Many of us have now been working from home for three months. Videoconferencing meetings through platforms such as ‘Zoom’ or ‘Microsoft Teams’ have become the norm. Love it or hate it, we’ve been forced to embrace videoconferencing technology in our working lives.
Like any form of social interaction, certain acceptable conventions and etiquette have emerged to help us regulate our use and experience of this relatively new way of communicating.
When glancing at the mosaic of faces on the screen in front of us and glimpsing into other people’s home environments, it can be slightly amusing watching colleagues get to grips with the new technologies. It’s new to many of us and, in these times of crisis, everyone is quite forgiving about faux pas or minor transgressions of this emerging etiquette.
However, as videoconferencing is likely to be used long-term, even when things get back to ‘normal’, we perhaps need to give consideration as to what is ‘acceptable’ in a professional context. Just as there are certain conventions that we consciously or subconsciously follow in face-to-face interactions, we should be mindful of how we behave and present ourselves through videoconferencing technologies.
The etiquette will, of course, evolve depending on the nature of the virtual meeting, the attendees and the relationships between them. The size and formality of the meeting, for example, will also be important factors. For instance, in large meetings, the role of the chair is very important in a videoconference. A badly conducted meeting will result in a cacophony of voices, each trying to be heard and talking over each other. It can be wise for the chair to put everyone on mute and ask participants to raise their hand when they wish to talk (some videoconferencing platforms have virtual hand-raising tools built in).
So, what should we think about when presenting ourselves positively in a virtual meeting? Here are some tips:
Turn up on time!
Just because it’s a virtual meeting doesn’t mean you can choose to sign-up ten minutes late. Be punctual and be ready for the start of the meeting. If you are working on a slow PC or have a connection, be sure to attempt to join the meeting ahead of time. Better to be early than late.
This doesn’t mean you need to put on a shirt and tie but there’s no excuse to look slovenly. I haven’t seen it myself, but friends have told me of witnessing their colleagues attending virtual meetings in dressing gowns. If you wouldn’t normally meet colleagues or clients in a dressing gown, then why do it in a virtual meeting?
Control your Environment!
Wherever possible, attend the virtual meeting in a quiet room where you have privacy and are unlikely to be interrupted. No-one wants to hear disembodied, anonymous voices droning on in the background or worse still, the sound of the television blaring out. Interruptions from children and pets can similarly prove very distracting. If you are in an unavoidably noisy background, remember to mute your microphone. Remember, it’s also inappropriate and disconcerting to have confidential meetings where other people can see or hear the discussion, without the knowledge of the meeting participants.
Be Careful What You Share!
If you are using screen sharing features, perhaps to deliver a presentation or to discuss a document, it’s important to be mindful that no sensitive or confidential material is viewable. This may include emails in your inbox (or indeed any notifications that may come through) and any confidential documents that you may be working on. Close any unnecessary files, turn off notifications and check your inbox before sharing.
Choose a Sensible Background!
Whilst a bookcase or a bland/neutral background might work best, if you use a virtual background, be sensible. Whilst it might initially seem entertaining flicking though an array of virtual settings, the novelty soon wears off. Choose something appropriate and relevant and stick to it throughout the meeting! Attending a formal meeting, whilst sitting on the surface of an ‘alien world’ may sound fun, but does it present a professional image?
I’m amazed by the number of people on virtual meetings who seem keen to provide a tour of their homes. Perhaps unsatisfied by their background, they carry off their phone or laptop and find somewhere else to sit, making the other participants feel seasick in the process. Some people even wander off, leaving an empty chair behind. Would you just get up and walk off when a colleague is talking in a real-life meeting?
Sit up Straight!
Don’t slouch, make sure your (whole) face can be seen (i.e. not just your eyes, or your mouth!). At least attempt to look engaged and interested!
It’s Not a Mirror!
One of the peculiarities of videoconferencing is the ability to see yourself on screen as you’re talking. Whether self-conscious or narcissistic, many people quite obviously treat it like a mirror, adjusting their hair and posing to the camera. Avoid the temptation to stare at yourself and instead turn your attention and focus to others.
There’s clearly a lot to think about and one should not be overly prescriptive. It’s an emerging area that will gradually become defined by organisations and wider society. Just like the telephone and email took years to develop their own etiquette, so too will videoconferencing.