5 videoconferencing tips for IT leaders during the COVID-19 outbreak

As more companies are replacing travel with videoconferencing due to the coronavirus, here's how to set the bar as a leader.

Video conferencing

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You may find yourself a willing or unwitting leader of videoconference-based meetings due to anything from recent travel prohibitions because of COVID-19 to new corporate policies. As mentioned in a recent article, videoconferencing software is finally reaching a level of maturity beyond the days of missing plug-ins and pixelated images. 

However, like all things in technology, the tool itself accomplishes little if not used correctly, and as leaders it's our job to lead by example when using new tools. Whether you find yourself excited about the possibilities of videoconferencing, or a hesitant leader physically separated from his or her team, here are five ways to embrace these tools and maximize their benefits.

SEE: The tech pro's guide to video conferencing (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

1. Actually use the video capability

Perhaps the worst use of new videoconferencing tools is using them as an inferior replacement for a phone call. Even though the newest tools have easy installations and thoughtful user interfaces, picking up the phone and dialing a conference number will likely still be easier than awkwardly talking into a computer or tablet. However, fire up the video camera and the game changes. You can now easily see whether your team is engaged or confused, tell when someone has a question, and all the other benefits that come from visual, human engagement versus listening to a disembodied voice that could very well be checking email or otherwise disengaged.

SEE: IT pro's roadmap to working remotely (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

None of these benefits accrue if you as the leader don't use video. Set the example by always being on video, and even providing some gentle ribbing to those who remain dark. "Tim, we'd love to see your smiling face," is likely enough to set the bar and build an unstated expectation that everyone is expected to be visible.

2. Let your hair down

If your team has been forced into videoconferencing due to circumstances out of your control, like the recent COVID-19 outbreak, you as the leader can subtly acknowledge that you're all in this together, and all making the best of it. Don't turn off your camera for fear that the dog might walk across the background, or that your workspace is crammed into the corner of your kitchen. Similarly, it's OK to not be wearing "office wear" (although I do advise against pajamas). The goal is to show that you are making the best of an unplanned situation and still striving to keep the team going, subtly acknowledging that your team is united in dealing with the challenges of remote working.

SEE: Coronavirus having major effect on tech industry beyond supply chain delays (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

3. Keep it interactive

I've found videoconferences work great with up to about eight people, at which point they become like a teleconference in that one voice turns into the dreaded "talking head" while everyone else tunes out. Rather than continually throwing out the old, "Anyone have any questions?" which is usually greeted with crickets, ask specific people pointed questions. "Mary, what's the impact going to be on your area?" or "Raul, what kind of questions will your team have regarding this?" These types of questions work well and will keep the audience engaged.

SEE: Coronavirus: What business pros need to know (TechRepublic)

4. Use the whole tool

Most videoconferencing tools have developed well beyond the usual features of sharing voice, video, and screens, and have incorporated tools like virtual whiteboards, or the ability to draw on a shared screen. These features can change the way you edit documents, and often it's more effective to have a team marking up a document together over a videoconference versus sitting in a conference room shouting at the poor sod who is "driving" a document on a projector. If your team has touchscreen laptops or tablets, "finger drawing" together on a whiteboard might just revolutionize your brainstorming sessions.

SEE: 9 home office upgrades to improve telecommuting (TechRepublic)

5. Do a test run (or two)

When starting out, schedule a couple of 20-minute meetings with no agenda, where your team gets a chance to make sure the tool is installed, logins are created, and everyone gets familiar with the process, rather than waiting for a critical meeting where you'll waste 15 minutes getting everyone connected. If you want to try some of the more advanced tools like shared whiteboards or using different devices, find a couple of members of your team who embrace the tools and are willing to do a test meeting with you. Before trying something new, work out the kinks during these test sessions so you can guide your team in their use. If you make it look easy, your team will embrace the advanced functionality, and no one has to know it took a couple of tests to get it right.

SEE: Debunking work from home myths with employees telecommuting during coronavirus epidemic (TechRepublic)

While videoconferencing isn't going to fully replace in-person interactions, it's a tool that we as leaders should be competent with and confident in our ability to get maximum value from, regardless of the circumstances that have us working virtually.

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