While the idea of virtual meetings (or their precursors, conference calls) isn’t anything new, they’ve become more commonplace over the last several years with the shift to more remote and hybrid workplaces.
A survey by Microsoft revealed that people are in three times as many Teams meetings a week since February 2020, with the top 25% of meeting users spending 7.5 hours a week in meetings.
No wonder people are feeling exhausted by it all! Too many meetings and not enough time to get tasks done can lead to burnout, which in turn can negatively affect employee engagement, job satisfaction, and performance.
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Shortcomings of virtual meetings
Virtual meetings are an essential part of how we work now, but they do have some drawbacks.
The increase in video meetings in recent years has led to a condition known as “video meeting [or videoconference] fatigue”. In a paper published in the scholarly journal Electronic Markets, the author analyzed commonalities between 45 articles on the subject to develop the following combined definition:
Too much close-up eye contact When you’re in an in-person meeting, your eyesight shifts around. Your attention shifts from one person speaking to another, and you may be taking notes, looking up at a screen, or just looking around the room.
But in virtual meetings, you’re looking at, and making eye contact with, everyone else in the meeting at once. “Social anxiety of public speaking is one of the biggest phobias that exists in our population,” said Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL). “When you’re standing up there and everybody’s staring at you, that’s a stressful experience.”
Having to look at yourself That little square in the corner of the meeting window with your face in it: it’s distracting, right? As Professor Bailenson explains. “It’s taxing on us. It’s stressful. And there’s lots of research showing that there are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror.”
Reduced mobility With in-person meetings and phone calls, you can walk around if you want to. On a video call, however, you’re confined to the small square that your computer’s camera can capture if you want to stay visible. This can actually hinder your ability to think and process information during the meeting. “There’s a growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively,” says Bailenson.
Nonverbal communication is more difficult In video meetings, our brains have to work harder to send and receive nonverbal signals such as body language and facial expressions. As explained by Bailenson, “You’ve got to make sure that your head is framed within the center of the video. If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.”
They aren’t productive
Virtual meetings can also be less productive than in-person meetings. When you’re not all together in one room, participants may be easily distracted or tempted to multitask.
In a survey conducted by Zippia, 67% of workers said they are distracted during virtual meetings. The most common off-task behavior admitted to was checking email (55%), followed by texting, multitasking, browsing the internet, and more.
Participating in virtual meetings while working from home can also be distracting. You may have loud noises – such as a roommate’s booming voice, a barking dog, or construction outside – that can make it hard to focus on what’s happening in the meeting. And if the other meeting participants can’t hear the noise, it can lead to what researchers at Microsoft call the “Leaf Blower Problem.” When someone in a meeting experiences a distraction only noticeable on their side of the conversation, the rest of the people who can’t hear the noise may wonder why it seems like that person is distracted or not paying attention.
You may not know everyone
In virtual meetings, people may not always feel like it’s necessary to “go around the room” and have everyone introduce themselves, as you might in an in-person meeting. That can make it awkward if you’re not sure how to pronounce someone’s name or how to refer to them. Spoiler alert: there’s a solution for this – more on that in a bit!
“Location bias” in hybrid meetings
When some meeting attendees are gathered together in the same conference room and others are participating virtually, it can cause some issues as well.
Those who are virtual might feel left out if the people who are in the same room are having a conversation, especially if it’s difficult for them to hear what’s being said. They might also struggle to find an opening to jump in and provide their thoughts.
Virtual meeting advantages
Despite the drawbacks to virtual meetings described above, virtual meetings also have a multitude of benefits (not just that you can wear sweatpants if you want to 😏).
Join from anywhere
Of course, one of the biggest benefits of virtual meetings is that they can be attended from anywhere with an internet connection (or a robust mobile data plan). Since you don’t have to make sure everyone can be in the same location at the same time or there’s a conference room available, makes scheduling is a lot easier, and it cuts down on business travel expenses, too.
