The pandemic has forced many of us to rely on video conferencing software and we would like to suggest how to make these online interactions easier, more accessible and more inclusive.
This is a collaborative blog post and it has been co-written by Ben Britton (@bmatb), Jess Wade (@JessWade), Esther Odekunle (@EstOdek), Maryam Zaringhalam (@webmz_) and Jessica Boland (@DrJessBoland). You can find our bios at the end of this post.
Meeting in the virtual space is different to meeting in person, and there will be social customs and norms that go with this. Many of these customs we have not yet established (nor understood). Please remember that people will be learning these at different rates, as people are using these tools in a variety of contexts. If in doubt, ask your friends and colleagues for help or advice.
Many of the social norms are echoed into the virtual space, especially from an inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility perspective.
Here we introduce a few suggestions for how you can prepare before the meeting, what you might want to consider as host of the meeting, and what you might think about during the meeting.
Before the meeting
- Try out different video conferencing software (e.g. Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Zoom) to work out which one works best for you. Each platform has different features that may work better in different situations. For example, Zoom may work better in large groups, as participants can raise their hand. Whereas, Skype has live automatic subtitling, which may be crucial for some deaf/hard of hearing participants.
- Practice using your chosen software with a friend or colleague in advance of any bigger meeting, so that you can work out what you can and cannot do (e.g. drawing on the screen, pointing to items, annotations, and more).
- If you can, join the call early and test out your microphone. You may find that bluetooth headphones, or similar, work better than an in-built laptop/tablet/phone microphone. You should also test your video works before the meeting, as some participants may rely on lipreading from your video.
- If possible, use an Ethernet cable rather than WiFi. This may reduce issues with your network connection and prevent your video from freezing or audio cutting out.
- Similarly, using a second screen can be very helpful, as you can watch someone speaking/signing on one screen while editing/reading a document or subtitles on another screen. If you don’t have a second screen, you can always use your TV instead (if it doesn’t upset the children/pets/partner too much!)
- Participation in virtual meetings/teaching is a steep learning curve for most people, and making sure you’re set-up before the meeting starts can reduce anxiety, not just for yourself but for everyone.
- If you are sharing presentations, or similar documents, consider sending them in advance of the meeting. If these are large files, use a file exchange service. You do not know the speed or quality of people’s connections. Screen or application sharing sometimes breaks down and can have a heavy load on network connections. You may want to reduce the number of animations or complicated slide transitions to make it easier for people to follow your talk. Add slide numbers on all slides so that you can refer to the slide number if needed
- Wear whatever you are comfortable with wearing, and feel free to switch off your camera if not essential (e.g. it is useful to have a camera switch on when participants are relying on lipreading/signing).
It can be useful (and socially encouraging) for people to ‘see’ each other, but this is not always necessary and it can also consume significant bandwidth.
- If you are using a camera, consider the following:
(a) lighting (e.g. illuminate your face rather than the back of your head),
(b) camera view (e.g. tablets often point towards the roof in natural resting positions),
(c) what could accidentally be seen during the call (e.g. if you are sitting in front of a window consider closing the curtains).
If participants are using lipreading, special care must be taken to make sure that your lips are illuminated and can be easily seen.
For large meetings, consider turning off your camera unless you are presenting/leading the discussion.
- Try to find a quiet room with few distractions before joining the meeting.
- If you live with others, let them know that your meeting is about to begin and how long it will last. You might want to have a written sign nearby, so you can try to reduce interruptions to your focus during the meeting. If you live in a shared space, you might want to create a shared calendar for roommates/family members to schedule around each other.
- If you happen to be living with a colleague or in the same venue as another participant of the call, make sure that you can both be seen on video and both have a separate microphone for the meeting. In this situation, it can often be challenging to work out who is speaking or wishes to contribute and it is often better to use a separate laptop each as if you were attending remotely.
