THERE was a time when virtual meetings were only the province of super-high-powered Titans of industry, who used them to bridge continents and time zones from Taiwan to LA to Zurich while striking telephone number-sized deals that forged or destroyed empires.
Now, because of social distancing, Darren from admin is using them to discuss the shortage of paper clips and the need to postpone the staff raffle. People who three months ago thought Zoom was a 70s hit by Fat Larry's Band are now connecting their dining room table to the online world as businesses cast asunder by this crisis try to continue as normally as possible.
But with this new power comes great irresponsibility. The people we work with are largely a mystery, we only ever really discover as much about their lives away from the workplace as they are prepared to share. If you think about work life and home life as two circles in a Venn diagram, the oval created by the overlap is generally very slender. Virtual meetings provide a portal that widens that oval, allowing our colleagues to peep into our inner sanctum. And make no mistake, many of them are judging everything they can see behind you.
To make virtual meetings effective, engaging and productive this is just one of the things to bear in mind. Here are some more...
Do we even need this meeting?
In these uncertain times we are all making up the rules as we go along. Organisations who suddenly find themselves working remotely can learn a lot from those who do it habitually and the perceived wisdom is that less is more. I know one person whose management insists on three meetings a day, which is clearly overkill. Half of the working day is taken up with preparing for or getting over the hour or so spent watching their colleagues talk about the same thing. The rule of thumb is to gauge how often your team met when in the same office, informally and formally, and work out how much time that equates to. You’ll find two or three meetings a week is more than ample.
Have an agenda
No virtual meeting should be longer than an hour or it is inevitable that participants, with all the distractions of their own home, will become distracted. Send out an agenda, keep everyone up to date as to where you are with the agenda during the meeting and don’t allow too much deviation.
Get the technology right
Allow time for people logging in, ensuring their kit works and getting comfortable. If you plan to begin at 10am, assemble everyone at 9.50 to get the gremlins out of the way. And treat virtual meetings the same as you do physical ones. If you set a time, stick to it.
Background checks: Prepare to go live
This is the biggest pitfall of any virtual meeting. As discussed earlier, you can be certain that instead of listening to what you have to say, your colleagues will be scanning your bookshelf, framed photos, cobwebs and décor. The other day I spoke to a very senior figure in an organisation who was relating a video conference to me and almost the first thing he shared was the eye-popping nature of one participant’s wallpaper.
So check what will appear behind you, choose a plain background in a quiet room where your partner will not wander past in their underwear munching a chicken leg or your children won’t begin pelting each other with Lego. If this isn’t possible, try and screen yourself off, or at least warn everyone you are going into a meeting.
Of course on most meeting apps there is an option to blur your background but that has the effect of making you look like a badly-animated Max Headroom and therefore even more distracting than someone with zebra print wallpaper and diamante lampshades.
Talking of lamps, don’t have one pointed straight at you, it will create shadows on your face. Position the camera at an angle so your moonface isn’t looming out like a villain on Star Trek and your double chin doesn’t threaten to spill out on to your colleagues’ keyboards.
Stay focused, you’re on camera
Try to focus on what’s being said but also be mindful that you are on camera. In a physical meeting you might be able to disguise an eye roll when a colleague says something you don’t agree with, but in a virtual meeting your reaction is there for all to see. Similarly, remember everything you do is being broadcast – that includes eating, scratching, picking or yawning. If you are tempted to go and do something else during the meeting and take your laptop with you, don’t forget to mute the camera like Jennifer did here. If you aren’t speaking, mute your microphone to prevent ringing phones, noisy partners, offspring or pets from interrupting.
Keep it short, stay still
Make your points succinctly. No matter how interesting you think what you have to say is, listening to a monologue without the additional human elements of eye contact, voice inflection and smiles is hard work. Anything longer than three minutes talking becomes a monotone cue for people to start looking at their phones or wondering how to fix the cracks on their living room ceiling.
Try not to use excessive hand gestures or head movements to emphasise whatever points you are making. You’ll blur your picture and distract people.
Because we are distanced from fellow attendees, there is a tendency for people to ignore usual meeting etiquette and interrupt others, either out of frustration or for fear of being ignored. Wait for a pause in the conversation, even if it means sitting on your hands and biting your tongue. If everyone tries to yell their way into the discussion it will sound like a mid-western cattle auction.
Keep it social
A UN study in 2017 found 41 per cent of people working from home experience greater levels of stress than they do in an office. This could be because being separated from colleagues leads to anxiety about their effectiveness or engenders feelings of isolation and loneliness. People working at home with their spouses may experience greater tension. Bear this in mind and make time to engage everyone in the meeting by addressing them by their name and asking them how they are. A few minutes of pre-agenda conversation changes the tone of the meeting and reminds people of the comradeship of working together. The human element of co-working should never be underestimated.
Some companies have organised a virtual drink once a week, where participants share a glass of wine.
To the future...
This crisis has forced thousands of organisations, both large and small, to hastily rewrite the rules of how they work. And while no one wanted this pandemic as the reason for doing so, these hurriedly devised new practises may well become the new normal even when it is over. Many companies will have become pleasantly surprised at how efficient they have remained through the crisis and will begin to question the need for even having an office, or at least as large an office. Virtual meetings have been one of the hallmarks of the pandemic and for a great many workers they could be here to stay.