Not another Zoom Article!

6 tips for how to make the most of virtual meetings (number 4 is my favorite)


By Morag Barrett

OK, I'll admit to a little bit of a clickbait title, since this article is another zoom article.

I don't know about you, but my life seems to have become one long zoom-skype-webex-hangout-meet video fest - and I am yet to have a 'good hair day'. I've attended great virtual meetings and, unfortunately, quite a few that, well to be honest, sucked.

Personally, I've gone from zero to hero[ine] regarding zoom functionality, with multiscreen displays, two camera angles, shared whiteboards, breakout rooms. You name it, my team and I are exploiting technology to ensure our events are interactive, fun, and more importantly impactful. (Message me if you'd like to learn more).

Here are six things I've learned in the first weeks of working from home -which feels like a lifetime- when it comes to surviving the the zoom-fest that is our waking lives.

What would you add? Please share in the comments below, I'd love to hear from you.

1. Down with the Brady-Bunch

Being raised in the UK I didn't grow up with the Brady Bunch, however I totally understand the analogy of the 'gallery view' in most virtual meetings. I used the default gallery view for the first few weeks and it was exhausting.

When someone moves in their little window our eyes are naturally drawn to them and that non stop flickering is mentally distracting. A colleague of mine shared that when we walk into a live meeting room our amygdala automatically scans the room for threats and primes our fight or flight reactions. Our Amygdala does the same when we walk into a virtual meeting. Except having the gallery view on is like walking into nine rooms all at the same time. When we look away and look back it's similar to leaving and walking back into the room again.

All of those endless subconscious threat triggers - the checking and rechecking for threats vs settling down and getting comfortable in the meeting - no wonder I was burned out by the end of the day.

My Learning: Switch to Speaker View

  • Instead of seeing the nine or more people in gallery view, speaker view highlights the person who is currently talking, everyone else is in small windows to the side.

  • Now my attention is focused on the one person who is communicating, the person I should be listening to. In a live meeting you would be looking at them and the rest of the attendees would be in your peripheral vision. Speaker view is the closest to that experience and reduces the visual distractions and the mental energy sap that I was experiencing.

2. Mirror Mirror on the Wall

We all do it - when our video headshot is on screen we stare at ourselves, we adjust our hair, we fidget in our chairs, our internal dialogue goes crazy:

"Does my neck look weird?"
"I knew I should have worn a different shirt"
"OMG look at my hair..."
"Uh oh, are the kids about to come in / start a fight? should I go see... no I'll wait... I have to go... I can't, I'll get into 'trouble'"

The self-distraction and internal dialogue means I am not listening effectively to the conversation and what's happening in the meeting.

My Learning: Turn off the self view

  • It was an instant relief. You don't carry a mirror into a live meeting and watch yourself, so don't do it in a virtual meeting. Maybe your hair, like mine, is a little 'poofy' but who cares, chances are no one else notices, they're too busy looking at their own video-selfie.

3. Careless Whispers and Side-Conversations

The chat function in a virtual meeting is the equivalent of the side-conversations that happen around a live conference table. They are distracting - trying to talk and read the chat box as it scrolls past is nigh on impossible, and if those chats are off topic or simply banter between colleagues it's an even more frustrating and futile exercise; and even if connected to the main conversation can appear disrespectful (because you aren't fully listening).

My Learning: Use Chat Sparingly

  • Provide an opportunity at the start of your virtual meeting for nurturing the sense of team. We're all craving human contact, a little light hearted conversation. If you need ideas for how to start these conversations and activities that translate into a distributed environment call me.
  • Use chat to share links to key documents / resources. Try to keep the written chatter to a minimum.
  • Oh and a word of warning - 'private messages' are shared with the meeting host if they're getting a transcript after the meeting. If you make a comment about my 'poofy hair' I will know!

4. Green Screens

Only a few weeks ago our FOMO (fear of missing out) was whatever was happening with 'the Joneses' on social media. Now I see a whole new performance anxiety when it comes to green screens, back drops, and a misguided (in my view) implicit expectation that everyone should be 'business professional' when online.

Which is great if you do have the space and technology for a dedicated work area, but kinda sucks for those who have a small corner of the bedroom available. And since webcams and green screens are now rarer than hen's teeth (and cost about as much) some of us have to make do with what we can improvise.

My learnings: Making Your Workspace Work

  • I rotated my desk so that my back is now to a wall. It isn't pretty coming into the room (my desk is designed to be against a wall). But since no one is coming into the house anyway, who cares? .picture of a desk with an ipad, laptop, computer screen, microphone
  • Green Screens don't have to be green. A plain wall, a solid-colored sheet or blanket will work as an alternative - just don't wear clothing the same color as you will blend in.
  • Be creative with your virtual backgrounds. A little whimsy and fun can be appropriate. At SkyeTeam we have StarWars, the Simpsons Sofa, past holiday photos, as well as the 'corporate background' that we can pull up depending on our mood and the context for the meeting.
  • An alternative to a fancy webcam - order a Raspberry Pi camera and tape it to your screen. It works (and is a lot cheaper too). You're welcome!
  • And if you can't turn your desk and have your back to the wall or a fancy green screen, all well and good. Just remember to make your bed!

5. Endless Meetings

Here's the challenge, and I'm guilty of it too - with work and home being colocated it can be difficult to switch off. It's too easy to work all the time.

I've worked virtually for more than 13 years but found that choosing to work from home is a different mindset from having to work from home. As the world turned topsy-turvy work was, for me, my grounding time. The only time things felt normal, even if I was busy redesigning live programs for virtual delivery (thankfully something my team and I have been experienced in for more than a decade).

I then realized that I was sitting all day. That time to exercise, to just hang out with my family, to recharge my batteries was being depleted. I needed to take back control and selectively say "no".

My Learning: Say No to (some) Virtual Meetings

  • Just because we all know we're at home, doesn't mean we are all available 24/7. When working in a distributed team we need to reset the expectations and redefine the rules of engagement - make the implicit, explicit.

  • Agree a time when everyone can step away from their desks, whether it's to exercise, have time with their family, or simply to stand up. One of our clients recently sent a communication to all employees - no meetings between 11am - 1pm ET, no meetings after 5pm local time. I love this overt message, it gives everyone permission to step away, without guilt.

  • Schedule meetings to allow for the normal passing time and bathroom breaks you would've had at work. Most calendar software has the option to schedule 50 mins (instead of an hour) or 25 mins (instead of half-hours). Use it.

  • To break our endless meetings, my team and I are keeping Friday afternoons free and blocking whitespace on our calendars so that we don't feel shackled to our desks or our webcams.

6. Business or Pleasure?

This is not to say that business can't be pleasure or vice versa. However as the predominant way we are choosing to communicate is through web-calls it can sometimes be hard to differentiate between the two.

This final learning follows on from the previous section... just because you've been invited to yet another virtual happy hour you can decline the invitation! However, when you do choose to 'party remotely' how do you make it not feel like more work?

My Learning: Move location

  • My friend Cheryl shared that she takes her happy hour / family zoom calls from a different part of the house. It was like a bolt of lightning. Doh! Why didn't I think of that! Priceless. Sometimes the obvious and simplest answer is the best.

  • Now I move away from my desk, to the sofa, the patio chair, the kitchen, whatever works best. Thanks Cheryl! The secret is Not. At. My. Desk. Oh and a cocktail is strongly recommended if not required. ;-)

There you have it, my six learnings from the last few weeks. What would you add? Please share your comments below. Thank you in advance for the (virtual) human reaction / connection and your great ideas for taking back control of this virtual meeting parade.

Stay well.

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