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The early weeks of lockdown have seen an unprecedented take-up of on-screen technologies for both our professional and personal lives. The “Zoom revolution” has swept every country affected by the global pandemic. People who would not usually even use FaceTime or take a selfie have found themselves comparing the relative merits of BlueJeans, Houseparty, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams or Skype. 

With this surge in onscreen traffic comes a corresponding desire to look and sound good. This is not necessarily a new challenge, but it is suddenly an urgent and widespread one. I have been teaching workshops and giving keynotes on “owning the room” for the past five years. In corporate environments, it is very common for a question about “nailing” videoconferencing to come up. No one likes this technology or feels that it shows them at their best. Even before everyone started working from home I was often asked: “How do you own the room when you are not in the room?” 

This came up again at a leadership event with a major US corporation earlier this year, pre-lockdown. I turned to the audience for the answer: “Raise your hand if you have ever seen anyone ‘owning the room’ on a video conference and thought, ‘I wish I could come across like that person.’” 

In a room of 500 people, only three hands went up. When quizzed further, the “digital role models” they were thinking of were all high-status individuals who were charismatic and well-liked. The people who find being on-screen easiest have easy-going personalities and are often secure in their place in the hierarchy. Surprise, surprise. This offers nothing helpful to the rest of us.

I’ve asked this question in multiple environments, including in some of the companies who originated these technologies. My conclusion is that few people excel in a Zoom-type situation. If anything, screen communications can even reduce the impact of high-status individuals, as there is an equalising effect. This may be a good thing in some environments but can be problematic for leadership. 

How to run the meeting

In terms of how the meeting is conducted, follow the usual rules of good practice in real life. Appoint a chair. Don’t allow long tirades or multiple interruptions. Call on those who are silent for long periods. Behave as you would on a panel at a conference where the audience can always see you: you can be seen at all times (unless you turn off your camera), so look interested. 

Of course there is something that feels odd about treating a Zoom appearance as if you are going on television. But the truth is: the brains of others will process your image as if you are on TV. So you would do well to imagine that you are. Will it destroy your career if you appear in pyjamas, eating cereal and looking bored? Maybe not definitively. Everyone realises that these are strange times and affecting lots of us in unpredictable ways. So people are likely to have more understanding and compassion than usual. However, we are base and basic. Our unconscious minds are attracted to what looks good on screen. Show up for others how you would want them to show up for you.

Why are you having the meeting?

It is likely that at the moment these onscreen technologies are being overused as a default, out of desperation and out of novelty. A bit like real-life meetings, which are often used to punctuate working life and/or as an affectation of “busyness” and so often achieve nothing, Zoom can be a way of pretending that we are still coping, that it is business as usual, that important things are still happening. 

But are they really being achieved? Or are you holding a Zoom meeting to foster the appearance of industry and efficiency? Is the goal connection and continuation? (Completely reasonable.) Or do you have practical, specific problems to solve? If you have leadership responsibilities, these are important questions to ask.

Like real-life meetings, screen gatherings require concentration to be effective. A 20 minute meeting with 15 minutes of chat and connection followed by five minutes of decision-making can be ideal. If a real-life meeting is unbearable at an hour and a half, then a Zoom meeting is completely intolerable. (I did a four-hour Zoom meeting this week with eight participants. It took me three days and an hour on the phone to my therapist to recover.) 

There is no research into the optimal length of these meetings. But there is a tonne of research that our concentration span needs variation at around 18-20 minutes of screen time, otherwise we reach “cognitive load” and tune out. 

If a meeting is going to last longer than 20 minutes, introduce something to vary tone or pace. Make everyone summarise their takeaway in one sentence. Or give everyone 60 seconds to sum up their biggest challenge of the week.

What the experts say 

Most of the research about the efficacy and psychological effects of on-screen communication has been conducted not in corporate life but in academia and in psychotherapy. A 2018 survey of 1,800 students by the International Journal of Doctoral Studies found that video conferencing reduced feelings of isolation in students and increased motivation, providing “an avenue for real-time interaction and rich dialogue”.

Academics report that screen meetings are beneficial for introverted students who feel more comfortable asking questions. I am not sure, though, these benefits will be replicated across industries. I am hearing from a lot of people whose stress levels are soaring because of multiple Zoom commitments, which feel exhausting and pointless.

I was struck recently by an interview with a clinical psychologist who resigned — pre-lockdown — from an online therapy business because of ethical concerns: “It all seemed financially driven, rather than care-driven.” Online therapy was becoming popular, she judged, not because it was an effective treatment but because it could be easily rolled out.

I wonder if the current Zoom craze is similar. We are doing it because we can and because it is cheap and easy. But is it obtaining the desired results? Is it goal-focused? Or is it camouflaging an awkward truth that is hard to articulate? At the moment, it might be impossible to separate out these things. It matters less how well you come across on screen than what you hope to achieve by being there. Never has the idea of “finding your why” been more important. 

The writer is an author and coach. Her latest book is Lift As You Climb: Women and the Art of Ambition.

Vital tips for virtual meetings

Don’t eat onscreen. Drink in moderation just as you would in a real meeting. (Would you really take a latte into a meeting? Or a job interview?) 

Mute yourself: when you are not contributing. 

Rest your laptop on a pile of books. Put the camera at eye level. Make sure a light source is casting light on your face and is not behind you. 

Behave like you are in a job interview. You are being scrutinised all the time when you are on screen. Look alert, look positive, put a smile in your eyes. 

Look at the camera not the screen itself. If you struggle with this and you have a presentation to give, cover the screen with a newspaper or a piece of cardboard to force yourself to look at the camera and not at the faces of your fellow contributors.

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