While the technology has been around for quite a while now, the rise in remote working has brought the need for quality video conferencing back into focus. As a platform for face-to-face interaction, video conferencing is essential for keeping remote communication personal and human. But as a substitute for in-person conversation, it still leaves a lot to be desired.
Seasoned remote workers know all too well – there’s the fumble of trying not to talk over one another, the flimsy pleasantries exchanged as you wait for everyone to join, the lack of meeting structure, the participants who are clearly working on something else, and those who mutely watch the discussion.
Video conference calls don’t need to be excruciatingly awkward. Done well, they can bridge the distance between colleagues and help everyone work more effectively as a team. It just takes a few ground rules and shared effort. Here are our best tips for holding better virtual meetings.
1. Only use video calls for actual discussion
While speaking face-to-face with colleagues is great, not every interaction necessitates it. As a synchronous form of communication, video calls are expensive – interrupting the time people have for deep work and requiring them to prepare work ahead. So always consider whether your question could be better solved by a different, less intense form of communication.
At Memory, we communicate as asynchronously as possible, reserving video calls for actual discussion. That means complex problem solving like brainstorming, project kick-offs and strategy meetings. It also means employee one-to-ones, team check-ins and all-hands company meetings, which require a richer and more nuanced emotional context.
⚠️ Obviously, we do also use video calls for remote team socializing, but we don’t consider these personal interactions to be “meetings” in the same sense!
2. Get everyone to test the software ahead
You shouldn’t have to sink the first half of your meeting waiting for people to get their microphone or video working. While usability should factor heavily in the video conferencing app you go with, you should still provide your own brief guidelines to help onboard people to any new software. Lay out basic steps, like whether they need to create a new account, or download a specific app on their desktop or mobile.
Make sure people are aware of any software limitations, remembering that free versions of some tools time out after a certain period (for Zoom it’s 40 minutes). Then get everyone to actually test the software, so they can familiarize themselves with controls and features like screen sharing. This also gives everyone time to make any necessary software updates or adjustments to their devices.
3. Schedule calls and define their purpose ahead
To minimize disruption to people’s schedules, video conference meetings should be booked well in advance – two or three days before, at the very least. While you don’t need to craft a well-bulleted agenda, you should explain the main line of discussion you want to follow when you send your meeting invite. This allows people to actually prepare ahead for the meeting, rather than turn up without putting any groundwork in.
Provide any necessary background information – including links to documents and resources, so people can prepare for the meeting – and list the questions you want to have answered by the end of the call. You can be as specific or broad as you like here; what matters is that attendees clearly know what is expected of them and what they need to prepare ahead of the meeting.
4. Adopt basic video etiquette
Sadly, video conference calls don’t have the fluidity and lustre of real-life meetings. It’s easy to accidentally talk over someone, or conversely make a brilliant point without having your microphone turned on. To get the most from your new virtual meeting room, it’s worth following a few points of video call best practice:
- Use a headset wherever possible – they’re essential when you’re working from a noisy public space, but the external microphone also helps improve sound quality more generally and keep everyone understandable.
- Have an always-on video policy – seeing people’s faces helps you read and relate to them, and helps ensure everyone is engaged. You should only turn video off if you’re really struggling with bandwidth.
- Mute your mic when you’re not talking – aside from protecting others from irritating background noise, this also fixes that annoying echo you may experience on calls.
- Don’t sit in front of a light source – people want to see your face, not your menacing outline. Be sensitive to windows and lighting, so people get a good picture.
- Record the call – this lets others catch-up asynchronously when it suits their schedule, and provides a flawless record of any actions or discussion points. Just tell people when you’re about to start recording.
5. Get one person to facilitate the call
Getting one person to loosely guide call interaction can help you overcome the frictions of speaking simultaneously over a video conference call. This person will effectively enable an order for speaking, so no one is spoken over or feels unsure of whether to speak. Having a facilitator ensures that everyone gets a chance to contribute, since they can directly call on people who haven’t yet spoken. They can also protect against a few people dominating discussion, by giving clear air time to people.
This doesn’t need to be fussy or awkward – if you’ve arranged the call and set the agenda, you’ll naturally probably want to steer and balance the discussion. If you find that you’re still running into problems with people speaking over each other, draw on “virtual conch shells” to signal when you want to speak. You can also use in-built chat functionality to queue participation, allowing people to type questions, add discussion points or just virtually raise their hand.
6. Be explicit about next actions
Don’t let your meeting just float off into the virtual ether – end it by clearly outlining any actions, expectations and next steps. You can back this up by listing action points in a group Slack channel, or tagging people in relevant documents, to-dos or task tickets – depending on the remote collaboration software you’re using. Everyone should leave the call understanding what’s expected of them and timeframes for any subsequent work. When you’re not all working in the same room or even at the same hours, over-communication is your best friend.