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Cats climbing over keyboards, children screaming in the background, co-workers nodding off while your boss is talking—these are the realities of a world governed by video conferences. We are faced with any number of distractions (from dirty dishes to dirty diapers!) that we wouldn’t normally face in the workplace. It might seem impossible to control the video chat chaos, but there are certain steps you can take (whether you’re in an official leadership role or not) to improve the online conferencing experience.

You might not be able to control whether or not your co-workers are wearing pajama pants, but you can control other aspects of video conferencing.

Here are four steps you can take:

1. Start with a check-in

Get team members involved right away by checking in with each person (if you’re meeting with a relatively small group) and asking for a two-minute update. This will help people feel involved right from the get-go, and help them be more connected to the group, even at a distance.

If you’re working with a larger number of people, you might ask everyone a simple question that can either be answered through the chat feature or by giving a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” For example, you might ask, “How many of you are actually enjoying working from home?” Or, “How many of you cooked or baked something fantastic this past week?”

Engaging the group right away sets a precedent. It shows that they are important, and you’re happy they bothered to join the conference.

2. Encourage Video Use

It’s tempting to shut off the video function during an online chat, especially if you haven’t combed your hair or your house is a tad messy. Even so, it’s a good idea to keep it on and to encourage others to also keep theirs on.

Why? Because seeing other people helps the meeting be more interactive and engaging. It also holds people accountable (they can’t just turn off their video function and leave for an afternoon siesta). What’s more, if you’re the speaker, it is completely discouraging to talk at a wall of black screens. You’re already feeling distant, as it is!

Help people overcome their fear of the video camera by speaking openly and honestly about it. “Video might feel uncomfortable at first,” you might say, “but you’ll get used it. Besides, we’re all in this together, and your presence is important.”

3. Ask Questions

I am always a proponent of asking questions, whether in a video conference or an in-person meeting. Questions help clarify information and also help people become more involved with the information. Beyond asking good questions, you can also encourage others to ask questions by specifically calling out a particular group, i.e. “Does anyone from the IT Department have any thoughts on this?”

4. Treat Distractions with Grace

Distractions are inevitable. Someone’s dog is going to bark; someone’s child is going to break a dish. Instead of letting the group get completely off track and pulled into the distraction, acknowledge it right away and deal with it appropriately. There’s no need to either A) make the distraction-causer feel bad or B) make a big deal of the situation. Instead, address the person who caused the distraction (or whose child/cat/dog/parakeet caused the distraction!) and say something like this:

“Oops! Looks like you have to go deal with that situation. Do you want to turn off your video and microphone for a little while and take care of it? Come back whenever you’re ready.”

Then, move on. There’s no use dwelling on a distraction, getting angry, or letting it go without acknowledging it. The best course of action is direct, swift, and calm.

Virtual meetings are our current reality, but I’m guessing they’re not going away anytime soon. Now that we’ve grown accustomed to working from home, there’s a chance we’ll continue doing it more often, even after the COVID pandemic has passed. If that’s the case, we’d better get used to virtual meetings and how to make the most of them. Otherwise, we’re doomed to endure black screens and petty distractions, instead of quality engagement with our virtual community.

MARGARET SMITH IS A CAREER COACH, AUTHOR, INSIGHTS® DISCOVERY (AND DEEPER DISCOVERY) LICENSED PRACTITIONER, AND FOUNDER OF UXL. SHE HOSTS WORKSHOPS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED CAREER OR PERSONAL GUIDANCE. 
NOW 50% off: MARGARET’S ONLINE LEADERSHIP COURSE.

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