If you are hosting the meeting
- For larger meetings, consider having a “co-host” who is in charge of the technical logistics and managing settings, while you chair the meeting and focus on the agenda. In some software tools, this can be a formal position, in others the technical lead may have to send out the invitations.
The co-host should also continue to chair the meeting should your internet connection cut out or you drop off the call for any reason. The co-host can also facilitate interruptions or to ask the speaker to repeat anything that is unclear (e.g. where the connection becomes limited).
- The connection speed, (physical) room layout and timezone of your fellow attendees may be different to your own. Where possible, try to consider how this may impact how your attendees access and contribution to the meeting. With schools closed and people around the world living in lockdown, be aware that your meeting may have some unexpected visitors (be it children, adorable cats, excited dogs or partners making cups of tea!).
- Accessibility issues may be better, or worse, when you are using these online tools. Some users will have already worked out how to manage their own set-up to help with this, remember to be considerate of these access needs and ask before the meeting if any participants have a preferred software tool.
- Be aware of how invisible disabilities may impact people’s participation. For example, consider scheduling breaks, and let people know in advance if your meeting is going to be more than 30 mins long. (See the links below for more tips).
- Let people know how long you intend the meeting to be, before you set up the meeting. If possible, share this as an invitation (with the web-link to join the meeting) in advance of the meeting, e.g. via a calendar invite with the timezone specified (especially if you are working across timezones). Please bear in mind that sign language interpreters and remote captioners can usually only go 40 minutes before needing a break or to switch interpreters. If possible, all meetings should be kept to this length or notice given in advance so that support can be arranged.
- Have a back-up software tool, in case the current software program crashes or it is not accessible for a participant (e.g. if Zoom crashes, maybe move to Skype).
- Make it clear that you are comfortable if people need to hop off the call and consider a follow-up ‘action list’ to help people get back up to speed after the meeting.
- If there are a few attendees, consider breaking the ice by going around the virtual room and asking each person how they are or if they have anything to say before the meeting formally begins. Perhaps you could discuss any adjustments you have made to your home space for better working, or a recent hobby. This will also get people comfortable with using their mic and familiar with the video feeds.
- If the meeting is a roundtable discussion, a (shared) dashboard could be created prior where each person updates their section with what they’ve done, new results, graphs, etc. This way, the host can navigate to each section and call on the appropriate person to give an update (verbal and visual if needed).
Alternatively, if a dashboard cannot be created, encourage each attendee to send one or two update slides to the host who can then compile them into one presentation. You can create this within a shared document hosted within Google docs or Sharepoint, or a similar collaborative platform and ‘live’ edit collaboratively if you want.
- Let people know how they should contribute to the meeting, e.g. using the raised hand gesture, (written) chat functionality or switching their video on. Try this out early on the meeting and stress that this will be the only way to contribute (i.e. no one can interrupt).
- Turn-taking is crucial in meetings with groups larger than 4 people and should be mandatory. As the host, you will have to take an ‘active’ chairing role, monitoring who wishes to contribute and calling on them in turn to speak.
When a participant wishes to speak (as indicated via the pre-agreed method of interruption), ask them to switch on their video to indicate they have the floor and allow lipreading. Once they are happy with their contribution and finished speaking, they can then switch their video off (saving bandwidth).
For large groups (over 8), active chairing can be exhausting, so it is often worthwhile to assign the role of managing turn-taking to another member of the group, who can announce who wishes to contribute in turn. In this case, it is important that you also obey turn-taking and only contribute when the turn-taking manager calls them to the floor.
- Assign someone to take notes of the meeting for the minutes. As you will be chairing discussion and possibly managing turn-taking, you will be overloaded if you need to also take minutes at the same time. Alternatively, consider recording the meeting and taking notes later, making sure to ask everyone’s permission first.
- Remember to keep the pace of the meeting slow. The pace should be a lot slower than you are used to in meetings to allow people to contribute in turn. It is also important to bear in mind that participants using remote captioning, live subtitling or sign language interpreters will be at least a sentence behind hearing participants. A slower pace will allow everyone to respond to a point and contribute equally.