Boost connection for remote teams
65% of workers who had rarely or never worked remotely before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic felt less connected to their coworkers after transitioning to remote work, according to a survey by Pew Research Center. Virtual meetings provide a chance to see each other “face to face” when you’re not all in the same place, and with those who are fully remote, it’s one of the only opportunities they have to interact with their colleagues. These interactions increase feelings of connection, which reduces loneliness and disengagement.
Improve accessibility and inclusivity
Another benefit of virtual meetings is that they’re more inclusive. Virtual meetings also level the playing field, so that employees who work remotely, such as those who live outside commuting distance from the office, have caregiving responsibilities, or have disabilities can still “have a seat at the table” (so to speak), without having to travel into the office.
Virtual meetings can also be more accessible than in-person meetings. Have you ever been in the back of the room during a large meeting or presentation and struggled to hear the speaker or see the presentation materials? With virtual meetings, everyone in the meeting sees and hears the same things. Additionally, many video conference tools have features such as live captioning or translations, which makes it possible for everyone to understand what’s going on as it’s happening.
Work better asynchronously
Another benefit that virtual meetings have over in-person ones is they make it possible to work asynchronously. Virtual meetings can easily be recorded and shared out with those who aren’t able to make it (such as if they’re out of the office, have a scheduling conflict, or are working in different time zones). Sift’s VP of Marketing recently spent a few months working abroad, sometimes with only two hours that overlapped with the rest of the team’s work day. He found that by watching recorded meetings that he wasn’t able to attend the previous day, it was easier for him to focus on the meeting and that he had better follow-up items.
How to have better virtual meetings
Now that you know some of the advantages of virtual meetings, as well as the consequences of unproductive or too many virtual meetings, the next step is to make sure your virtual meetings are as effective, collaborative, and beneficial as possible.
Here are a few tips:
1. Express appreciation
Showing appreciation for someone you’re meeting with (for example, “I appreciate you meeting with me today,” “Thank you for that suggestion,” etc.) increased interpersonal closeness and connection. This is true both in-person and virtually: researchers at Stanford University scanned the brain patterns of people interacting one-on-one, both in-person and virtually, and found no statistical differences between interpersonal closeness.
2. Include everyone
When meeting virtually, be sure to involve everyone, regardless of where they’re located. You can kick off the meeting with an icebreaker question. We do this during our weekly all-team meeting at Sift, where everyone gets a chance to either share something great that happened in their personal life in the past week, give a business thanks to someone else in the company, or answer a fun icebreaker question (such as: if you could bring any fruit or vegetable to life as your pet, what would you choose and why?). This gives everyone a chance to speak, get comfortable with everyone else, and it starts the meeting off on a high note.
Also, try not to let only one person speak the entire time in a virtual meeting. As mentioned before, it’s not as easy to pick up on nonverbal cues when meeting online, so remember: just like we all learned in kindergarten, it’s important to take turns!
3. Make it fun
There’s no reason why you can’t make virtual meetings fun! Try setting aside the first few minutes of a meeting as an unstructured social time to just chat. Ask about everyone’s weekend plans or talk about the shows you’re currently watching. All of that helps in building those important connections.
You can also utilize fun virtual backgrounds or filters available with your video meeting tool to bring in a dose of silliness and break the monotony of endless back-to-back meetings.
4. Find ways to connect
Even though you’re not meeting in person, remember: we’re all still people. That’s why it’s so important to find ways to build connections and relate to the individuals you’re meeting with, beyond the name, job title, or face on a screen.
Sift for Teams helps you understand other people you’re meeting with by showing you key information from their Sift Profiles right in the meeting window. You can learn what they do at the company, view their skills and what languages they speak (which could come in handy when it comes to helping with future projects), and even hear how to properly pronounce their name. It’s also a helpful tool for breaking the ice with people you haven’t met before, as you can see their interests and connect on shared passions. And because it’s integrated into Teams, where they’re already working, Sift helps streamline work and makes people more efficient.
[ON DEMAND WEBINAR] How Sift and Microsoft Teams Enable More Connected Meetings
While virtual meetings can be a suitable alternative to meeting in person, they can sometimes feel impersonal and unproductive. Learn how to make your virtual meetings more collaborative, engaging, and impactful in this webinar from Sift and Microsoft.