We’re in the era of at-home, web-based, video-inbuilt, headphone-compatible conferencing. It may all be a lot better than a few years ago – technically at least. The lag that we lived with once is now barely there. So why do I almost miss the telephone conference call?
Because this is new, unexplored territory and we need etiquette fast – especially since it looks like we are in it for the long haul.
So here is a start at civilising the video conference wilds:
Use all the tools at your disposal
Conferencing technology companies have thought about what is useful in a virtual meeting. Screen sharing, chat spaces and recording can be used to great advantage. If you missed a detail someone mentioned, ask them in the personal chat, rather than jolting the conversation. If you’re discussing a web feature, show it by sharing your screen (but be careful – don’t ever rush into a screen share…make sure your screen is ‘clean’ first and turn off notifications).
Muting is very important
Usually, the microphone is on your computer. This means it picks up everything around you: typing, table bangs, cutlery, members of your household going mad from confinement. If your background noise is louder than the person speaking, the conferencing program will favour you so that it’ll be your fat head in front of everyone. So try to remove any background noise: close doors or windows, or use a microphone that is closer to your mouth. But, if you’re not talking, best practice is to mute. There could be sounds —some vaguely menacing— coming through that you don’t even notice.
Give people a chance
If you’ve asked someone a question, give them a moment to unmute themselves. Don’t immediately start asking “are you there, can you hear us, do we need to send the police?”
Be patient, and be grateful they were initially muted.
The same goes if someone’s camera is off. Don’t ask if they are still there, or if their connection is ok (if you are worried, use the chat function).
The camera doesn’t have to be on
There are many reasons (especially when working from home) that someone’s camera may be off. For me, it is usually because I’m about to sneeze, or I want to gulp some water without everyone watching or I have to dance. Best practice is to have your camera on at the beginning and end of the call to visually greet everyone. The middle bit is up to your judgement and no one has the right to demand you turn your camera on (they are, however, allowed to tell you to turn it off!)
If you have to move at any point of the call, definitely turn your camera off. No one wants to be made motion sick.
Managing poor internet connections
Any struggles with the internet, and everyone turns their cameras off. Ultimately, there is no need for a camera in a conference call, though it is always nice to have an extra, visual connection. However, it is a luxury rather than a necessity (screen sharing is more vital). As such, any unstable connections means everyone’s cameras have to go to increase bandwidth!
It’s so much easier to get distracted in a meeting when there’s no physical presence. However, it is easy to see when someone is reading rather than listening. Stay focussed on the meeting. It will be quicker, more efficient, and you can get back to your reading sooner.
If you do have to take an external call during the meeting, mute yourself and turn off your camera —and if people need to know you’re taking a call pretend like it’s a really important one. Use the chat function to excuse yourself, rather than interrupt the conversation.
Practice will make you perfect!
A bit of practice to know where your mute/unmute button is at all times is very valuable, and it will become second nature to you, so you won’t need to be reminded.
Some video conferencing platforms have the potential for virtual background depending on your processing speeds. One word on this, while it is fun to depict yourself as floating in front of a cluster of stars or high on a bluff above the Golden Gate bridge, it’s still not clear to me whether this is going to be a feature that is for anything but entertainment purposes – except if you’ve got your logo behind you or you are covering up behind a virtual curtain a house that hasn’t been cleaned for days.
And when you’ve become a master, start playing video conference bingo —just don’t get caught doing it.
Rachel Rayner is a science media professional and virtual conferencing specialist who is on the team at venture communications company Andiron Group.