Like it or not, many of us will now be using online conferencing tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams to stay connected to our work and our friends and it looks like this will be an enduring effect of the pandemic. There are, of course, good and bad points to this, but during the many hours of participation and facilitation online over the past year I have seen for myself the difference that a few simple techniques can have on my own levels of engagement, energy and enjoyment while online. Here are my top ten tips.
1. Know your tech
Make sure that your set up is comfortable, the screen is at eye height, the keyboard accessible and that, if comfortable and possible, you have a good set of headphones. Headphones may not seem necessary but they can really help to immerse you in the online world and obviously help you to hear clearly. A headset with microphone is even better as, in my experience, this will mean that you can be heard clearly too.
2. Know your software
Make sure you know your way around any keyboard shortcuts or features of the video conferencing app that you will be using. They all have slightly different set ups and the last thing you want is to press spacebar to unmute and find you have posted something in the chat by mistake. A simple online search for the functionality of whatever platform you are using will likely give you some great tips, shortcuts and features that you can share with the group or just keep to yourself.
3. Remove real life distraction
There are countless studies on the plasticity of the brain and its ability to adapt to new realities. If you stay engaged with the screen and the audio online you will find that after a time, your brain will accept that this is reality, and it will become much easier to communicate, and much less tiring to inhabit that space for long periods of time. Splitting your focus between the screen and real life objects (the crossword, the view, the kids) may seem like you are a multi-tasking genius, but actually makes it far more difficult to believe the online world.
4. Get to know your webcam.
It is important that you are looking into your webcam when you speak. This means that it needs to be placed as close to your screen as possible. If your webcam is fixed into your device, make sure you know where it is and look at that spot when speaking. Practise speaking while looking into your webcam, and listening while watching the person on screen.
5. Use the chat feature if enabled.
It can be very useful to put some comments into the group chat by text rather than disrupt the flow of the meeting or event. Try not to spam but if you are agreeing with someone or want to speak next this might be a better way to do it than actually taking the focus. If you are having technical issues or need to answer the doorbell, let the facilitator or the group know in the chat rather than interrupting. Be wary though of subverting the activity by sniping comments to individuals. ‘Wow this is soooo dull’ may be funny but it will take you further out of the situation and make it even more dull and hard work.
It is so easy to become disengaged from an online space, either deliberately or not. Do your best to keep yourself present by actively participating in the conversation or the activities if possible. If you feel yourself slipping into distraction then just agreeing with someone or making a comment can bring you back into a present state of mind again.
7. Take breaks.
While it is important to stay engaged while online, it is also important to give our eyes and brain a rest every now and then. Hopefully your facilitator will incorporate regular breaks. Do not spend these checking your emails! Get up, stretch, make tea, move around. If you have not been given the opportunity for a break then request one in the chat, or if it is not possible any other way then turn your webcam off, mute yourself and dance like nobody’s watching!
8. Yes and.
Here it is again, the improviser’s mantra. Try to endorse other people’s contributions. This is basic meeting best practise but can be even more powerful online. You do not have to agree with someone but you can still accept their ideas as valid. There are countless studies showing that if people feel listened to then their levels of trust and respect increase and they feel more valued (https://hbr.org/2018/05/the-power-of-listening-in-helping-people-change). Embodying the ‘yes and’ principle takes practise so get yourself to an Improv class to really feel it’s power.
9. Keep a real pen and paper handy
This may seem to contradict the distractions point, but I find it much easier to include the pen and paper into my online reality. That way I have something to look at if my eyes are getting screen tired, but it does not take me out of the online reality as much as looking out a window or checking my phone. Writing down points you want to make, ideas to keep or even doodling can actually keep you more relaxed and ready to engage again when it is your turn.
10. Attend an improv class or suggest one for the whole group before an online meeting.
Well I had to mention it eventually. Improv is such a powerful tool for keeping people engaged, laughing, interacting and being creative. This is just as true online as it is in real life. I have seen a group of strangers go from quiet and uncertain to positively bubbling with energy after an hour of improvising online. What better way to go into a constructive meeting than that? If you want to attend or organise your own bespoke improv class then get in touch.