By Karin M. Reed

As the corporate landscape begins to shift from strictly remote and “virtual” to a hybrid model where some work from the office while many still prefer to work remotely, we all need to dig deeper and assume a more strategic approach to this new normal that isn’t changing any time soon. For teams consisting of both remote and in-office employees, virtual meetings are the connective communication that keeps things running.

What does a strategic approach look like? Here are some specific must-dos:

1. Yes, look at the camera, but not like you are being held hostage by it. By now, you may have heard that you should look at the webcam (not at your device’s screen) when you are speaking, so it appears to the people on the other side like you are looking them in the eye. However, it’s not enough to just look at the lens; you need to focus your energy there too. The camera is the conduit to your conversation partner.

Too often, people end up staring at the camera lens, which can feel unnatural and unnerving. You wouldn’t stare at someone if you were talking in person. Don’t do it on camera either. Instead, interact with the lens as you would with someone face-to-face, naturally breaking eye contact periodically. Plus, those quick glances away can allow you to read the body language of the people on the screen. It takes less than a second to see if someone is nodding along or if someone is nodding off.

2. Attend to your personal production value. To ignore it is rude. You probably know someone who, before you could say the word “pandemic,” had already purchased a ring light and a high-end microphone. You probably also know someone who still shows up on webcam as if they were joining the meeting from the deep recesses of a darkened cave. There is a middle way — and it’s not about vanity. It’s about showing respect for your conversation partner.

Your personal production value is how you “show up” on webcam — everything from your lighting to your framing. All of them impact how effectively your audience receives your message. Here are the four key elements to watch:

• Focus on lighting up your face. Don’t force someone to try to connect with a shadowy figure. Grab a lamp and put it behind your webcam or sit facing a window so your facial expressions can easily be read.

• Make sure your audio is crisp and clear. You can’t hear how you sound to others, but it certainly impacts the experience of your fellow meeting attendees. Hop on a call with a candid colleague who will be honest about your audio fidelity or record yourself on your video conferencing platform and play it back. Let your ears be the judge and look for other audio options if necessary.

• Select a simple set with depth. Curate your background so it is uncluttered and not distracting, but don’t go to extremes. Sitting smack up against a blank wall can make you look like you’re getting your passport photo taken. Make sure there’s several feet between you and whatever is behind you to create a depth of field for your shot.

• Fix your framing. You may have heard it’s important to have your camera at eye level, but here’s the key piece many people miss — your camera should be pointed straight behind you, not angled up. If you see your ceiling in the shot, adjust your camera down so it is squared up with the wall.  We all have seen enough ceiling fans whirring above people’s heads to last a lifetime.

3. Stop the back-to-back meetings. Recovery time is crucial. Digital exhaustion is real but could be greatly alleviated by simply building in breaks. According to Dr. Joseph A. Allen, a leading meeting scientist at the University of Utah, neuroscience confirms that humans need time to cognitively switch gears.

Running from one complex issue to another is both exhausting and cognitively difficult, suggests Allen. “Build in recovery-time between each meeting.” Recent research indicates we need five minutes to recover from a good meeting and 17 minutes to recover from a bad meeting.

4. Put more humanity into meetings to preserve culture and team cohesion. When a team isn’t sharing the same physical space, we lack some of the social lubrication that occurs when we bump into each other in the breakroom or catch up in the hallway. This can weaken connections with our colleagues. To combat this, make time for small talk that is non-business-related. Consider a “take five moment” to kick off a call where colleagues share what’s going on in their world outside of work. It doesn’t have to be a deep discussion, but it should help to maintain rapport, which can suffer when teams are dispersed.

Virtual meetings aren’t going away and it’s imperative to make them better. Whether you are a meeting leader or attendee, be an example of “what good looks like.” You may find your virtual communication effectiveness becomes contagious.

Karin M. Reed is the Emmy Award-winning owner of Speaker Dynamics and co-author of the critically acclaimed book “Suddenly Virtual: Making Remote Meetings Work.”

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