By Charity Ferreira
You’re sharing space with kids, pets, partners, housemates. You’re joining work meetings, maybe from your phone, wearing your pajama pants, and possibly contorted into whatever corner of your bedroom, kitchen or front porch has the best Wi-Fi connection. You’re using the same platform to meet with your colleagues that you use to attend concerts, happy hours and toddler birthday parties. When it comes to remote meetings in the age of COVID-19, the boundaries are blurred. And for now, that’s OK.
“We are moving toward more of a come-as-you-are feeling in virtual meetings,” says Matt Abrahams, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Business and host of the podcast Think Fast, Talk Smart. But while the level of formality may be changing in some cases, he says, the principles for good communication still apply. Here are a few tips from Stanford experts for smoother, more productive Zoom meetings.
Online meetings are both more taxing and more boring than face-to-face meetings, says organizational behavior professor Bob Sutton. Keep meetings shorter than usual, if possible, he says, and try not to talk too long. “In small meetings, if you go more than five minutes without giving others the chance to speak, ask questions, add input on chat or whatever, they are going to start tuning out.”
If you’re hosting, share the rules for participation at the beginning of the meeting. Sutton is sending “Zorms”—a term coined to describe Zoom meeting norms—to students in his spring-quarter class Organizational Behavior: Evidence in Action. Some examples: Join meetings with video on and audio muted, use the hand-raise feature when you have a comment or question, introduce yourself before speaking, and use the mute button when you’re not speaking.
If you’re the meeting facilitator, says Margaret Neale, the GSB’s Adams Distinguished Professor of Management, Emerita, start the meeting by checking in with each participant. At multiple points in the meeting, invite people to speak (and pause so they can). “It’s easier to get disengaged in virtual meetings and harder to break into the discussion,” Neale says, “so the facilitator needs to be mindful of engaging members who are reticent and managing those who love to speak.”
One of the problems with working from home in the COVID-19 crisis is the social isolation, says economics professor Nicholas Bloom. So while meetings may have been all business Before Coronavirus, it’s important now to take time for informal checking in. “I do that with my research team—Zoom meetings once a week for one hour, with 30 minutes to chat and 30 minutes to talk about research.”
When speaking, you may be tempted to look at your notes; when listening, you’ll be tempted to look anywhere else. Looking directly at the camera, says Abrahams, is like looking your fellow participants in the eye and makes a big difference in how engaged you seem.
Try to vary your tone of voice so that you avoid speaking in a monotone, says Abrahams, to keep listeners from zoning out. And there’s no need to shout. If you happen to have a good microphone lying around, plug it in—it will pick up your normal speaking volume better than the mic on your laptop.
“Remember that communication, especially with people you don’t have a prior face-to-face relationship with, is likely to be missing subtle nuances and also to be frustrating” in video meetings, says Sutton. “So it is extra important to assume the best about people when you are starting to get annoyed or angry with them.”
You can hide the fact that you’re attending morning check-in from your unmade bed by using a custom background image. “Cool background images are great, and talking about them could even be a nice icebreaker,” says Abrahams. (One of these Stanford backgrounds shows your heart is on the Farm; a NASA image might suggest you’re serious about taking social distancing to the next level.)
To make big meetings go more smoothly, designate a co-host who can take over for you if you have tech problems, a moderator to monitor and respond to chats, and a coordinator to keep track of time and take notes, advises Stanford University IT.
After news of “Zoombombing” broke, the platform offered these tips for keeping uninvited guests from hijacking meetings. Good to know: The host can disable participants’ screen-share option before the meeting starts. (Bonus for you, the participant: You won’t accidentally show your colleagues that you’re checking whether toilet paper is back in stock.) It’s also possible to password-protect entry.
A good way to break into the discussion is by paraphrasing what you’re reacting to, says Abrahams. “Be thinking to yourself, as you’re listening, ‘the bottom line here is . . .’” he says. “That way, if you want to insert yourself in the conversation, you can lead with a paraphrase of what’s being said to show ‘I heard you’ as you take the floor.”
Charity Ferreira is a contributing editor at Stanford.
April 14, 2020