Many in the workplace have been recruited, onboarded online, and finally thrust into back-to-back virtual meetings with colleagues they have never met. But despite not knowing the quirks of their new colleagues, it's the nonverbal cues from their body language that often speak louder than their words in ubiquitous video conferencing calls that increasingly dominate the average working day.
Retaining eye contact can be incredibly challenging when many attendees have the camera positioned above them. It instantly feels like you are looking down at the person you are talking to, so they instinctively speak to the camera rather than the screen. But the problem is you then sacrifice eye contact, and things can quickly feel awkward.
By not looking at your colleagues, you lose the ability to identify essential signals in the room. It's also easy to fall into the trap of focusing on what you have to say rather than reading the reactions of your audience. Meanwhile, those sitting on mute can be guilty of thinking that remote meetings give them a license to multitask. But there are ways to read the virtual meeting room better and prevent this from happening.
Reading the virtual meeting room.
As virtual meetings began to replace the back-to-back meetings inside corporate rooms, many believed it would result in fewer meetings. But we all know what happened next. Ironically the key to keeping colleagues engaged is less unwanted screen time so they can focus on the task at hand. Sometimes, less is more.
For any meeting to have a chance of resulting in a valuable use of everyone's time, self-awareness holds the key to everything. Monitoring the group's energy and knowing when it's time to either take a break or mix things up can be as simple as listening to the tone of voice, looking for nonverbal cues and evidence of activity of each attendee.
When meeting in person, your colleague will have the luxury of your full attention. But online, it's all too easy for people to have a quick scroll down their smartphone or respond to a message. Another problem with video conferencing tools is that they are designed by purpose to amplify one speaker's voice at a time.
The meeting facilitator will play a critical role in creating a safe space where everyone gets an opportunity to contribute. The loudest voices in the meeting can be neutralized by ensuring that the introverts get to speak and share their insights first and prevent any individual from attempting to take control of the group.
A quick scan of any virtual meeting will reveal participants who are introverts and extroverts that will be a mixture of engaged, distracted, confused, and frustrated. Reading the virtual room can be as simple as looking for those in sync with you as they present subtle cues like nodding along to your points. It also offers an excellent opportunity to celebrate the diversity of thought and encourage others to share their perspectives rather than allowing just one thought process to dominate the meeting.
How to increase engagement in virtual meetings
One of the first casualties of virtual meetings was the traditional conversational overlap you get in physical sessions. Instead, collaboration tools should ensure that everyone understands the information while also encouraging communication and engagement from everyone on the call.
Most people reading this will have experienced the awkwardness associated with many virtual meetings. Although finding the right balance between momentum and engagement can be notoriously challenging, you can make the whole experience more enjoyable and less like a task with a bit of preparation.
When faced with the dreaded wall of silence, it usually means that, for some reason, your colleagues are holding back. However, by reading the room and being fully prepared, it becomes easier to overcome this challenge by turning every participant into an active contributor. For example, there are many ways you can liven up discussions by using polls, surveys, images, gifs, or sharing content and agendas in advance.
The future of virtual meetings
Currently, there is a blurred line between our online and offline world. But as big tech prepares to sell us augmented reality headsets, we could soon be working in the metaverse. With Facebook's Horizon Workrooms and Microsoft's Mesh for teams promising to bring digital intelligence to the real world this year, the future of meetings could involve interacting with avatars of our colleagues sooner than you might think.
In 2022, there is a long list of first-world problems people have with virtual meetings, from struggling to maintain eye contact and reading body language to frustrations with virtual backgrounds, unsightly over-ear headphones, big microphones, and ring lights. But we do have the luxury of seeing subtle gestures and facial expressions that help us connect.
Over the next few years, Gen Z will begin to dominate the workplace as millennials prepare for middle age. Teams will be composed of employees who cannot remember a time before the iPhone or iPad. They will be much more accepting of avatars of themselves whose gestures mirror their real-life movements.
Whether big techs' obsession with digital avatars will succeed in re-recreating the nuanced body language lost over video calls will be fiercely debated in the coming months. But as the speed of technological change ramps up, in a decade from now, maybe we will look back at our obsession with Microsoft Teams and Zoom with the same nostalgia that many have with MSM messenger. Either way, it's time to get used to reading the virtual meeting room.