smiling woman on a video call

8 Ways to Make Virtual Meetings More Engaging

5 minute read
Sarah Fister Gale avatar
Throwing people into a video call and hoping it will inspire creative output is a poor replacement for actual team work.

Remember when you could wander into a colleague’s office to ask a question? Or you could quickly gather the team for an urgent brainstorming session? COVID-19 put an end to that spur-of-the-moment engagement and replaced it with back-to-back video calls.

In the beginning, Zoom was the hero of the pandemic. The videoconferencing platform offered an easy way for teams to meet "face-to-face" and helped managers keep track of their newly remote workforce. But as the video calls piled up, so did the fatigue.

“Companies are so eager to stay connected, and they see Zoom as the next best thing,” said Shep Maher, executive vice president of global sales for Burlingame, Calif.-based Betterworks, a performance management software company. But just throwing people on a video call and hoping it will inspire creative output is a poor replacement for actual team work.

Ron Shah, CEO of Bizly, a meeting management platform company based in New York City agrees. “Before COVID, you could throw 10 people into a room and magic would happen,” he says.“But put all those people in a Zoom call with no agenda and it’s chaos.”

Related Article: Check In With Your Employees Without Adding Stress

Fix Your Meeting Culture First

It's not entirely the technology’s fault. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and other platforms merely exacerbate what is already wrong with your meeting culture. Shah noted that good meetings require more than just a room full of people. To be productive, they need a thoughtful agenda, a meeting leader, and timeframe and goals based on what the team is trying to accomplish.

You also need to be strategic about who you invite, said Chris Lesieutre, CEO of Dundee Hills Group in Portland, a group of communication and marketing agencies. “With three to five people on a call, it’s easy to focus and get work done,” he said. But after that, the quality of virtual meetings slides rapidly downhill. Typically two or three people dominate the conversation while everyone else sits on mute, surreptitiously reading emails. “At that point, your are just hosting a webinar,” Lesieutre said.

While it is important to stay connected and create some level of face time while everyone is working from home, throwing faces on a screen isn’t enough to keep people engaged, Lesieutre said. “You have to try to piece together something that resembles face-to-face human interaction if you want video meetings to work,” he said.

Related Article: An Action Plan to Keep Remote Workers Engaged

Tips for More Productive Virtual Meetings

Lesieutre, Maher and Shah offered these tips for bringing more connectivity to virtual meetings and helping employees – and themselves -- avoid and overcome video fatigue.

1. Block Your Own Video from Your Screen

Staring at a video of yourself while talking to others is off-putting, distracting and counter-productive. “So turn yourself off,” Lesieutre said. It’s an easy switch on Zoom that a lot of people don’t realize is possible. Just right-click your video to see the menu then choose Hide Myself. “It makes a huge difference in how you perceive the meeting and lets you focus on everyone else.”

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2. Set an Agenda with Speakers and Time Boxes

Make sure everyone knows the goals of the meeting before it starts, including why they are coming and what will be expected of them, Shah said. “Having an agenda makes it easier to get right to the value.”

3. Make Distractions Part of the Fun

When people work from home, distractions are unavoidable. So make it part of the workflow, Maher said. His daughter, Savannah, regularly makes appearances in his video meetings demanding snacks and internet access and he takes a minute away from the meeting to address her needs. “It takes the formality down a notch,” he said. It also sends a message to his team that they don’t have to worry if a roommate, child or wandering pet requires their attention.

4. Don’t Invite People Who Don’t Need to Be There

It can be easy to invite the whole team to a meeting just so they feel engaged. But if all they are doing is sitting silently in the background, it not only wastes their time, it creates added mental noise for everyone else, Shah said. “You are still aware that they are there and you start to wonder why, which distracts from the goals of the meeting.”

5. Pay Attention to Physical Cues

In face-to-face meetings it’s easy to switch between speakers and to see who wants to talk next. But in virtual meetings it requires more conscious thought, Maher said. If someone turns off their mute button but doesn’t speak right away or shifts forward in their seat, invite them to speak.

6. Take a Walk

“Not every call has to be a video,” said Maher. If a meeting doesn’t require face time, he encourages employees to dial in from their phones and use the time to take a walk or complete another activity while they meet. He even challenges them to count their steps and donates money to the ACLU and NAACP for every step his team takes.

7. Make It OK to Drop-off

If someone doesn’t need to be there for the whole meeting, make it clear they can leave without a dramatic farewell to the team. Lesieutre suggested following the same culture and unwritten rules of your face-to-face meetings. “Treat it like someone knocking on your doorto ask a question,” he said. “When they have what they need it should be okay for them to leave.”

8. Dial Back the Virtual Happy Hours

Having a cocktail hour after work or Zoom movie night can be a fun way to bring people together – on occasion. But don’t force it. If employees spend all day in Zoom meetings, they shouldn’t feel obligated to dial back in for a social event, Maher said. “It can start to feel like just another thing they have to do for work. That’s when fatigue sets in.”

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