This is the second post of two adapted from my new book, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, just published last week by Harvard. You can order it here. In the first post, I discussed how the two-dimensional version of your three-dimensional self on video can cause the brains of viewers to work harder, creating the need for more formal ways of turn-taking, adding an MC, and signaling human intent.
The videoconference is an imperfect tool. You should never think of it as an adequate substitute for presence.
In addition to the structural ways to make videoconferencing more effective that I discussed last time, you can transform your own habits to combat the challenges of virtual interaction. Consider the following several additional ways to make a videoconference better.
Begin by imitating the movie business; after all, you’re on screen. The movie world is used to, and expert at, gathering a team for a limited time to get a job done. The people on the team may or may not know each other, but they have clearly defined roles and follow clear protocols and customs designed to control their interactions.
The future of the work world will need to come to more closely imitate this arrangement. Consequently, clearly defining the roles for everyone at the beginning of the project, or even the single videoconference, will increase efficiency and productivity and decrease stress.
And there’s another way to imitate the movie business: design the set you’re filming for ease of videoconference use. What does that mean? Basically, because depth perception is difficult on a two-dimensional screen, you want to set up depth-perception cues for your viewer. Put something close to your face, something behind you, and something at the far wall, that give indications of size and distance. A potted plant, an easily-sized object like a coffee mug, a wall calendar or poster — whatever you like; just give the room more visual interest and depth clues than the usual beige-blah conference room with its beige-blah table and beige-blah chairs.
If the videoconference is part of an ongoing work stream, set up a separate database to handle all the aspects of meeting and handling the team, from calendars to to-do lists to the rules of the road and the mission, values, and goals of the project.
But remember to check on your impressions verbally during the conference; don’t assume that silence implies agreement. For many occasional users of video, the experience is unsettling enough that it may inhibit their usual tendencies to voice disagreements, volunteer for further work, or otherwise participate.
You’ve probably got a team based all over the world; that’s why you’re using video. So, be sensitive to time differences, cultural differences, and levels of commitment. Human energy levels vary enormously depending on the time of day, and cultural commitments to calendars, times, and work levels vary as well. Don’t assume everyone is on your clock and thinks like you.
Becoming more sensitive to these predictable variations in energy and emotional states will go a long way toward making the experience of videoconferencing better for the whole team.