During the meeting
- When you join the meeting, introduce yourself: say your name, you may choose to spell this out as the computer can assign you a random ID; and share your pronouns (it’s good practice) as people may not know how you sound on the call.
If you are hosting the meeting, include this as an introduction/icebreaker at the beginning. It can also be helpful for people to test if their equipment is working.
- When you are not talking, mute your microphone until you want to speak and switch off your video if on a large group call.
Background noises, feedback, and other issues may distract others; and video can slow down the connection. Muting your microphone and switching off video is also a good way of implementing turn-taking.
- Pay attention to who is talking, and who is not talking. It’s not about putting people on the spot, but perhaps there is scope to reflect on whether the format of your discussion is enabling participation.
If certain people are dominating the discussion, try and make space for others to join. If the software facilitates it, send quiet people a message to check-in.
- It is very easy for people to screen shot, video record, or take a photo of a call (even if recordings are disabled within your conferencing software).
Be aware of this and set up a reasonable expectation of privacy at the start of the call. If you also wish to record a meeting or take a photo, ask permission first (perhaps at the start of the meeting during introductions). This is also important if you are sharing the photo on social media.
- As described above, turn-taking is mandatory. The host/co-host or turn-taking manager will inform you of how you can flag that you wish to contribute. This could be by using the chat function or ‘raise hand’ functionality in Zoom, switching your video on or off, or raising your hand on video.
Please abide by these rules and do not talk over other people. This will allow everyone a chance to contribute equally and avoid interruptions, people talking over each other, or people being left out of the conversation.
- If you are speaking, you may have limited bandwidth. If you are presenting slides, you may want to turn off the incoming camera feeds or stop screen-sharing to ensure that voice quality is as high as possible.
Try not to switch off your (outgoing) camera feed unless absolutely necessary, as participants may be relying on lipreading. If you must switch off your camera, please type in the chat function what you are saying or make sure that it will be noted in the minutes.Do also consider other activities that may use up your bandwidth during the call (and other users of your internet connection).
- If you are presenting slides or showing something on your screen, make sure to describe the slides in detail for those who many have visual impairments or whose internet connection is poor or cannot see your video. You can also design you slides to complement what you are going to say, which is especially important in case you run into trouble.
- Please remember that the pace of this meeting may be slower than in person. If possible, speaking slowly and clearly can be useful and help the meeting go smoothly.
- If someone’s audio or video crashes during the call, consider sharing your screen on their behalf or typing the audio into the chat function, if no other solution can be found or the back up software program fails.
- Distractions during the meeting may happen (e.g. a wandering pet, child or spouse popping home), relax and remember that everyone is working under difficult circumstances and often have lives beyond your conference call.
You may be using a variety of tools, and how you interact with each of these will vary. We have experience with Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Skype, WebEx, and Slack. The different software tools have different strengths and weaknesses, and may be adopted by colleagues differently.
The most important aspect of using a conferencing software is to select something you are comfortable with and scales suitably. Please note that some people will not have choices about what they can use, often due to restrictions on their computers of what they may or may not install. Some of these software tools do have web-based clients, but the functionality may be different.
The most important thing is to try it out in advance of your meeting, tutorial or webinar — long gone are the days you can just rock up 5 minutes before with a HDMI cable.
If you have the chance, you might want to look up keyboard shortcuts (e.g. for muting, inviting, and more).
Often integrated within Microsoft 365 subscriptions. Teams meetings can be hosted with up to 250 participants. There are good facilities to share a desktop and apps, but note that virtual laser pointers will require you to share your desktop (and not just powerpoint). At present, there is no functionality for attendees to virtually raise their hands and ask questions, which can make tutorials challenging. The picture and sound quality are both very good and automatic video captions are available
Slack includes in-app calls from the desktop or phone all, which can be helpful for small groups or ‘on-the-fly’ discussions (akin to people just popping into your office). The calls include audio, voice, and basic screen sharing. There are on-screen drawing tools which can be great when you want to point at things or collaboratively work. Slack also links with other popular tools easily.
