By Virginia (Ginny) Merritt
Digital has changed the face of meetings and, like it or not, virtual meetings are here to stay. While online meetings have been possible for a long time, the COVID pandemic and worldwide lockdowns have profoundly changed the landscape of meetings. Businesses and organizations realized they could save time, reduce travel budgets, and increase convenience. Employees working remotely could simply dial in. People began to participate from all ‘four corners’ of the globe and, as a result, often those with cultural differences.
The intention of meeting online is to listen to, speak to, and meet others, as you would in person. Alas, the increase in virtual meetings has resulted in a gradual deterioration of the professionalism of former in-person meetings, and decreased respect for attendees you may not even see. Remember how you attended in-person meetings? You stopped working, picked up your paperwork and notebook, maybe grabbed a coffee, joined a co-worker along the way, and walked to the conference room, agenda in hand. And now? You work (or sleep) right up until the virtual meeting is about to begin, click a link, and shazam, there you are, in the meeting, dressed in ‘come-as-you-are’ attire.
Whether you are a host or a participant, it is more important than ever to get serious about etiquette best practices. While the rules may appear numerous, most of them are just common sense. Let’s start at the beginning:
For hosts and attendees – be prepared
- Do your homework BEFORE the meeting
- Test your tech before the meeting starts. Allow yourself 15-20 minutes.
Arrive on time
- Enter the meeting as you would if attending in-person.
- Verify you have the necessary link or log in information well before the meeting.
- Logging in 1 to 5 minutes early is good etiquette. You won’t be distracted, or worse, be scrambling to connect at the last minute.
Countdown, 3 – 2 – 1, you’re on
- Make sure you can be properly seen, and your face is fully visible.
- Sit in a well-lit place. Fix the lighting if necessary. You don’t want to look like a shadowy figure skulking about in the background.
- Centre yourself and don’t lean out of the picture.
- Make sure your background is appropriate, or blur your background to avoid visual distractions.
- Realize the camera is your audience. Focus on the camera whenever you can.
Be courteous; turn on your video. After all, it is highly unlikely you would attend a live meeting with a paper bag over your head. Video is a powerful way to maintain human connection in virtual meetings. Quoted in an article on digiday.com, Lou Banks, workplace psychologist and founder of culture consultants Rising Vibe, believes you cannot truly connect in a meeting without your camera on. “As humans we are hard-wired to connect, and any form of disconnect puts us in social pain,” she said. “Turning a camera off is a clear indicator of disconnect and often comes with a fear of not being able to see if people are interested and engaged with what they are seeing and hearing.”
Ms Banks added that another form of social pain is a fear of judgment. “Some people have such a strong fear of judgement they would prefer to join a meeting off camera,” said Banks. “But a camera-off culture is enabling behaviors we would have never previously accepted in a meeting. These include checking emails and mobile phones, grabbing a snack, and total disengagement.”
Ask yourself, “Do people really think less of you when they can see your eyes or body language?” You aren’t fooling anyone by posting that so-called ‘perfect’ picture of yourself, instead of the real you. Now, back to common courtesy; asking hosts and speakers, who have worked hard on their presentations, to address a field of blank screens is not only cold and impersonal, but also just plain rude.
Know when to speak
- Speak clearly, don’t mumble, and please do not interrupt others.
- Don’t engage in personal chit-chat before or during a virtual meeting. Plan to connect with friends or colleagues after meetings.
- When you are not speaking.
- If there are ten or more people in the meeting.
- If there is feedback or an echo.
- If you have surrounding sounds or noise in your background.
- When speaking or listening to others near you.
- Observe the same rules as you would when meeting in person.
- Attend to personal grooming before the meeting. Really, you’ll feel even more professional.
- Dress appropriately, and not just from the waist up. I was told of a recent example where a speaker asked everyone to stand up for a pre-meeting relaxation/meditation exercise. Most videos were immediately turned off.
- Business casual is good 90% of the time. Skip clothing with high graphic designs.
- Avoid eating. Behave as though you were in a live meeting with upper executives from your company. If you absolutely MUST eat (for instance, if you are immediately joining another meeting), briefly turn off you microphone and camera.
- Silence your devices and please don’t use your cell phone during meetings.
- Multi-tasking is a bad idea. Type only if necessary, for instance, if you are taking minutes.
- When at home, let family members know you are in a meeting.
- Important! Be sure to protect sensitive information.
- Tidy up your screen before sharing; only display what is necessary.
Embarrassing incidents (lessons learned the hard way)
- Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in front of a live audience. You may recall the April 2021 incident where a Quebec politician accidentally appeared fully naked in front of his camera during a parliamentary video conference, as he changed into work clothes after going for a jog.
- Don’t take your laptop, tablet, or phone into the bathroom. Another incident I learned about from a friend involved a participant who, not wanting to miss a moment, took her device into the bathroom, removed her top, and began to wash her face. Unfortunately she wasn’t wearing a bra and the meeting was being recorded. Lucky for her, the footage was edited out before the recording was distributed.
Other bad habits and behaviours
A U.K. survey of 1,000 U.K. workers, reported on easyoffices.com, exposed a number of bad habits and behaviours.
- Many admitted to witnessing offensive behaviours, members of the IT industry having the worst behaviour. A whopping 20% of U.K. workers have experienced colleagues picking their nose or engaging in other bad habits.
- One quarter of U.K. workers have experienced colleagues saying inappropriate things. 31% of 25-34 year-olds stated colleagues had made derogatory comments at them, compared to 11% of 45-tr year-olds, and just 6% of 55+ year-olds.
- Forty-five percent of U.K. workers said they multitask when on calls. The figure is highest in sales and marketing (65%).
- Thirty-two percent admit to leaving a conference while still in progress. It is much easier to exit from an online meeting by simply closing the window without saying a word, than it is to stealthily back out of an in-person meeting.
The rules of etiquette are essential to help society run smoothly. Virtual meeting etiquette can no longer be ignored. Just as a certain level of professionalism is expected in business, the same should be the norm when conducting and participating in remote meetings. Following a few ground rules for online meetings will make better use of our precious time, and contribute to more efficient and successful meetings.