Watching You Watching Me Watching You…

In search of the perfect conference call

See how happy we could be?

Many of us are getting the chance to practice our social distancing techniques whether we want to or not. As such, I’m truly grateful for tools that help us stay connected and productive. Having logged more hours sitting on video conference calls over the past couple of weeks than I care to remember, I’ve noticed a few trends that (for me at least) can totally make or break a call. For the sort of brain I’ve got, these seven small things—particularly when adopted by others on the call—can make a huge difference.

I actually wish I could configure access to video conference calls to expire within a few minutes of the scheduled start time. It’s so frustrating when you set up the purpose for a call with a group and then someone new joins. So you bring them up to speed and someone else new joins. Oy! Set a reminder. And if you’re more than a few minutes late, just apologize and ask for the notes afterwards.

It’s delightful to see a grid of faces smiling back. It helps with believability and gives me a sense that you’re in a good place to engage with the content of the call. Pants optional.

Mic check! Greet whoever is on the call and (depending on the group) introduce yourself and explain your involvement. Go ahead and apologize in advance if you’ll need to leave the call early so you don’t have to interrupt someone later on.

Ideally, this will have already been done via email or calendar invitation, but there should be a single person tasked with keeping the call productive and ensuring that everyone has a chance to be heard.

Once the call starts, mute your microphone. Perhaps you’ve become acclimated to the buzz of your air conditioner, the birds singing, or the foot tapping of the guy sitting next to you, but we have not. Additionally, seeing the mute icon shows that you’re ready to focus and listen. It clears the air for someone to speak and dramatically reduces the likelihood of a no-you-go-no-you-go situation.

I find that when I see someone unmute themselves, it serves as a gracious way of indicating that they’d like to speak next—a bit like signaling with eye contact or a subtle raised hand in an in-person meeting. Lastly, that tiny friction of unmuting to speak helps ensure that we have something worth saying before we blurt something out—which can be costly in a conference call setting.

Nothing in nature has prepared our brains to make sense of six different faces at once. It’s sensory overload. I’ve witnessed a dramatic reduction in people’s ability to focus on conference calls when video is enabled.

Not a call goes by without an articulate point being interrupted by someone else on the call who just can’t help but point out something hilarious happening in the background.

Once you’ve greeted one another and named a host, switch to audio-only so you can actually listen and focus. This reduces the likelihood of disruption, embarrassment, and it creates space for relevant content to be presented via screen sharing. Plus, it places folks calling in without video capability on more even footing. Trust me—it’s great!

Try pulling out a pencil and paper while you’re on a video conference call. Engaging that haptic part of your brain—even if you’re just doodling—can really help with focus and participation. I try to take notes even if I know someone else is taking better notes, just to keep myself from becoming distracted by the other things I could be doing on my screen.

We’re in a time of rapid change and mass adaptation. Our resilience is linked to our thoughtful adoption of (and abstinence from) novel ways of connecting and working. I believe the more energy we can devote to evaluating our tools and processes now, the more tenable this new reality will be.

Agrarian designer from Virginia.

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