You’re logging into your 12th online or Zoom meeting of the week. You promptly turn off your video and mute yourself to silence your family members and pets walking behind you.
The Zoom meeting begins, most people aren’t even on video and everyone is muted. Suddenly, you hear Sally slurping her morning yogurt. You chat a message to Sally — “please mute yourself.” Then you roll your eyes and go back to the email you were trying to write while the meeting moves on.
Later, someone poses a question and asks for your response. There’s a few seconds of dead air until you realize you’re still on mute—always a risk when you’re caught off guard while multitasking. Just as you toggle your mic on, someone says, “We can’t hear you, you’re on mute.” You roll your eyes again, grateful your video’s off.
Does this sound familiar? Sadly, this is how the majority of people in the business world are interacting with one another right now. It’s no wonder that we dread virtual meetings.
This year, a survey of 40 managers, asked them about the biggest challenges they face in their current work. The recurring themes:
• Navigating change
• Navigating communication breakdowns that negatively impact team health
• Creating transparency within a remote team
• Fostering creative virtual environments for online work
• Helping teams get the best out of their work-from-home experience
• Building trust and relationships remotely
All of these challenges start and end with how we hold online meetings. So how do we fix the problems and get more out of the virtual workplace?
There are two factors creating the conditions for all the ways a meeting can fall flat: the mute button and turning off your video. These two actions combined can suck the relationship and connection right out of a meeting.
Where’s the connection in online connection?
Believe it or not, virtual meetings themselves are no worse than in-person meetings. In 2017, Leslie Perlow noted in Harvard Business Review found that 71% of the managers surveyed found meetings unproductive and inefficient; 62% said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together. Meeting virtually on a much broader scale has not changed much. Multi-tasking and feeling stuck in conflict are common complaints, whether you’re meeting online or in person. The pandemic is just shining a spotlight on these kinds of meeting dysfunctions because we’re collectively talking about it more.
Although online collaboration tools have seen a surge in use this year, they don’t necessarily make online work easier—they just make it possible. And there is definitely an overhead cost. In my experience, it takes upward of 30% more time to plan, design, and get everyone set up for success in an online meeting than if we were just walking into the same physical room and sitting down. In the office, we take for granted that you can invite people to a meeting, give them the location, and expect that they will get themselves there. Online, you have to give everyone access and past firewalls, help them navigate the technology, and familiarize them with the features—just to get them into your virtual room.
Moreover, going from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting is just as fatiguing as going from meeting to meeting in a physical office space—and we don’t even get the exercise of walking between rooms! And then there is the spouse or child or pet who needs something from you in the middle of your five-minute break. In effect, virtual meetings suffer from the same inherent issues as in-person meetings, but cumulatively lead to an even higher degree of brain fry.
In this context, it’s easy to understand why we’re tempted to turn off our mic and video—but this single act is dooming our meetings from the start.
Because the one thing we are missing most in virtual space is connection.
Mute and video off are the equivalent of coming into an auditorium and sitting in the very back row with a piece of cardboard in front of your face. You have a full view of what’s happening, but no skin in the game. You are an observer, not a participant, and you are signaling to the group that you are not interested in being an active contributor.
When we have one foot in and one foot out, we separate ourselves from what’s really happening. It becomes much easier to criticize the conversation rather than to contribute to it.
Virtual work isn’t the same as face to face, but it does not have to be miserable. You can create a space where people feel connected, heard, and valued—and where their input is genuinely appreciated. Then they’ll look forward to meetings!
When there is real connection, the virtual space can be even better than being in the room for some types of output. In principle, online meetings can lead to better results, more diversity of opinion, and more innovative ideas. Detailed work, large amounts of information, and decision making all lend themselves to online spaces—provided you are using an online collaboration tool that gives everyone equal visibility to the information.
So, how do we get there?
