On the face of it, video conferences shouldn’t be any more stressful than the average business meeting. After all, you can see and hear the other participants, right? It’s just like being there.
But most people find video conferences hard work. Why should that be the case? The primary reason stems from the two-dimensional screen that you and your normally 3-D fellow participants have been reduced to. Our brains like to know where we are in space, and where everyone around is in space. It’s a little-known sixth sense called proprioception. Our poor brains can’t figure out how two dimensions changes things, and so they spin like a confused computer program wheel and get tired out.
More than that, it’s harder to pick up the normal cues that signal conversational handoffs. So there’s a lot of interruption going on, and that’s awkward and tiring too. It turns out that we need our full peripheral vision to make a conversation work, and the two-dimensional screen – there it is again – makes such vision much more difficult. Fortunately, by making several adaptations in our presenting styles on video, we can improve things substantially. Following are a few simple rules to make this difficult situation easier for all involved.
The first rule of videoconferencing is an old-fashioned one. You need to create some formal, but simple, mechanism for handing off the conversation to the next participant. The discipline required takes some people a little time to learn, but the results in terms of increased clarity are worth it.
Otherwise, it’s hard for participants to know when to speak. It can feel quite rude to interrupt, and yet if you don’t, you may in essence disappear because a two-dimensional picture is not the same to our brains as a real person. The other participants may forget that you’re there unless you assert yourself from time to time. And yet doing so can feel arbitrary, clumsy, or overly aggressive.
That’s because turn-taking is a largely unconscious part of conversing. As we grow up, we learn a whole retinue of winks, blinks, eye rolls, nods, head tilts, and so on, that help regulate simple conversation. We gradually extend those to more-formal settings in classrooms and workplaces, and by the time we’re adults, most of us can take turns without having to think consciously about it very much.
But video confuses us all over again. And so setting explicit rules for turn-taking can help with the awkward interactions on video. And ensuring that everyone gets a chance to participate can help too. Research shows that team video meetings are more successful in the long run if participation is roughly equal.
A simple technique is to first discuss and then implement the device of hand raising. It’s familiar to just about everyone from school, and it is minimally intrusive. Get verbal agreement from everyone (in turn) to wrap up what they’re saying when they see a hand go up, and the problem is solved, for the most part.
The second rule of successful videoconferencing is that you absolutely must provide an agenda if the meeting is going to last more than ten minutes. And adhere to it. That way participants can plan their contributions, which also helps balance out participation levels. Indeed, it helps to share out the responsibility for leading an agenda item to different members of the team, rather than hogging it all to yourself. If you have regular remote team meetings, rotate the ownership of sending out a call for agenda items and running the meeting.
Third, because people are often too polite to want to express problems of communication on their end, you always should begin with an audiovisual equipment check-in around the participants to establish local issues that might affect the call, questions of timing, and so on. And remember that if you’re working from different time zones, energy levels will be different. Most of us have more energy early in the day, and deplete as the day goes on – but not all of us.
Fourth, you need to create a new role, that of an MC, to provide a referee and coach for video conferencing, to ensure that all participants feel heard. The MC’s responsibility is to keep track of the discussion at a level the group is comfortable with and to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. If he or she is able, the MC can also help you summarize points, compare people’s points of view, note actions to be taken, ensure that the agenda is adhered to, and do any other task to keep the meeting on target. The MC can also help with the health check area, next.
And fifth, you need institute health checks to understand the emotional undercurrents hidden by the virtual nature of the conversation or meeting. The best method is the simplest. Have each participant rate his or her emotional temperature in three categories—green (everything’s OK); yellow (I’ve got some concerns, but nothing desperate); and red (I’m upset). If more-specific applications of the method are needed, the temperature check can be taken at ten-minute intervals or after significant stages are reached. You can also call for more-detailed descriptions of how the person is feeling. Health checks are particularly helpful for remote managers to evaluate how their team is doing when facial expressions and body language may not allow for as clear of a picture.
With these practices in place, video conferences can be made bearable, and even fun. They are still stressful for the unconscious mind, however, and as such, they should be strictly timed, with appropriate breaks so that participants have time to recover – the sixth rule for successful videoconferencing.