We’ve all suffered through at least one terrible virtual meeting. The sound mix is messy. No one is paying attention. You can’t tell who’s talking or understand what anyone’s saying. Fortunately, remote meetings don’t have to be that way.
Improving your virtual meetings doesn’t require fancy gear or hours of practice. By implementing a few simple strategies and techniques, remote teams of any size can improve the quality, communication, and productiveness of their video conferences. Here’s a closer look:
Remote Work Etiquette
One of the most common problems with video conferencing doesn’t relate to video at all. Instead, it’s about sound. Unfortunately, if even one participant in a video meeting creates an audio issue, communication for the entire group can become impaired.
Don’t rely on your computer’s microphone and speaker system. While they’re fine for chats with family and friends, they’re prone to volume inconsistency, feedback, and other audio problems that can quickly derail a work meeting.
Audio output levels vary by individual. When these sound waves combine, in a process called phasing, certain sounds can become lost in the mix. Possible effects include participants who are significantly louder than others, participants becoming muted, and other inconsistencies. Typically, built-in mics and speakers exasperate these issues.
A pair of headphones with an attached microphone is best. You don’t want the earbud type, where the mic hangs down by your chest. Instead, choose headphones that fit over or against your ear, with a mic that extends out in front of your face. (If you want to avoid looking like a video game player, you can find headset options suitable for offices and customer-facing positions.)
The key to eliminating most background noise is simply: Keep yourself muted unless it’s your turn to speak. Managing your mute button is the number one way to avoid creating unwanted distractions. I’ve found that posting a sticky note with the word “MUTE!” at eye-level to the side of my monitor is an effective reminder.
However, you’ll also need to minimize background noise whenever you unmute to speak. Managing this type of noise is a bit more involved than hitting the mute button, but effective strategies are available.
I see this one on my local TV news all the time. A reporter is interviewing someone via Zoom or Skype, and suddenly the interview is interrupted by a bunch of dings and beeps. Typically, one or both parties forgot to mute their own computers, so we all hear when they get some type of notification.
Mute all running programs on your computer that might make a noise. Email and social media alerts are the two most common culprits, but any program can potentially sound-off at an unwanted time. Also, if you’re like me, you probably keep your phone on your desk, so make sure it’s also silenced.
Kids and Pets
As any parent knows, keeping kids quiet isn’t always easy. You can explain the need for quiet with older kids during your online meeting, but younger ones will struggle to understand. Try providing distractions such as sitting them down in front of a favorite movie or TV show. Ideally, you can also create some physical separation within the house.
With pets, separation isn’t always a good thing, as it can encourage barking and scratching at any closed doors. Try giving your pet treats, such as a Kong or puzzle toy, to help them stay occupied (and quiet). Also, try to take your dog outside to relieve themselves before the call begins so that they won’t interrupt you later.
Above all, try to maintain your sense of humor. Every parent and pet owner can relate to your frustration. Kids have been barging into important Zoom calls for years now, so try not to feel too embarrassed if it happens to you.
When people learn I’m an expert in virtual/remote work, one of the first things they often ask is if I work in my underwear! Truthfully, I don’t, and even if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to.
When participating in a video conference, how you look plays a significant influence in how seriously others treat you. Here’s how to present your best self:
Turn Your Camera On (and Look the Part)
First, always keep your camera on during the entire meeting. Don’t be “that person” who shuts it off once the presentation starts. It’s not only poor video conferencing etiquette, but it’s an easy way for others to assume you’re not interested in the content.
Of course, turning the camera on does you no good if your body language suggests you’re bored out of your mind. While looking directly into your webcam, use active listening techniques to demonstrate your understanding and engagement. Examples include:
- Nodding affirmatively
- Small smiles to indicate approval
- Looking at the speaker
When listening to a video presentation, focus more on non-verbal than verbal cues. Saying simple phrases like “makes sense” or “sounds good” in a face-to-face meeting is natural. However, in video conference calls, frequent short outbursts are distracting.
Finally, make sure you don’t look like you rolled out of bed. Follow the in-office dress code. I’ve found that dressing up for work not only creates a professional look but also helps me maintain a professional mindset during the video call.
Choose an Appropriate Backdrop
Never use any type of funny or off-beat background in a professional environment, even if your co-workers are a relatively informal bunch. Instead, choose one of these options:
- Natural – You don’t need an artificial background, as long as you use natural light effectively and maintain awareness of what’s in the frame. Avoid bedrooms and bathrooms. Shooting in front of a bare wall or into a clean living room often looks best.
- Solid Color – A light blue, tan, or off-white background can help convey a professional environment. You can often add a business logo, as long as it isn’t too distracting. Avoid harsh colors and busy artwork.
- Blurred – Zoom, Google Meet, and many other significant platforms give you the option to blur the background automatically. It’s helpful if you can’t use or don’t want a virtual background.
I get a lot of pushback on this tip, so I want to re-emphasize the importance of avoiding any “fun” backgrounds for the virtual office. The potential reward is that you might make someone laugh, but the potential risks include appearing unprofessional and even offending others.
Video meetings typically involve more than talking and listening. Many times, participants will need to review material collectively. The best ways to do this effectively are screen sharing and document sharing.
Also called screen mirroring, screen sharing allows multiple people to view a single monitor’s live feed. It’s often helpful for showing groups how to complete a process with steps, such as using specific software. You can also play a presentation from your computer to a group.
Along these same lines, document sharing allows multiple people to access a written document simultaneously. Sharing avoids complications associated with multiple drafts because everyone always sees the most up-to-date version. Additionally, viewing and editing permissions are adjustable.
Most major video conferencing tools have built-in screen sharing capabilities. Likewise, top word processing platforms such as Google Documents and Microsoft Office also allow for easy document sharing.
Vacations / Calendar
I highly recommend that every employee in an organization maintain an easily accessible virtual calendar, such as Outlook. It helps when scheduling appointments and meetings.
Now, the whole world doesn’t have to know you have a dental appointment on Tuesday. You can set up your calendar to show your availability without detailing every aspect of your life. If someone wants to schedule something with you, they can suggest a few open options which you can confirm or deny.
Working Hours vs. Home Time
If you don’t establish clear boundaries, “working from home” can end up feeling like “living at the office.” There are several best practices here:
- Management will need to lead by example. They should encourage team members to end the workday at a reasonable time and not initiate contact in the evenings and weekends unless an emergency occurs.
- Use intra-office messaging systems with availability toggles, such as Slack or Gmail Chat. Employees need the ability to set themselves as Away or Busy when necessary.
- For organizations with a far-reaching workforce, everyone’s home time zone should be easy to identify. Take these time zones into account as much as possible when scheduling meetings and deadlines.
Many people new to remote work fall into the trap of overworking. Setting boundaries and sticking to them helps reduce stress and burnout.
Responding to Chat & Email
At the same time, remote work requires a level of responsiveness beyond what’s found in a traditional office. For example, if I send an email to co-worker Olivia, I can physically see if she’s in the office or not that day. However, things get murkier if we’re both working from our respective homes.
Remote workers should strive to respond quickly to all emails sent during working hours. A quick acknowledgment of the message helps reassure the other party that you’re at your desk.
Video conferencing doesn’t always have the best reputation. Personally, I think that’s a shame because it’s an effective tool when used correctly.
By following the techniques above, you can improve your next remote meeting’s effectiveness and take your team’s virtual productivity to a new level of real-world success.
Are you interested in learning additional remote work strategies? Our complete series of remote work courses are available right now.