Why The Best Virtual Meetings Are Low Tech

Cutting edge technology does not automatically result in more engaging meetings.

This fact became obvious when, amidst pandemic shutdowns and a rapid shift to remote work, virtual employees reported Zoom fatigue caused by an overload of video meetings.

While organizations poured a significant amount of resources into software to connect and empower a virtual workforce, these platforms alone were not enough to optimize work meetings. Revolutionaries tout technology as a universal salve to human suffering. Yet technology alone has never solved problems, but rather the effective yielding of technology. In the same way that buying a hammer does not build a house, investing in expensive video meeting software and cyber infrastructure is not sufficient to ensure productive virtual meetings. A human element is crucial, too.

Why Human Interactions Are Important

Technology itself can be a distraction. The best virtual meeting software is user-friendly and straightforward. The more complicated a platform, the more time people spend figuring out the functions, and less time is spent on actual connecting. Technological prowess differs among staff members of varying positions, age ranges, and backgrounds. Relying on overly elaborate software with a wealth of technological features during meetings can lead to confusion, delays, and frustration. Thus, the most effective meeting software is not the fanciest, but rather the most accessible.

Moreso, the quality of interaction between participants determines the success of the meeting. At the heart of any meeting is the exchange of ideas. To communicate well, participants must possess a base level of understanding and feel comfortable enough with teammates to speak honestly. Remote workers who lack opportunities to converse with colleagues outside of Zoom calls may struggle to strike the proper tone. Building relationships among a virtual team is challenging, yet meetings provide the chance to develop rapport.

How to Increase Engagement in Your Zoom Meetings

Informal interactions are infrequent in virtual offices. While an absence of office chit chat leads to short-term gains in productivity, over time, remote workers are liable to feel disconnected, resulting in disengagement and decreased performance. Casual conversations of the sort that occur in office break rooms or hallways solidify working relationships and improve collaboration. Encouraging non-work, natural conversation on digital platforms is essential to relationship building.

Starting meetings with icebreaker questions or activities allows participants to connect and learn more about remote teammates. Begin each call with a prompt such as, “what is the most unique thing you have within reach of your desk?” or “what is your most intriguing recent online find?” and give participants a few minutes to discuss. Another option is to launch the call with a short icebreaker activity, such as a quiz or photo swap. Large groups can divide into breakout rooms for more intimate conversations. 

Body language is another important component of communication, even in virtual meetings. Since video conferencing is often the only opportunity for face-to-face interaction in virtual offices, participants should leave cameras on. Live webcams make it harder to multitask too, a common problem during remote meetings. A perceived lack of eye contact could signal distance or a lack of attention, despite the actual level of engagement. Instead of staring at the screen, speakers should gaze into the webcam to simulate eye contact. To avoid the temptation of looking at themselves while speaking, a presenter can hide their image so that their own feed does not appear on the screen.

Also, while virtual meeting etiquette generally dictates that participants should mute microphones when not speaking to eliminate unnecessary background noise, smaller groups benefit from leaving mics on to allow for audio cues that prevent interruptions or awkward pauses.

“This Meeting Could Have Been a Slack Thread” – Data and Statistics

According to the Harvard Business Review, the most productive meetings include fewer than eight participants. One way to circumvent much-dreaded Zoom fatigue is to only invite the necessary parties to the call, and to keep meetings as concise and on-track as possible. Audience attention drops significantly after 45 minutes in a meeting, and the ideal length of a call is 30 minutes or less. 

“This Zoom meeting could have been a Slack thread” may yet replace the “this meeting could have been an email” trope.This idea indicates that leaders should remain aware that video calls are not necessary for every conversation. Staff can ask questions, give updates, and bond through venues such as instant messaging, too. Yet, establishing trust and familiarity with teammates happens faster when face to face, so while leaders should limit the time spent in virtual meetings, they should prioritize the quality of interactions within those meetings.

Remote team building requires a more intentional approach than in-person group development, including experimentation and practice. Leaders navigating the dynamics of conference calls may consider enlisting the help of a professional team building service to learn how to strengthen ties remotely. In fact, the onset of the COVID-19 crisis inspired 2500% more organizations to invest in virtual team building. The caliber of online interactions is pivotal to team health and growth, and hiring professionals well-versed in the best practices of leveraging technology to forge relationships tends to be a smart move.

Learning to host effective and engaging virtual meetings requires time and practice. Ease of communication and quality of discourse are the most important factors of any meeting–anything else is bells and whistles. A video call is the venue for a meeting, not the substance of one. A leader can utilize technology to better connect a team, but should not depend on the technology to do the heavy lifting. 

A study by Reuters found that at least 40% of remote workers admitted feeling lonely always or often. With the prevalence of isolation and disconnection in distributed work, it is critical for leaders to run virtual meetings that not only communicate ideas and actionable steps, but also foster camaraderie and cooperation. Leaders should focus on the foundations of teamwork and group collaborations, instead of getting distracted by technological convenience. Team building is neither instantaneous nor easy, but that is the reason that the practice is valuable.

About the Author

Michael Alexis is CEO of TeamBuilding, a company that provides virtual team building activities as a service to corporate and non-profit groups. TeamBuilding has 19 event types including murder mysteries, virtual campfires, and storytelling games.

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