Five months ago, millions of workers started to work remotely and video conferencing saw a huge boom in usage. But after jumping from video call to video call every day for the last few months, American workers are seeing less value in virtual meetings and are starting to feel “video conference fatigue” – the emotional and physical exhaustion and burnout that comes with nonstop virtual interaction. If you realize that your colleagues stay silent in meetings or worse, don’t even show up, you probably need to rethink virtual meetings. While there’s no magic formula to solving the challenges of virtual meetings, the four tips below are a good starting point.
Don’t try to replicate the in-person format
Virtual meetings are by definition, remote, and need to follow a format that is instinctive to the distance between each employee. For example, to help employees stay focused during a long virtual meeting, consider breaking it in several smaller ones. Participants will be better prepared to consume the content virtually because it won’t be jam-packed into a single lengthy session.
Another way to make sure the format you implemented fits your colleagues is by simply asking them! After each meeting, consider sending a quick feedback form. Ask what they thought worked and what you can improve. If you see that the format, duration, topics, or speakers are not working, don’t be afraid to adapt your meetings until your teammates find them useful.
Advance prep makes all the difference
When you’re in the chaos of home in the middle of shelter-in-place, it is even more disorienting to have to join an impromptu meeting than if you had to do so at the office, where you’re already in the work context. To help your team avoid confusion, do your best to book meetings in advance so people have time to prepare. Share any prep materials and resources like docs, agendas, and supporting content well ahead of your scheduled meetings. That way, your colleagues have time to review, absorb them, and be fully ready to discuss them when a meeting starts.
It might seem obvious, but in addition to prepping your team, set yourself up for success by having any relevant files open and reviewed before a meeting starts. If you’re the meeting host, have your written agenda up on a shared screen so that everyone can see it. Having your agenda visible makes on-camera meetings – which are already subject to more potential interruptions than a traditional meeting – go as smoothly as possible. You should also have a member of your team on deck to take notes, so everyone else can focus on being present and contributing to the discussion.
Stop organizing so many meetings!
If your teams are tired, there’s probably a good reason. Before organizing a meeting, ask yourself if it is really necessary or if you could use another form of communication such as Slack or email. When you feel like written words are not enough to express your idea, think about sharing visual resources like videos, screen recordings and gifs. Visuals add an extra layer of context to make your point and can help avoid organizing another meeting. And just like Elon Musk said for in-person meetings, “if you’re not adding value to a meeting, leave,” do the same for virtual ones! Create a team norm that makes it ok to excuse oneself politely from meetings where you feel you have nothing meaningful to contribute.
If a meeting is necessary, reconsider asking people to put their cameras on and make appearing on video optional. Knowing that everybody is looking at you may add unnecessary pressure to look like your best self all the time. And even the most modest among us struggle with ignoring how they look in that little box during a video meeting, as we note facial expressions and the often unflattering angles, taking us out of being present and useful in the meeting. Consider using the “hide self view” function available in most video conferencing tools, which stops you from seeing yourself but still lets everyone else see you. Nervous about how you look? Spoiler alert: in normal times at in-person meetings, you made exactly the same faces and nobody paid attention.
Be ready for technical hiccups
Whether it’s audio dropouts, cut-off heads, or the everyday screensharing snafu, at this point, most of us have experienced every technical misfire that can happen at a virtual meeting. While the technology has evolved dramatically, it’s still technology – hiccups will happen. Organizational behavior expert Bob Sutton shared that meetings can last 25% longer because of these disruptions, so make sure you are prepared to handle them and showcase persistence, patience and grace rather than fear, embarrassment, and blame.
Encourage teammates to log in a minute before a meeting’s scheduled start time to let them get situated in the virtual space and make sure everything is working on their end. Be ok with people turning off their video if it’s interfering with their bandwidth. Chances are, you know what your teammates look like and not seeing them for one meeting will likely be ok. If your presentation is not working, see if you can send a view-only link, move to another part of the agenda that does not require visual aids, or ask one of your teammates to share their screen instead of yours. If you panic and begin complaining about technology, your colleagues might feel that you were unprepared and wasting their time.
Before we all went remote, meetings were a channel for discussing work updates and big-picture ideas — and they also allowed us to have human contact and to step away from our screens. Simply making our previous human touchpoints with our colleagues on video doesn’t account for how different the nature of those interactions is when done on-screen instead of in-person. Just as we’ve discovered the need to modify how we do our work in this new era, we also need to rethink how we communicate effectively with each other and recognize that our old ways may no longer support the productivity, connection and emotional support we need for ourselves and from our teammates.