How to be in the room, when meeting virtually
17th August 2020
As a business we’ve been promoting tele-conferencing for internal meetings for over 10 years and more recently video meetings with our introduction of Microsoft Teams. Along with car sharing, it is one of many SUEZ’s initiatives for managing the carbon footprint of our activities.
The need to have a fairly large number of our people working remotely has certainly increased our use and capabilities around remote communications technology – from Teams to Zoom and webinar platforms, as described in previous posts. It has helped us stay as productive and engaged as we could hope to be while working from home during a pandemic.
But the findings of our internal research also outline that there is a downside, particularly in respect to reduced interaction across team and with our customers. Our company culture encourages the closeness of colleagues and teams that comes from social interaction and from meeting up face-to-face. With around 300 locations around the UK, site visits and meetings out in our business operational sites are essential if managers and business support teams are to get closer to the business. We envisage this continuing to be part of our new DNA as we look to blend the best of the past and present ways of working to create our future.
Therefore, many meetings will continue to be conducted virtually. The challenge is to ensure they’re as effective and engaging as possible. So it’s worth reflecting on our experience of the virtual world so far and reminding ourselves of online meeting etiquette.
Formalities vary depending on the nature of a meeting, but the following tips apply to most situations.
Preparation is key – whether you’re chairing, presenting or participating. Plan an agenda and share it in advance with any pre-reading in order to optimise the use of time in the meeting. For a less formal meeting, at least make sure everyone understands the purpose of it, what will be discussed and the intended outcome.
Being punctual takes preparation too. The organiser especially, but also attendees, should test-run their internet connection and computer settings, including microphone, speakers or earphones, camera, and lighting. As a host, log-in in advance and allow those who arrive early to have a chat and settle in as they would in an office setting.
Where numbers allow, introduce each person attending or invite people in turn to briefly introduce themselves. Unless you are certain, don’t assume that people know each other. In any case, it’s good to clarify roles and responsibilities.
Be clear that people do need to show up. Barring technical problems when someone absolutely has to phone in, video should be ‘on’. Imagine turning up at a meeting and speaking from behind a wall. Audio-only implies you don’t want to be present or focus fully on the meeting and it’s more difficult to pick up indicators that people wish to speak or their level of understanding about what is being said.
Positioning your webcam at eye level or above is best. Video quality depends on the amount of lighting. Face-on natural light is the ideal. Depending on your room, you may need to boost the natural light with a lamp. But make sure the light is in front and you’re not backlit (like the shadowy anonymous witness in a TV crime series).
Seeing your image reflected back at you on the screen does take some getting used to. It may be counter-intuitive, but it’s a good tip is to look directly at your computer’s camera where you can. This not only relieves self-consciousness, it help to create eye contact with the other participants. This is more natural and engaging for those watching. (Some people even draw eyes on a post-it note and place it just above the camera lens as a reminder about where to look!)
Posture and body language still matter when you’re visible online. So does one’s personal appearance. Even if we dress more casually at home, we can still be smart. If the company culture does not tell employees what’s acceptable, then share guidelines that do.
Eliminating distractions also helps keep everyone focussed. Do your colleagues the courtesy of removing clutter around you. Set up with a plain background, if possible. Selecting a virtual background may be an option but your movements as you speak or shift in your chair can cause distortions that also distract viewers.
Multi-tasking – checking emails, texting or reading – is taboo around the meeting table. It should be no different when conferring with colleagues online. You need to ‘be in the room’. Email notifications and phone alerts are distracting, so remember to turn them off or on to silent. Shut down or minimise other programs wherever you can.
We’ve become used to children gate-crashing virtual meetings throughout the pandemic as many parents do their best to try to manage working while caring for their children. During a first long-weekend visit to us since lockdown, my own granddaughter popped into my home office to see what I was up to earlier this week despite the efforts of Papa to keep her entertained! But as childcare provision opens up and we see children return to school over the coming weeks and months, we should try to minimise unintentional interruptions wherever we can.
Background noise – and the even the sound of typing on a keyboard that’s close to the microphone – can be distracting and disrupt an online meeting. Muting all attendees except for the host, or presenters, is the obvious solution, especially for larger groups. The drawback is that contributions can be inhibited. People miss their opportunity to participate. Or utter their best ideas when their sound is off. (Have you had a single meeting without hearing the message – “You’re on mute!”)
For smaller meetings it may be better not to hit ‘mute’ at all. But whatever the set-up, set clear ground rules – such as raising a hand (either the hand icon or the real thing) to signal a desire to speak.
With virtual meetings, as in the office, meetings run more smoothly and are more effective when an active chair brings people into the conversation, manages people’s participation, keeps to the timetable, and ensures that outcomes and follow-on actions are clear and agreed.In that and many other respects, the new virtual setting is not so different from the old reality. And if we still miss the energy that flows from being in the room with our colleagues, at least we know that we’re saving the energy and emissions that’d arise from travelling to and from the meeting.