Now that the country is re-opening, a lot of companies—and employees—are considering making distance working a part of their operations. A CNBC poll discovered that 43% of Americans want to work at least partially from home. I have reservations about the disconnect distance working may cause in the workplace. Random interactions have proven to account for the majority of creative ideas, and not being in the physical presence of co-workers risks disengaging a workforce that has already been suffering from dismal engagement scores for years. But, since the trend is upon us, I offer a few suggestions to make one element of distance working better—video conferencing.
In the past few months of conducting my business via video, every client has complained about how frustrating it is to try to have meaningful and productive meetings using Zoom, GoToMeeting, or any of the other apps that I wish I held stock in before the pandemic hit. Here are some reasons why, and what to do about them.
Full attention. When you are in the physical presence of another person, your thoughts may wander now and then, but for the most part, you are focused on the speaker. During video conferences, however, far too many people fool themselves into thinking they can work on a side task during the meeting. After all, all you have to do is mute your microphone and nod your head every now and then. Truth one; you’re not fooling anyone. Truth two; multi-tasking is a myth. The cerebral cortex, where our thinking and processing occurs, is a sequential organism. It can only focus on one task at a time. The only time you can truly multi-task is when one of the tasks involves no thought. For instance, you can read a book while listening to music, but only if the music has no lyrics. During a video conference, focus on the meeting!
Emotion. If you think people are uncomfortable giving a speech in front of a group, try putting them in front of a camera. For the past few months, I have watched people on computer screens who look like they swallowed a bottle of Thorazine. The only thing moving was their mouth. No facial expression; no life. The human brain is tuned to read signals during interactions. It uses those signals to interpret meaning, and stores information based on that meaning.
The brain doesn’t listen to words, it interprets signals. Video conferencing must have more to it than just people talking. This is why in-person meetings are more productive; there is simply no way to duplicate the brain’s reaction to face-to-face interactions. If, however, you can’t be face-to-face, at least try to duplicate the experience. Be mindful of facial expressions, bring your natural sense of humor to the conversation, vary your vocal pitch, and employ gestures while you speak. Even sitting up in your chair without resting against the backrest does wonders to add presence to your delivery.
Limit screen-sharing. If you hate watching someone flip through PowerPoint slides during a meeting, it isn’t any better during a video conference. The purpose of a meeting is not just to share information, it is to engage the group, foster agreement, and build momentum. This is done through talking, not reading a slide. The only slides that should be used are those that are absolutely necessary for the meeting to remain productive. All others should be sent in an e-mail for participants to review on their own. Respect the true purpose of a video conference; to engage the team.
Finally, remember what news anchors are taught; the camera is your audience. When someone is speaking during a video conference, you do have to look at their face on the screen, but when you speak, look directly into the camera. It is unnerving to watch someone speak who is looking down. If someone did this during a live conversation, you would say, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” The same holds true for video.
I have a few more tips, but I will save those for the video that accompanies this column. If you must communicate on-screen, make it as close to in-person as possible.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.