As with many of these apps, there are privacy issues (especially for free plans) which you should be mindful of. Slack also has limited accessibility support for keyboard navigation, screen readers, low vision and does not allow automatic/remote captioning.
Skype for Business
The software is similar to Microsoft Teams, but if your organisation supports it there can be a physical dial in number (this can also be the case for Teams, if it is set up). Beware, in the era of work from home many people no longer have access to ‘free’ dial-in.
This software allows communication access real-time translation (CART) but it must be arranged by the user separately (i.e. the user must hire a remote captioner and send them a link to join the meeting to caption it in real time).
This runs on a separate network to Skype for Business. Skype and Skype for Business can talk to each other, but it is difficult. Skype can host unlimited video meetings for up to 50 people and works very well for smaller numbers of participants, but you need to all have accounts in advance.
Skype has capability to use reactions for turn-taking and has automatic video captioning / live subtitling.
This is used by some companies and has good meeting controls for 3rd parties. The lack of ‘computer’ based dial in may be problematic. It also has limited support for keyboard navigation, screen readers and low vision.
It does allow communication access real-time translation (CART) and has a second ‘media’ window for sign language interpreting. However, both must be arranged by the user separately (i.e. the use must hire a remote captioner or interpreter to join the meeting).
Free for meetings of up to 100 participants for up to 40 mins. Local dial-in numbers provided for connecting with international colleagues. The host can opt for a paid plan for c. £15 / month to support up to 100 and a 24 hour meeting.
Zoom is great for meetings with many people, and features great control by the host (e.g. hand-raising, high quality video and recording opportunities, slick screen sharing).
There have been some concerns over Zoom’s privacy issues, so if you’re discussing sensitive issues, it may be best to use other software.
Zoom offers communication access real-time translation (CART) but again this must be acquired separately by the user and a Zoom link sent to a 3rd party remote captioner.
There are a number of other tools out there, but we haven’t tried them out yet (at least for work!). These include: BlueJeans, WhereBy, Vidyo, Discord, UberConference, and WhatsApp.
- Jo Wootten: Tips for working remotely when you’re deaf (with BSL videos)
- Accessibility Tips for a Better Zoom/Virtual Meeting Experience
- Slack: The ultimate guide to remote meetings in 2020
- ACCESSIBLE TEACHING IN THE TIME OF COVID-19
- Color Oracle — a free color blindness simulator for Windows, Mac and Linux.
- Looking better on Video Calls — by Thomas Angus
- Dr Ben Britton is a material scientist, engineer and group leader working to develop understanding of metals and new microscopy techniques based at Imperial College London. Ben can be found tweeting as @bmatb and blogging on medium.
- Dr Jess Wade works at the interface of physics and chemistry, creating new materials for electronic devices at Imperial College London. By night, Jess works to raise the profile of women and minorities in STEM. Jess can be found tweeting as @JessWade.
- Dr Esther Odekunle is a Senior Scientist Antibody Engineer, working for GSK in Biopharm Discovery. Esther can be found tweeting as @EstOdek and highlighting diverse people in STEM on YouTube.
- Dr Maryam Zaringhalam works on data science and open science policy at the National Library of Medicine, is a Senior Producer for The Story Collider and a leadership member of 500 Women Scientists. You can find her on Twitter @webmz_.
- Dr Jessica Louise Boland is a Lecturer in Functional Materials and Devices at the University of Manchester, where she is using terahertz spectroscopy and microscopy to explore new, exciting nanomaterials for device applications.She is also passionate about accessibility in STEMM and can be found tweeting (and signing!) as @DrJessBoland
We’d like to acknowledge helpful conversations, both in video form and beyond, with Dr Sam Giles (@GilesPaleoLab).
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