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8 ways to help people feel connected during a virtual meeting

06 Jul, 2021 Virtual, remote meetings

Workplace communication has become a real challenge because the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted most workers to their homes in either WFH or hybrid mode. Those who have hosted meetings and conferencing in the past would know that despite major advances in technology, virtual meetings and conferences can never match the efficiency of an in-person meeting. However, in these tough times, we need to get the purpose accomplished with the limited resources. In this article, we discuss ways to help people feel connected during a virtual meeting. Also, here are some helpful tips on delivering an effective virtual presentation.

1. Prepare and distribute meeting agenda early

Whenever planning a meeting, make sure your teammates are informed in advance about the time, date and location, so they have time to enter it in their calendars and prepare for it. Let them know the purpose of the meeting and the agenda, along with issues you wish to raise. This will give the attendees the opportunity to update their knowledge on the subject/s to be discussed. As a result, they will be better prepared for the meeting and more confident about participating in the discussion. They are more likely to put forward some valuable points during the meeting.

Make a list of agenda topics and note any team concerns about issues

Virtual meetings are a new culture and might get you overwhelmed with the experience. To avoid any hurdles and let the meeting run smoothly, ensure you list on the agenda paper all the topics to be covered during the meeting. If you have any concerns you would like to discuss with your team, list them too. Also, keep a notepad beside you, so if a team member suggests something or expresses a concern, you can note it down, this will convey a message that you do care about their concerns and their opinion matters to you.

2. Let each person be visible

During the video conferencing, ensure everyone has switched on their camera and has shared their video view. Being able to see the people you’re interacting with helps you connect better and provides an experience closest to in-person meetings. It also helps you to be more aware of their reactions and improves their response. This helps them feel connected in a virtual meeting. Since everyone is physically distant from their colleagues, being able to see them on-screen will cheer them up and reduce the stress of being remote from their colleagues.

Also remember that your body language, manners and level of engagement on video calls are still readily visible, and can influence how colleagues see you and interpret your message. Therefore, don’t multi-task during video meetings or allow yourself to get distracted by other devices. Leadership expert Erica Dhawan observes:

It is so obvious if you are busy looking down at your phone, when others are trying to make video eye contact with you. You may think no one will notice, but it signals a lack of engagement and enthusiasm.

So smile at your audience, not at your self-view. Practice looking straight into the camera rather than glancing at your own image on the screen. Keep your posture stable. Don’t sit stiffly or sway in your chair. Don’t slouch or hunch over. Relax your shoulders and pull them back a little so you are sitting up straight and clearly paying attention to the discussion. All this will help you to project a stable presence.

These tips will help you to authentically connect with your audience:

  • Place a sticky note with a smiley face on it behind your webcam or just above it to remind you where to keep looking.
  • Turn off the self-view option on Zoom.
  • Use the active-speaker mode. When in Gallery view on Zoom, and a participant begins speaking, that active speaker is relocated to the current page you are viewing, making it easier to recognize who is speaking.

3. Arrange equal presence

If you are host of the meeting, you are responsible for setting the rules of engagement, and interacting with each attendee, letting them participate as much as appropriate. This is important because more questions tend to be asked in online meetings than in in-person meetings. When you make an effort for team members to maintain a more equal presence, you will help them feel connected in a virtual meeting. One way of achieving a more equal presence is to ask attendees to raise their hand before speaking. This will visually alert everyone to the new speaker immediately – because often there is a slight delay in the sound – and so you are less likely to have one person talking over another. It can also be useful to selector a moderator for the call to help ensure people stick to an agenda and don’t get distracted. That person could effectively be your second-in-command or another senior team member who attendees respect.

Some members of your team (mostly the extroverts) are perhaps more responsive than the others, and interact more. Active participation is definitely a good trait unless they start overshadowing the presence of the others. Therefore, make sure to let each person engage equally in the meeting. You can ask them for questions and suggestions, and if you find a particular person isn’t responding well, ask them in particular for their suggestions and feedback, and note their names so you don’t forget them, letting them stay in the background.

If you find someone is dominating the conversation, you can interrupt them tactfully. A way to do this is to use a filler word as an angle into the conversation. At last, a filler word can be useful! According to Allison Shapira in a 2019 HBR article, you can usefully employ words like “um” and “ah” to signal you wish to enter the discussion. It’s better than just barging in. Even better: Using a strategic conversation entry filler like “Actually, …” or “So,…” in a virtual meeting lets others know you’d like to speak. Use it when you sense someone has finished a thought, so the platform activates your video and gives people advanced notice that you are going to contribute.

Then in a 2021 HBR article, Shapira recommends if you are on the receiving end when someone tries to talk over you, confidently say, “Hold that thought. I’ll hand over to you in a just a sec.”

If you need to interrupt, start with a compliment to the person speaking (“Thanks for that great point, Jennifer, I’d like to build on that”), and then take the point in the direction you want. It maintains the other person’s dignity and credibility while allowing you to step in.

If you think you might be interrupting someone, but want to speak up anyway, own it: “I’m going to take the risk of interrupting Bill here, but I want to build on his point by saying…” This is particularly effective for hybrid meetings when you’re virtual and you can’t read much of the body language of those present.