Mute off and video on: tips for building trust and engagement
Affective trust is the strongest and longest-lasting form of trust. It is built gradually as people get to know one another, and it’s crucial for effective and engaged teamwork—whether you’re meeting in person or online. It also takes active facilitation—someone who will help architect the right environment and help the team set new social norms that they agree to collectively uphold.
To have the greatest impact on making your virtual meetings more engaging, fun, and productive, start with these two norms:
• Mute Button — “For Emergency Use Only”
There is no greater way to catalyze better team connection than by asking people to be in a quiet place so they can be OFF Mute.
Why? Because hearing people laugh at a joke, sigh, or quickly ask a follow-up question creates connection. It provides instant feedback to the speaker so they feel acknowledged and heard. A collective, shared soundscape is often missing in virtual meetings—and it’s the cornerstone of building affective trust and better teamwork.
Tips to make it work:
1. Normalize the noises
The dog barking in the background or the car passing by are part of daily life. Normalize these noises! Make it okay that they happen, as long as they are not continuous or overly disruptive. Use mute only if they do become distracting—and then rejoin the conversation when you can.
2. Embrace collisions
When everyone is off mute, you will sometimes “collide” with one another—when two or more people speak at the same time. When collisions happen, just give it a moment for the speakers to sort out who will go first. Collisions not only empower the group to be responsible to each other, they increase the overall energy in the virtual room.
• Video On
In a study by Forbes and Zoom, at least 81% of executives said they found that video conferencing could strengthen relationships, increase understanding, improve the quality of communication, improve team effectiveness, boost engagement, and promote deeper empathy and cooperation.
When it comes to building engagement and trust, it’s critical to be able to see one another. It’s the only way we can read the virtual room. When you pose a question and just get silence, video provides behavioral indicators about what’s happening for people. One team member might be addressing a child who needs something, another might be looking up or down in a thoughtful way. With video on, the team will have a better sense of how much space to leave one another for thinking, and no one will be sitting there wondering if they’re all alone.
Tips to make it work:
1. Be fully in or fully out
We waste a lot of time by only showing up partially. When there is an imbalance in participation, it impacts everyone and lowers the quality of the group’s experience and conversation. Just like with in-person meetings, video on means you can see when team members are not responding. To avoid this, create a group norm to either be fully in or fully out. If you make a conscious decision to be fully out, get the summary notes after the meeting.
2. Just say ‘no’ to multitasking
Oftentimes, video off is used by team members who are trying to multitask during meeting time—they just don’t want to be obvious about it. But the truth is, we can’t multitask, no matter what we may think. What we can do is “task switch.” And when we do, our tasks end up taking 40% longer to complete—and we’ve disconnected from the group conversation. If you need to write that email, you should skip the meeting and write the email.
To reap the benefits of a “video off” meeting culture, create a group norm that prioritizes presence and design meetings that encourage active engagement.
Preparing to lead behavior change
Introducing new norms to your team can be challenging. Be prepared for people to push back, and take time to listen to everyone’s concerns. People have been trained that it’s rude to be off mute, and they don’t want to eat their lunch on video in front of everyone.
After you have really listened to the concerns, ask people if they would be willing to try it for one week knowing that it has the potential to make a positive and productive impact on the team. After the week, you can revisit the new norms and see how people feel.
This isn’t about making people do something they don’t want to do. It’s about making requests of people to try something new. It might be uncomfortable for people at first, but the result is better outcomes for the collective—better conversations, more voices being heard, higher productivity, and more positive engagement. Almost no teams will want to go back to the way they were working.
When meeting virtually, we can’t always avoid an unstable internet connection, but building team connection can be as easy as keeping your sound and your video on.
Marsha Acker is a professional facilitator and an executive and team coach with 25 years of experience supporting leaders as they tackle complex challenges and spearhead change in their organizations. The founder and CEO of TeamCatapult, she uses systems thinking, structural dynamics, dialogue, and agility to help teams collaborate and align with clarity, purpose, and vision. Connect with Marsha Acker on Twitter @MarshaAcker and Linke