Talent Management & HR

Making ‘virtual’ meetings part of your new normal

Even as staff are being encouraged to return to the workplace, many businesses have learnt valuable lessons about the usefulness of digital options like videoconferencing and Zoom meetings. Here are the key strategies for maximizing their role, impact – and staff contribution

There are of course many websites full of tips on how to make the most of our new-found necessity to videoconference. For example, they advise us to place the camera at eye level to appear naturally positioned, to use a clean, well-lit space, to be clearly visible and to wear a headset to maximize audio quality. All perfectly good guidance, but let’s look at some other factors that – if you are going to retain a commitment to digital meetings – are really at the core of how you will be able to communicate best with staff and stakeholders.

First things first: some very odd things happen in videoconferencing. A magazine mentioned what it calls “bizarre intimacy.” Jaron Lanier, who is considered the “father of virtual reality,” once remarked that it “seems precisely configured to confound” nonverbal communication. There’s no doubt that certain issues arise when technology is introduced to what would otherwise be routine meetings and dialogues – and there are important ways to ways to deal with them. Tackling these can not only make you a better communicator online, but a stronger ‘people’ person even when the era of social distancing is long gone.

Here are four critical aspects to be aware of – 

1. Eye contact is lacking

First, and probably most obviously, meeting by video interferes with eye contact. This is due to a simple technical limitation: there’s no way to put the camera and the display screen in the same spot. When you look at the camera on your device, you give the impression you’re looking someone in the eye. However, when you look at their eyes on screen, you appear to be looking away. Ooops!

Yet in reality, there is nothing new here: long-established disciplines like phenomenology and psychology both emphasize the importance and complexity of eye contact.

“In eye contact you not only observe the eyes of the other person,” observes author and philosophy professor Beata Stawarska, but this other person is also “attending to your attention while you are attending to theirs.”

This extends to multiple levels of awareness, as philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty observes: “I look at him. He sees that I look at him. I see that he sees it. He sees that I see that he sees it.” Merleau-Ponty adds that as a result, “there are no longer two consciousnesses” in a moment of locked eye contact, “but two mutually enfolding glances.”

In face to face contact, I see, hear and experience others as they see, hear and experience me. Yet here, there is the need to break that mould completely and change the reliance we place on eye-to-eye contact. Remember, this is not as difficult as you might think: how many telesales people can build immensely strong commercial dialogues without ever seeing whom they are talking to, let alone looking them in the eye?

This comes down to having very secure confidence in what you are saying and how you are saying it, so that you won’t be ‘rattled’ by the inevitable looking-away. Best advice here? In critical staff communications, loosely script what you need to say before the session so that it remains strong, solid and on-point. Video chats really require a secure style of expression, replacing the need for those eye-contact cues.

2. Not looking your best?

Here’s a warning that a communications researcher gave about making a video presentation to a videoconferencing group: “Even if you are not ‘on,’ you are on-screen, and probably larger than life-size. If you surreptitiously start rubbing your nose, or scratching your head, chances are that everyone can see you doing it.”

Anyone watching sees you as a talking head on a projection screen, showing every blemish or imperfection. Instead of sitting or facing one another reciprocally, “face to face,” we begin looking up, down or sideways at the sometimes much-larger-than-life image of those we see and speak with online.

No wonder that without overt eye contact and embodied reciprocity, people who videoconference can sometimes feel silently scrutinized or surveilled. A person may worry: exactly how does the unblinking camera show me to others?

Expert online journalist Madeleine Aggeler puts it well when she says: “Though we may pretend to be looking at another person when we FaceTime or Zoom, really we’re just looking at ourselves – fussing with our hair, subtly adjusting our facial expressions, trying to find the most flattering angle at which to hold our phones.”

The answer? Edit out all those fidgety traits by making a smart-phone video of yourself, exactly as if you were rehearsing for your own Vlog. But be forewarned: the statistics say you will need a minimum of four ‘takes’ before you are anything like happy with what you see,

3. Changing voices

The long-lived tagline of the Verizon network, “Can you hear me now?” is a question inseparable from technology. Face to face, we are able to monitor our speaking as a result of our own vocal projection and the acoustic environment. What’s more, we do this based on the assumption of acoustic reversibility: that others hear the world as we do.

Online, this is not necessarily the case. Our voices might break up as they are compressed and transmitted, a noise in the background might overtake us or our mic might simply be set to “mute.” By its very nature, sound, unlike vision, is relatively undirected. Face to face, it is enveloping and shared. Its disruption and interruption online can be as jarring as speaking with someone who refuses to make eye contact.

The best tactic? Practice – relentlessly – recording your voice on a smartphone until you are 100% familiar with its digital feel and presence. You may find a need to over-emphasize certain phrasing and add different syntax: no problem – this will serve you well in every area of your non-digital communication, too.

This is also the point at which many high-profile business leaders hire voice coaches to ensure that they sound ‘right’ across the whole spectrum of media and contexts.

It is what it is…

Despite the often disconcerting ways that communication takes place online, as a society, we’ve already become far more accustomed to this mode of communication. 

But no matter what we do to smooth the video experience, video will always lack the “mutual enfolding” of the senses that, as Merleau-Ponty knew, comes with meeting in the flesh.

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