conversation when it goes too far afield. This person may also review and assign action items at the end of the call—sometimes even by creating a follow-up email or to-do list. The facilitator is often the person who originates or leads the meeting, but not always.
Think Outside the Screen
One of the biggest losses we all face as we move from physical workspaces to virtual ones is the camaraderie that comes from passing people in the hallways and breakroom or sharing a story at the coffee maker. Relationships are no less important in the workplace today than they were a month or a decade ago; so make sure you make space for them in virtual meetings.
A bit of small talk while everyone is settling in for the meeting is fine. I’ve been known to kick off an online meeting by asking everyone to raise their coffee mug or bottle and tell the group what their morning beverage of choice is. Some organizations are taking it a step farther to ensure their company culture doesn’t get lost over the VPN. Online training company Udemy, for example, is hosting virtual pet happy hours to keep employees connected on a personal level while they’re working from home.
Whether you’re moving to virtual meetings as a temporary measure during the pandemic or mastering a new way of communicating for the long term, let humor and patience be your guide. Remember, the goal of this technology is connection: not just as professionals, but as human beings.
Manda Pullen Turetsky, MS, MBA is a multi-published author, trained psychotherapist, executive coach and corporate trainer in Roswell, Georgia. She’s hosted hundreds of virtual meetings ranging from two participants to twenty, with dogs and kids currently neck-in-neck for most interruptions.