For many of us, workplace interactions are now relegated to the narrow confines of a computer screen. Research shows that not only do constant video meetings drain your mental energy, but they can make it feel harder to form true connections, due to cumbersome technology. The transition to strictly virtual communication is, understandably, a clumsy experience.
“I think the biggest difference is the speaking cadence, due to lag time or poor connectivity,” says Doug Aamoth, a longtime user of videoconferencing and Fast Company contributor. “Phrases like ‘Could you repeat that?’ and ‘Sorry, go ahead with what you are saying’ are quite common.”
Since coronavirus shows no sign of stopping, video meetings aren’t going anywhere soon either. But, as anyone who’s attended a recent virtual happy hour knows, that doesn’t mean we all have the same understanding of Zoom etiquette.
It is difficult to navigate the ideal level of professionalism during a video meeting when coworkers are using the medium in different ways. Should you always mute your mic upon entering? Is it all right to keep your video off, or does it depend on the meeting size or subject matter? What about if you’re home with loud kids (and/or pets)?
Fast Company spoke to some experts to get some definitive answers about using Zoom and other conferencing tools:
When can I turn off my video?
When you’re considering whether to show your face or not, you should try your best to observe your company’s past patterns. To start, consider the context of the meeting, its agenda, and your required participation level.
Ryan Rafols, founder and CEO of Newchip Accelerator (which specializes in remote and online accelerator programs), prefers attendees keep their videos on when there are many people involved and when the agenda covers a wide array of topics. “During our stand-up meetings, as well as our company all-hands, we ask that our team keep video on throughout the meeting but keep their mic muted.”
Keeping your video on, as awkward as it may feel, fosters connection while working remotely. “The purpose of videoconferencing is to feel as if you are really there. For remote workers, whether they’ve gone remote because of COVID-19, or are just part of the remote workforce, it’s important that they feel connected with the rest of the company.”
Muneeb Mushtaq, founder of tech startup Airzai, says context is the all-important consideration. “Internal staff meetings, where the entire company is present, should always require the team to use video feed in order to make everyone feel more connected and encourage active engagement and participation in the discussion,” he says.
But if you are checking in for a few minutes with colleagues, video may not be needed. In either case, consider the overall tone of the meeting. “When going into a quick check-in or brainstorm with a few colleagues, there is room for flexibility,” says Mushtaq.
When should I mute my mic?
Mushtaq stresses that the subject of these internal meetings is key. If a team member is about to present an important company announcement or expound on a complex topic, attendees should mute their microphones to prevent creating distracting background noise and disturbing the flow of the speaker.
As a rule of thumb, it can be helpful to mute your mic until it is your turn to speak, lending to less overall confusion and a smoother process.
On the other hand, smaller “break-out” meetings, which are typically more casual, are up to personal preferences: “You can choose how to interact based on the discretion of the team,” says Mushtaq.
Similarly, when meetings first begin and the vibe feels less structured, there may be an opportunity to keep your mic on, as you and your team members dive into casual small talk.
What should I do if my kid or pet interrupts?
Undoubtedly, children, pets, or unanticipated delivery people may crash your virtual meeting. Managers and coworkers should be understanding that people’s lives must still go on. Inevitably, remote work means more slack is afforded, all around.
That said, certain things are in your control—specifically, staying focused during meetings, despite the siren call of your constantly-refreshing Twitter feed or pinging text messages.
Shut down distracting tabs at the start of a meeting to minimize interruptions. Your boss may not be able to see you scrolling on social media, but your lack of recall later on of meeting points will make things pretty obvious you were distracted. “A lack of engagement becomes a big problem if your thoughtful comments or expertise are needed in the meeting, and you’re checked out,” says communication coach and Fast Company contributor Dorie Clark.
If meeting attendees tune out, they create an inhospitable environment for the speaker and splinter trust. “One of the most common bad behaviors that I’ve experienced with virtual meeting attendees is lack of general attention and engagement,” says Mushtaq. “Not paying attention in a meeting can lead to miscommunication and lack of performance overall. When there are multiple employees engaging in this behavior, and the behavior goes unnoticed, it instills a culture of distraction and lethargy.”
Instead, recognize that virtual meetings will have their limitations, but appreciate the remote technology for its benefits, says Aamoth. “It’s better to embrace the technology and its many wonderful uses than to try to force it to replicate the in-office experience.”