4. Using technology

Florian Bay from Toastmasters International says you should make sure you know the tool you are using. Very often facilitators of online meetings don’t familiarize themselves fully with the tool they’re using. This can cause hiccups if you are meeting in a different room or venue from your usual one – or if you are following a meeting conducted by someone else. This literally prevents them from feeling connected in a virtual meeting. A casual look at the ‘settings’ tab of Zoom shows that almost everything can be customized and personalized to meet your preferences. Therefore, take the time to get to know the software you’ll be using and the various settings you will need. Knowing how to share your screen quickly can make a big difference on the day. Here are a few other questions you may want to ask yourself as you review the tool you’ll be using:

  • Do you know how to mute everybody on the call quickly?
  • Is there an option to prevent people from unmuting themselves? This is crucial in a large online meeting!
  • How easy will it be to transfer control of the meeting to someone else?
  • How can you create and run polls to engage with your audience? Can you amend these on the fly during the meeting?
  • If you are running an online workshop, can you create virtual breakout rooms to stimulate discussion?

You should conduct a test-run of the software beforehand, ideally with a couple of people. Aim to break things, in effect, during the test and try to learn what’s the worst that can happen.

A final tip on technology is to use a good quality headset. In this digital working environment, your audio quality is a key part of a strong presence.

5. Remote interpreting tools

If some attendees are remotely present from other countries and cultures, or has a speaking or hearing impediment, you may benefit from using a video conference interpreter. Interpreters may operate as freelancers or work through businesses or agencies. They can interpret every speaker individually. Interpretation requires a great degree of skill and discipline. When a person is interpreting remotely, they will be using RSI equipment, which allows them to perform remote simultaneous interpretation. By using this equipment, any attendee can switch on the conference translation services at any time during proceedings. Some interpreters working in communities might meet the service user at their expected locations, or they can work remotely. The same with interpreters for conferences and events.

A video remote interpreting tool should be available to access at all times. It is a video telecommunication service that uses web cameras and similar devices to interpret information via sign language and spoken language to communicate the points being made to any person with a communication barrier. When you attend to this point you will make everyone feel connected in a virtual meeting.

6. Etiquette

Before you start the meeting, take some time to introduce each member to the rest of the group. This will make them feel more welcome and noticed. Make sure that when another person is speaking, you never seem uninterested. Therefore, don’t use your phone, or multitask. Also, don’t disturb other team members when they are speaking, unless you really need to.

7. Ergonomics for home offices

Many people began working from home as different governments enforced restrictions on movement in 2020. However, most homes are not designed to be used as offices, and may not have adequate workspace. Ergonomics at home: You need to adjust your seating to a comfortable height. Place a pillow behind your back for lumbar support. Bring the chair close to the desk and if the laptop is too low, place some books on the table to raise it. For meetings, I place my laptop on a compact cardboard carton to achieve eye-level positioning. Keep the main monitor in front. You must have adequate legroom and proper support for the feet.

When you participate in remote meetings, try to have the camera eye in your laptop or desktop computer at your own eye level – on level terms with you! If you leave the camera below your eye level, other viewers are likely to feel they are looking up your nose!  And this puts a strain on your neck, shoulders and back. Yet just about all stock photos of people using their laptop for a virtual meeting show the laptop sitting flat on the desk – not very realistic! It’s all very well when you are looking down at the images, but when you look up at the settings, you are likely to present a good angle up your nose!

Check that your image others see shows you from a couple of inches above your head down to your upper chest. If the camera is too high, as if you are taking a selfie, it can lessen your presence. And sit at a suitable distance from the camera so people can see enough of your face without you being so close they can view all your facial blemishes. Sitting too close also makes your head look round. If you sit too far away from the camera, it makes you appear small, which can subconsciously send a signal that you may be a bit weak, nervous or possibly disengaged. Ideally, lean forward so you look like you are interested in the meeting. These points should help your posture as well as make you look engaged.

8. Running hybrid meetings

Hybrid meetings are obviously more complex logistically compared with in-person or virtual meetings. One of the questions to solve is how to make remote participants feel they are virtually in the meeting room. You can give a greater presence to the remote individuals by setting up the main screen in the center, behind the meeting table, and also a large monitor on each side of the room. These monitors will make the remote participants seem almost life size, and help in-person attendees to accept remote colleagues as full participants. This would be a good reminder to include them in the conversation. Also, try to set up the speakers on the side monitors to carry the voices of the remote individuals – because central speakers tend to reduce their presence – and even a bit ghostly because the sound may seem to come from a different source than the visual. These initiatives will help attendees to increasingly feel connected in a virtual meeting.

By using tools and technology, being thoughtful during the meetings, and by providing stronger facilitation, you can run hybrid meetings where all the participants can feel valued, engaged, and equal.

Conclusion

Video conferencing is the new normal. It is not as efficient as in-person meetings, but you can take some steps to adapt. Ensure your teammates are provided with the meeting agenda. Make sure they are all sharing the video views of themselves. You must interact with each member and let them respond as much as required. Make sure that you list all the topics to be covered in the meeting. You should have an accessible remote interpreting tool, and ensure suitable etiquette measures are observed for yourself and participants. By following these guidelines you have set the foundation for an effective meeting. 

Middle image: Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash.

Bottom image: Photo by Samule Sun on Unsplash

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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