Awkward virtual meetings: We’ve all had them. You’ve probably seen the viral video of the BBC source who was ambushed on-air by his two kids. And maybe you’ve accidentally made embarrassing noises while you thought your microphone was muted. Or perhaps you’ve been the victim of a tech fail, like the flustered lawyer who had a cat filter turned on during a virtual hearing with a judge and couldn’t figure out how to turn it off.
There’s no denying it was funny, but that episode also serves as a reminder that, although remote meetings have become a routine part of our world, there remain many problems with this form of communication. Cat filters aside, it’s all too easy for those meetings to be repetitive, ineffective and, on occasion, go totally off the rails.
While platforms such as Zoom can help bring business teams together virtually, they aren’t anywhere near as effective as face-to-face meetings. The remote gathering’s very nature allows team members to continue working on their computer, check their phones or give in to other distractions when they’re supposed to be listening to important company business.
Researchers at Stanford have proven that that “Zoom fatigue” is a real thing. There is anxiety caused by screen glitches and freezes, along with the occasional audio silence that leaves you wondering, “Was it intended, or am I frozen again?” It’s even stressful when we stare at our faces on the screen. It makes sense: We don’t know our collar is out of whack and our hair is mussed in face-to-face meetings; we just assume we look good.
Dr. Libby Sander, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Bond University in Australia, has also studied Zoom fatigue. She writes that one reason online meetings are more tiring than face-to-face ones is that people feel they must make more of an effort to appear engaged. “In the absence of many non-verbal cues,” she says, “the intense focus on words and sustained eye contact is exhausting.”
Visibility is another issue. In a meeting with two dozen or more people, I have no difficulty seeing everyone when we are all in the same room, and it’s easy to pick up on unexpected behavior. That is not the case in virtual meetings. With so many small frames, it is not possible to “see” with the same detail.
While I’m unconvinced the virtual world is an acceptable long-term substitute for face-to-face encounters, this is our current reality. So, let’s look at things you can do to get the most out of these remote meetings:
- Have a facilitator. Someone needs to be in charge of every meeting, if for no other reason than to keep everyone on task and make sure everything that needs to be covered gets covered. No one is served by a Wild West meeting, where everyone talks over everyone, some people zone out or critical pieces of information never get addressed.
- Keep everyone involved. The facilitator has to engage everyone in the conversation. Even during in-person meetings, it’s typical for two or three strong-willed and opinionated people to do all the talking while everyone else hangs back. That situation can become magnified in a virtual meeting where it’s much more awkward for one of the silent types to jump into the conversation. Body language and facial expressions often can tell you if someone has a differing opinion but is reluctant to share it. That’s easier to pick up on in person, so the facilitator will need to keep an eye on those screens and invite people into the conversation. You don’t need to focus on any disagreement you feel you detect; just ask them if they have thoughts they would like to share.
- Stick to an agenda. It’s important to have an agenda for a virtual meeting and to not deviate from it. People need to know the meeting will start on time, how the meeting will be organized and what will be talked about in what order. This will help prevent someone from hijacking the meeting or going off on some tangent that should be addressed at another time. Facilitators need to silence meeting hijackers and table whatever issue is sidetracking forward movement.
- Respect people’s time. Keeping to a strict agenda also respects your team members’ time. They know that if you say you need them in a meeting for an hour, they won’t find themselves stressed out two hours later worrying about deadlines they are missing. Team members will also appreciate agendas that end with issue resolution, because if they didn’t bring up an issue or are not part of the resolution, they have permission to leave the meeting and get back to the many tasks they’re working on. There’s no reason a virtual meeting needs to involve “death by shared-screen PowerPoint.”
For me, one other major thing missing from remote work and remote meetings is the opportunity to get to know each other better that we get with in-person interaction. We build team rapport through those serendipitous chats in the break room, where there’s no actual business agenda.
Unfortunately, the virtual world has a tough time duplicating those unstructured yet important team-building moments — but with these tips, hopefully we can eliminate some of the inefficiency and awkwardness once and for all.