Video Conferencing: Rules of Order

Screenshot of Rachel in a videoconferencing window

Seriously, look at the camera.

I’ve found myself in more video conferences than usual lately, so naturally I have been noticing what works and what doesn’t and thinking about why. I used to actually dislike using video in remote meetings. No matter where other people look, they seem to be captivated by something just out of view; all the social cues we get from following another’s gaze simply don’t work; and no matter how I wear it, my hair always looks really bizarre.

Despite all that, I’m starting to change my mind about using video in remote meetings. I’m getting accustomed to it and even starting to enjoy it once in a while.

However, I’ve noticed that it isn’t always used very effectively. As an inveterate fixer, I’ve therefore started to compile a Rules of Order for videoconferences. They’re nothing like as complicated as Robert’s Rules of Order, and strictly speaking they’re not even about order so much as about reducing the confusion and disorientation people feel. I’m still developing it, but here is the beginning of the list.

Rachel’s Rules of Order for Videoconferences

A. Reducing Disorientation

  1. In the first five minutes, have everyone in the meeting say hello and show themselves. This is especially crucial when some people are together in a room but not all of them are on camera at once, and others are remote. It’s very disorienting for the remote folks to hear disembodied voices chiming in unexpectedly. It’s also common politeness to make sure everyone understands who is within earshot.
  2. If some people are on camera, everyone should be on camera. If some participants don’t (or won’t) have video, at least show a photograph or other image of every speaker. The people who are actually on video will seem more present and animated than those who are not. Getting everyone on equal footing helps.
  3. Figure out where the camera is on your device and look at it when you are talking. It feels strange at first because your instinct is to look at the face of the person you are talking to. If you look into the camera, you will be making eye contact while you are speaking. If you look at their face on your screen, you will not. If you’re using a Mac, for instance, the camera is right next to the green dot at the top of your screen. Try moving the video window to the top of your screen so you are naturally looking toward the camera more, then just lift your gaze to the green dot when you speak.

B. Building Connections with People

  1. Look at your camera more than you look at your notes or at other parts of your screen, even when you aren’t talking. See A.3., above. It feels weird for you (at first) but it feels very natural to the person you are talking to. Video conferencing actually allows you to make ‘eye contact’ with multiple people at once, so take advantage of that.
  2. Take time to be social. Ask how people’s day is going, or what they did over the weekend. Really listen to what they say and respond to what you hear. It seems counter-intuitive; doesn’t socializing just waste time in meetings? In fact, everything goes smoother when people are relaxed and comfortable with one another. The few minutes you take in being social will pay off later.
  3. Have a hot drink while you meet, and encourage everyone else to grab a cup of something too. There are several advantages to this. First, if everyone is sipping some of the time, no one is talking all of the time. Second, it may actually make everyone more friendly. A 2008 Yale study seems to indicate that people who hold a warm beverage perceive others as warmer and friendlier, and are more likely to be friendly themselves. If you’ve had too much coffee already by the time your meeting rolls around, try hot water with lemon.

I’m still mulling over some other ideas. Meanwhile, what rules would you add?

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