Most of my friends know that I spend 20+ hours a week on video conference since 2013, so now that many people are working from home (by choice or by force) this week, I’ve gotten a lot of inquiries about how to have good meetings by video conference.
ioby — the civic tech nonprofit I lead focused on neighborhood civic participation — has been operating nationally with a distributed team since 2013. Here are a few things that we do to make video-based meetings work for us.
The first rule of a good video conference is making sure that everyone can hear each other. I know it sounds too basic, but in fact, this is not easy, and being able to hear others is 90% of a good meeting.
To do this, first you need to make sure that everyone has strong internet access. When we’re working with people on-the-go (at a hotel, conference center, or in a cafe), we often will ask them to use an internet speed test like https://www.speedtest.net/ to make sure that they have upload and download speeds of at least 10 Mbps which we have found to be sufficient to run a video conference.
Related, it’s good to build consistency of which video conferencing tool you’re going to use. We did a 6-month study comparing Zoom, Google Hangouts and Skype, and found that Skype had the worst connectivity for us, Google Hangouts was okay, and Zoom (which we use through Ringcentral) was the most consistent and did the best buffering to get the audio to catch up when there are blips in connectivity.
If someone is in a place with poor wifi, we require that they join by video on their laptops and then dial in for audio on their phones. That way, when their video drops, they still have seamless audio.
We require that everyone at ioby uses a headset that puts the microphone very close to their mouths. Some people use what we call the “Janet Jackson”. Others use soft headsets and do “the Erin” which involves wrapping the wire around your face.
Muting is a gift from the angels. It allows people to rustle papers, clear their throats, and tap on the table without disturbing others. If your team is very new to video conferencing, have a meeting that has only one purpose — to teach everyone where the mute button is.
The second rule of video conferencing is eye contact.
When you’re logging on to a video, be sure to sit with the light on your face. This will allow others to see your face and it means that light won’t be on your computer screen.
This also sounds silly, but cleaning your video camera can be transformational — your colleague can at one minute appear to be under the sea and the next be in high-def. Just rub the camera eye with a soft cloth for five seconds.
Finally, practice looking into the camera to make eye contact with other people. It’s weird at first, but pretty soon you’ll be able to do it.
The third rule of good video conferencing is facilitation.
Video conferences can feel very awkward because everyone is on mute and isn’t sure when to unmute. These long pauses caused by the Fear Of Un-Muting (or “FOUM”) make the meeting feel slow and labored. Other times, when there is an open ended question and a lot of people answer at once, every stops and starts talking at the same time and then tries to cede the floor at the same time. This, I’ll call, Everyone Un-Mutes At Once (or “EUMAO”) is even worse than FOUM.
Here’s what we do at ioby to minimize FOUM and EUMAO.
First, have a meeting facilitator. This person’s job essentially is to tell everyone when to mute and unmute and talk. The facilitator opens the meeting, reminds everyone what the agenda is, and when the meeting will end. The facilitator will also say to someone, “Oh Erin, it looks like you forgot to turn your video on.” Or “Ken, can you mute?”
At ioby, we begin every team meeting with what we call our Whole Person Check In, which allows every single person a chance to say hello. The facilitator begins by asking someone else, “David, how are you?” David then answers and asks someone else, “Brooke, how are you?” Brooke answers and then asks, “Jennifer, how are you?”
It’s important to always use people’s names when asking questions on video conference because open ended questions on video often will not get answered because of the fear of unmuting, FOUM.
Unmuting to make nonsense commentary is disruptive to a video meeting but it’s an important part of normal human socializing. So at ioby, we use the chat for the type of background general agreements and followups, mmmmhmming and giggling that would happen during an in person meeting. For example, someone at ioby might share that they’re going to the dentist, which is something of an inside joke at ioby, and so several people might write in the chat “Tell Dr. Rosencranz I said hello!” Or if someone shares that they made a sourdough loaf or a pecan pie, five or six people might type in the chat “Send me the recipe!” or “Can I have some of that sourdough starter?” or “I have really good butter — trade?” This is a really good alternative to EUMAOs.
There are other tricks on screen sharing, breakout rooms and other things, but if everyone can hear and see each other, and everyone knows how to express their opinions at the right time, you’ll be 90% of the way to a great video meeting.