Video meetings are awful. Try these five tips to make them better for everyone

Google has dug into the science behind remote working to provide some insights that can bring the human touch to video-based meetings.

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We've all had to live with the inherent awkwardness that comes with video conferencing in recent months. Even without the technical issues, meetings on Zoom and Microsoft Teams can be a clumsy mishmash of people missing cues, speaking over each other and being asked to repeat themselves. And as many people are spending as much as four or five hours a day in video meetings, that can add up to a whole lot of awkward. Hardly surprising then that many workers consider video meetings to be an exhausting waste of time.

Now, Google has offered some insight and some ideas about how to fix it. According to Zachary Yorke, a UX researcher at Google, the pain we experience when holding meetings in cyberspace can be explained by science – specifically the way humans have evolved into the (generally) masterful communicators we are today.

In a nutshell, video meetings make it harder to pick up on the social cues we'd get when speaking face-to-face, making it trickier to judge when it's our turn to speak, or when someone wants to chime in. At the same time, the lack of eye contact and physical distance between participants often gives video meetings an impersonal, robotic quality that can stall conversations.

Read on for five tips from Google that will bring the human touch back to your meetings and make that daily Zoom catch-up less prone to faux pas.

1. Slow your speaking speed

Interruptions are rife in video meetings, whether from dodgy connections or confusion over whose turn it is to speak.

According to Google's Yorke, just a few milliseconds can make the difference between getting to the end of your sentence uninterrupted or being cut off before you've finished making your point. "When the sound from someone's mouth doesn't reach your ears until a half second later, you notice," said Yorke.

"That's because we're ingrained to avoid talking at the same time while minimizing silence between turns. A delay of five-tenths of a second (500 ms) – whether from laggy audio or fumbling for the unmute button – is more than double what we're used to in-person. These delays mess with the fundamental turn-taking mechanics of our conversations."

SEE: 13 etiquette tips for video conference calls (TechRepublic)

Contrary to what you might think, speaking more slowly can actually lower the chance of you getting interrupted – presumably because people will be accustomed to you taking longer pauses between sentences. "In your next video conference, pump the brakes on your speaking speed to avoid unintended interruptions," said Yorke.

"If it's a smaller group, try staying unmuted to provide little bits of verbal feedback ("mmhmm," "okay") to show you're actively listening

2. Keep up the water cooler chat

Meetings have never been a cherished office tradition, but they do at least offer face-to-face interaction and a chance to catch up on chitchat. With the shift to remote working, we have fewer opportunities to catch up with colleagues and share updates from our homes lives.

According to research from the American Psychological Association (APA), teams who share personal information perform better than those who don't. As such, managers should carve out time at the start of a meeting for informal small talk, and set aside time for "virtual hallway conversations" with colleagues.

"Making time for personal connections in remote meetings not only feels good, it helps you work better together," said Yorke.

"When leaders model this, it can boost team performance even more."

3. Look out for visual cues

Much like audio prompts, visual cues are more difficult to communicate in video than they are in real life. A lot of this is down to the absence of direct eye contact, and the fact we can't tell where a person is looking with any degree of certainty.

"Research shows that on video calls where social cues are harder to see, we take 25% fewer speaking turns," said Yorke.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

"We feel more comfortable talking when our listeners' eyes are visible because we can read their emotions and attitudes. This is especially important when we need more certainty – like when we meet a new team member or listen to a complex idea." 

Being hyper-aware of visual cues – such as a colleague leaning in as if they're about to speak – can help video meetings run more smoothly. Meanwhile, participants should resist the urge to be distracted by open browser tabs, no matter how much more interesting they are than the discussion at hand.

4. Know your teammates' working styles

Knowing how everyone in your team likes to work can result in better cohesion and less finger-pointing when things go wrong, according to Yorke.

Research by APA PsycNet suggests that teams spread across different locations work less effectively together and can foster the development of cliquey environments, "with grave consequences for group cohesion and viability."

Yorke therefore suggests that colleagues speak with one another and understand how their  working styles can best complement one another. "When things go wrong, remote teams are more likely to blame individuals rather than examining the situation, which hurts cohesion and performance," he said.

"Different ways of working can be frustrating, but they're important."

5. Pass the proverbial talking stick

Workplace meetings are generally unbalanced, with some participants taking a more active role in the conversation than others. With these meetings now taking place behind screens, people who generally take a more passive role in conversations are at greater risk of not having their voices heard.

"Conversations on calls are less dynamic, and the proverbial 'talking stick' gets passed less often," said Yorke.

SEE: How to use remote collaboration now and after the coronavirus pandemic (TechRepublic)

"That's a big deal for remote teams because sharing the floor more equally is a significant factor in what makes one group smarter than another."

To remedy this, Yorke suggests reminding participants in a meeting to "share the floor" and encourage a more balanced conversation. According to research by computational social scientists Alex Pentland and Anita Woolley, groups made up of individuals who share the floor more equally are more sensitive to emotions and are better performers than groups made up of people with high IQs – meaning everybody wins. 

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