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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

Leading a video meeting? 9 factors to watch for when you “read the room”

Gauging engagement can be difficult when you’re meeting remotely, so it’s even more important to keep an eye out for telling signs of distraction.

Leading a video meeting? 9 factors to watch for when you “read the room”
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When the COVID-19 pandemic turned our homes into offices and classrooms, it also ushered in the era of video meetings. While the ability to meet remotely via Zoom and other applications enabled businesses and schools to function in difficult times, it hasn’t always been an easy adjustment. When you’re meeting with colleagues, clients, or students via a video call, it comes with unique challenges—including effectively “reading the room.”

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When you’re leading a video meeting, it’s can be hard to get a sense of how engaged participants are. You can’t see everyone at once, and you can’t hear the signals of straying attention, such as shuffling feet, creaking furniture, and sighs. Participants are often more reluctant to speak during remote meetings, and it’s easier for them to quietly multitask. And presenters can’t control the distractions that might pop up in participants’ individual meeting spaces.

Because of all this, it’s important for those who frequently lead video meetings or presentations to be aware of the ways in which participants might be signaling their engagement (or lack of engagement). To help, nine members of Fast Company Executive Board share some audience cues to watch for in your upcoming video meetings.

1. DARTING EYES AND MUTED MICROPHONES

When people are not looking at their camera or computer screen, that’s always a telltale sign. I notice how people check out—they start looking around, muting their mic to talk to someone else, and getting up to do other things. I like to try to loop them back in by mentioning something in the meeting that pertains to them, naturally fitting it into what I’m talking about. – John Hall, Calendar

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2. TOGGLING BETWEEN “MUTE” AND “UNMUTE”

I want everyone on the team to be heard, so I look for anyone who toggles between “Mute” and “Unmute” without finding a pause in the conversation to contribute. Sometimes it’s hard to speak without interrupting, and that’s not comfortable for everyone. I’ve found that when I can pass the conversation to someone I’ve noticed muting and unmuting, they always have something worthwhile to contribute. – Monica Landers, StoryFit

3. MULTITASKING

We’re context-shifting all day long, so it’s easy to lose the plot from meeting to meeting. In an attention-deficit world, you can tell a lot by how engaged and focused people are. I look for cues such as multitasking. If people seem distracted, come back to the big-picture agenda and set the context. Can you frame the conversation in a way that makes it irresistible and time well-spent? – Michael Margolis, Storied

4. VIDEO SHUTDOWN

I worry when people turn off their video. That may be a cue that they are not engaged. These days, when we may be multitasking out of necessity, it’s understandable. At the start of meetings, I like to encourage people to keep their cameras on and check the “Gallery” view on Zoom (versus the “Speaker” view) to see where people are. – Amy Radin, Pragmatic Innovation Partners LLC

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5. LOOKING “THROUGH THE SCREEN”

It’s harder to hold attention in a group video meeting. When a group meets face-to-face, even those who aren’t speaking are paying attention to the people talking. But virtually, if people aren’t talking, they might start doing something else. Watch for wandering eyes or expressions of looking “through the screen.” When you see that, don’t let it last. Ask for group input to get them re-engaged. – Jonathan Ronzio, Trainual

6. POSTURE AND STRAYING FOCUS

Nonverbal cues such as posture (shoulder openness) and screen area of focus are critical to reading a virtual room. When someone’s posture is closed (that is, their arms are closed in front), they are not truly open to feedback or discussion. When their eyes are not focused on one spot, they’re reading emails or otherwise not focused on the talk or presentation. Good storytelling by the host will bring focus. – Yuri Kruman, HR, Talent & Systems Consulting

7. DOWNWARD-FOCUSED EYES

Zoom fatigue is a real thing, and it can make it difficult for meeting participants to remain engaged. Are the participants in your video conference actively participating? Are they constantly peering downwards or elsewhere? Participants who are not speaking to the camera may be checking their phones for texts, reading emails, or catching up on the news. They are certainly not paying attention. – Evan Nierman, Red Banyan

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8. REACTIONS TO YOUR WORDS

As a speaker, you want to make sure that your audience understands what you are saying, so pay attention to people’s reactions to your words. Do they seem distracted? Do they nod their heads or reciprocate in any other way? Are they looking at you or taking notes? What are their postures and facial expressions? When combined, all those little things can reveal a lot. – Solomon Thimothy, OneIMS

9. SLACK FEEDBACK

Remote work changed meetings dramatically, and with it, what engagement looks like. You can’t tell if someone is engaged just by looking at them—in fact, letting folks turn off their cameras may help with Zoom fatigue! Instead, ask for feedback directly. I like to get feedback on the usefulness of a meeting format or agenda through a Slack poll and check in one-on-one to see if what we covered was clear. – Alexandra Cavoulacos, The Muse