by Pádraig Hanratty
As we all learn to live with COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019), we are getting used to social distancing protocols, in both work and social settings. As face-to-face meetings become rarer, we’ve seen video meetings become ever more popular. Even with vaccines being rolled out, video calls are likely to be the norm for a long time to come.
Enhanced broadband connectivity has resolved many of the technical gremlins associated with virtual meetings. (‘Hello! Can you hear me? Am I on mute? Or are you just ignoring me? Your face is frozen.’) However, this ‘new normal’ is not without its tricky protocols. What are some best practices you should consider when attending virtual meetings?
Best practice 1: Check your technology
Virtual meetings are a technological solution to a human problem. And technology can sometimes let you down.
Make sure you have a backup plan in case your Internet takes a hike in the Appalachian Trail during the video call. If you’re on fibre broadband, check that you have a wireless network that you can go to if the cable connection lets you down. Smartphones allow you to connect to the Internet via your data plan. You can also use your phone as a web hotspot through which you can go online. (However, this option may not be feasible if your data plan is expensive.) Using your phone as a backup is also a good way to recover from a sudden power cut, assuming you’ve already charged up your phone.
Many people feel that video adds an extra level of personal connection in online meetings. However, if your bandwidth isn’t strong enough for video calls, you can participate via audio only. (You may choose to use video at the start of the call when introducing yourself, and then turn off video to conserve bandwidth.) However, if you are expected to turn on your camera for the meeting, then you should do so, unless you have a valid reason not to.
Once you know which platform you’ll be using for the video call, download the app to your phone or tablet. This again gives you a backup option if your laptop or desktop let you down. If you think your technology might misbehave, alert the meeting participants to this possibility at the start of the call.
Many communication platforms allow you to ‘chat’ with participants during the call. This can be a useful way to share hyperlinks or files. However, do avoid having private chats with individual participants during a video call. If you are sending a message via a chat channel, make sure you know whether it’s going to an individual participant or the whole group.
Best practice 2: Check your environment
If you are on video, ensure the room behind you is neat, tidy, and professional. You don’t have to go into Mrs Hinch mode before every video call, but do check that your room background doesn’t become a distraction for other meeting participants.
Also, take note of what’s visible from your web cam. Are photos of family members visible? Are you comfortable with that? Are there any paintings or portraits that are likely to disconcert meeting attendees? That Che Guevara poster might have earned you some much-needed street cred back in college, but perhaps it’s not the best thing to display in the background when trying to convince a client that you’re the right person to proofread their financial reports.
Are there any background noises that are likely to be a problem? Close the door if ringing telephones, rampaging children or pets, or boisterous washing machines are likely to intrude. Also, close the windows if there are noises outside, such as construction work, loud traffic, or the howling, lashing gales of an Irish summer afternoon.
Avoid sitting in rooms with chiming or cuckooing clocks. If your chair tends to creak like Dracula’s crypt during quiet moments on a video call, consider using a different chair. And if you like to work with music playing in the background, remember to turn off the techno rap before joining the call.
Of course, you can’t control all the noises around you. If bedlam does break out around you, you can always simply mute yourself until calm has been restored.
Best practice 3: Check yourself
Having considered technology and your environment, the third area you need to check is yourself. Video meetings are interactions between professionals, and you need to be mindful of good etiquette when you participate.
First, when you’re invited to a meeting, confirm that you’re accepting the invitation. In particular, be sure to let people know if you can’t attend, or if you think you might not be able to attend.
Make sure that you know how to access the meeting, and that you have the necessary software installed. If unsure, ask in advance. Having accepted the meeting invitation, make an effort to turn up for the meeting on time. Because video meetings take place online, people can become complacent about punctuality, but no one likes to be kept waiting too long. If you’re going to be delayed, let people know, just as you’d do for a face-to-face meeting.
One of the great joys of working from home is that you can set your own dress code. And if you conduct your business via audio calls, your dress code can be as casual as a weekend nudist colony. However, when attending video meetings, it’s always better to err on the side of caution, and dress for the job you want. You don’t have to overdo it; you’re not going to a Viennese ball, after all. However, especially for initial meetings where you’re still pitching yourself, dress up. You can always dress down again when the call is over.
(As a side note, it is good practice to ‘dress for work’ when working from home. You should change outfit when switching from work mode to ‘home’ mode. This can help trigger a psychological switch from work mindset to home mindset, making it easier for you to maintain work–life balance. Of course, the transition might be just from work pyjamas to home pyjamas, but it’s an important transition, nonetheless.)
Next, check the position of your webcam. Is it pointing to your face, and framing you in a balanced way? People don’t want to spend half an hour staring up your nose or pondering the close-up intricacies of your rambling eyebrows. Make sure there aren’t any distractions in the frame. Before the call, check what your camera is showing.
Put your phone on silent so that you don’t hear the enticing siren calls of pings, alerts, and vibrations. Let other people and animals in the house know that you don’t want to be disturbed. Also, close down any messaging programs that you don’t need for the call. (This is particularly important if you have to share your screen during the call.)
Also, try to avoid becoming a distraction yourself. Remember, pay attention to your appearance, your background, and your webcam position. If you must type during the call (to take notes, for example), be aware of the noise you might be making. Some people delicately tap the keyboard keys in a graceful dance of collaboration between humanware, hardware, and software. Other people, like me, relentlessly hammer the keys in a grim war of attrition between human and machine. If you’re a noisy typist, consider scribbling notes on paper instead.
As a meeting call progresses, you may start to forget that you are ‘on camera’. When someone else is speaking, be mindful of your own body language. No matter how frustrating the comments from other participants might be, don’t fall prey to Angela Merkel eye rolls. Any physical tells – such as shudders, head shakes, and recoils – will be picked up by the webcam.
Try to resist the urge to lovingly attend to bodily creaks, itches, and pains. We all know the euphoric joy of a well-timed scratch on a persistent itch. However, other meeting attendees are unlikely to want to watch you hacking away at sundry bodily orifices. If you need to answer calls of nature – or take what a colleague once wonderfully called ‘bio breaks’ – politely excuse yourself.
Be aware of eating and drinking etiquette. How much noise will you make if you eat those tasty treats or slurp down that delicious beverage? If it sounds loud to you, think of how loud it might sound to someone listening to the meeting through headphones! If you think the meeting will be long, do make sure you have necessary supplies at hand. Always have a glass of water nearby, especially if you have to do a lot of talking during the call.
Many people find virtual meetings to be uncomfortable and artificial experiences. However, 2020 has shown us that we are more likely to be zooming instead of rooming for quite some time yet. By applying best practices and being attentive to the other people on the call, you can help make the meetings a bit more pleasant. With some preparation, you’ll always be able to assure Mr DeMille that you’re ready for your close-up.
Pádraig Hanratty has been a writer and editor for nearly 25 years. In 2005, he founded QUIP Editing Solutions, a freelance writing and editing agency. QUIP has completed a wide variety of projects for clients such as Skillsoft, UCD, Digital Marketing Institute, Dublin City University, Highwood Education, Dataflow International, Climate-KIC, and RCSI. Pádraig has self-published three fiction books. He is also a Full Member of AFEPI and on the committee of Irish PEN. You can follow his blog at Quips and Chords.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of AFEPI Ireland.