You suck at online meetings

We live in the age of Digital Nomads, flexible work arrangements for all sorts of jobs, and professionals that can connect and deliver from anywhere in the world.

Except we don’t.

Remote work these days is characterised by lost connections, random hardware and software malfunctions, a plethora of programs and web tools with varying functionalities, and endless repetitions of “Can you hear me now?”, “Could you please repeat that?”, and “I don’t think this is working”.

Technology is improving rapidly, but there are still too many pains that we inflict on ourselves. As more and more of our meetings migrate to the virtual realm, let’s help each other reduce this suffering (and maybe get some work done!).

Know Your Tools (and use them well)

In a day I may be invited to meetings with clients and colleagues using 5 or 6 different tools. Each one has its own quirks (and maybe some advantages). And even though most of us are tech-savvy, we all too often find ourselves fumbling for the unmute button or figuring out how to share the screen and camera at the same time.

For your next meetings, do us all a favour and connect a couple of minutes ahead of time to make sure everything you need is working and accessible. Common pitfalls include:

  • Knowing how to share your screen and/or video. Some platforms require the moderator to grant this permission to other participants.
  • Presenting content when you have multiple desktops / windows. We don’t need to see your e-mails or cat wallpaper. To keep it simple, close everything except what you need to share. Keeping notes in a separate window? Make sure you know how to display only what you want us to see!
  • PowerPoint is a tricky one — on more than one occasion, multiple windows and Presenter View have left the group looking at someone’s first slide while the presenter is the only one that sees the full presentation. Test this ahead of time.
  • Muting is essential in meetings with many participants (more about this later). I estimate that about 30% of my meetings consist of someone repeating what they said while muted. Keep the button within easy reach. External microphones with a mute button are a great solution.
  • Speaking of sound, invest in either a good headset or a good speaker in a low-noise environment (such as an isolated meeting room or call booth). An additional 30% of my meetings are filled by people repeating stuff that wasn’t heard well. Your laptop mic and airplane earphones are making all of us lose our marbles.

Know Your People

Turn on your video. I cannot stress this enough. When talking to multiple people, usually from different countries and cultures, online meetings already rob us of many vital communicative signals. Seeing someone’s face greatly increases understanding, minimises disruptions, and helps the meeting flow in a more natural way. When presenting your screen, figure out how to display your camera’s video at the same time (before the meeting of course).

With that out of the way, let’s address some other interesting behaviours we’ve come across:

  • Multitasking: You’ve got lots of stuff to do. We get it. And it’s right there in front of you. But online meetings require a touch of effort to communicate effectively. If we’ve overcome the technical challenges to be able to see and hear each other across the ether, why not invest a few more minutes in listening so we can get the point across?
  • Long meetings: Sitting at your desk connected to an online meeting is not fun. It’s uncomfortable and mentally taxing due to the increased concentration (I think 30 minutes is the human limit). Keep this in mind when planning your calls.
  • Inviting everyone: How can we get stuff done if our calls are so short? By the extreme application of the real-life meeting rules: (1) invite only the people that need to be there, and (2) share a clear agenda, goals and any relevant materials ahead of time. Dragging someone from a perfectly productive activity into an online meeting is deceptively easy, and must be done with great caution.
  • Monologues: This is bad enough in meatspace meetings. However, in internet calls you have almost no way to keep all participants engaged other than regularly checking in with all participants. If someone has not talked in more than 5 minutes, they are not with you any more. You have probably violated one of the rules above by inviting someone who did not need to be there, or you haven’t given them the place to share the knowledge required from them.
  • Starting late: Starting an online meeting on time means connecting a few minutes before and making sure everything works. In a physical office, you can see that people are on the way and will be participating in the meeting. When someone doesn’t connect to an internet call, we waste everyone’s time by trying to track them down through other channels. This is made even worse when someone connects and then spends some more time loading their presentation and figuring out how to share the screen (there’s a special circle of hell reserved for those who have no respect for other people’s time).

Know Yourself

We’ve all been through the relentless horrors of online meetings. When it comes to addressing them, all we really need is some basic consideration and common sense. Think about all the things you hate in these virtual get-togethers, and what you can do to avoid making others suffer a similar fate (and share them in the comments!).

And turn on your video.