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Wear pants, and other business video conferencing tips for success

Profanity in the background and swearing by people to others off camera are not unusual.

And a few people have forgotten they didn’t put bottoms on and then stood up.

And some people have become internet sensations.

Like the lawyer who pleaded “I am not a cat” when he could’t get rid of his kitty. A more recent sensational episode was of a doctor showing off his multitasking skills by performing surgery while making an appearance in court via Zoom video conferencing.

This is life in the world of virtual meetings. As much as a business might like to keep up with the appearance of being professional, it’s not always possible when employees work from home.

“The other day we had a meeting, it was a late evening meeting and some people were enjoying dinner and wine. It wasn’t a happy hour,” said Susana Morales, organizational development consultant with Leap Business Solutions. Afterward a senior staff member talked to those eating and drinking, explaining that no matter the time of day a business meeting requires a certain amount of professionalism.

The six-person Santa Rosa-based company is a business management consulting firm specializing in organizational development, human resources, executive search and recruitment serving clients primarily in Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties.

While Leap wants to maintain a professional environment, Morales said her firm is understanding of kids wandering into view. One meeting ended with it looking like a colleague was posing for a family portrait with the couple and two children on camera.

The Solano Small Business Development Center and Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce each had meetings which were “Zoom-bombed.”

“They were putting up images that were obscene,” Tim Murrill with the Solano County group said. “One thing we learned from that is to always require registration and a password, and to have an administrator so if that did happen, you could get that person out quickly.”

Basic protocols

Even after a year of working remotely the rules about how to behave during an online meeting are still being written.

At the Carneros Resort and Spa in Napa County, online meeting etiquette is similar to if everyone were in the same room.

During virtual meetings the nearly 250 employees must have the video feature turned on. What their background can be depends on the type of meeting.

Jeffrey Peterson, director of sales and marketing, Carneros Resort and Spa in Napa County (Domino Arts Photography)
Jeffrey Peterson, director of sales and marketing, Carneros Resort and Spa in Napa County (Domino Arts Photography)

“Having the camera on allows us to stay connected and to personalize the interaction more,” Jeffrey Peterson, director of sales and marketing, said. “For internal meetings, we do not have any rules as long as the background is professional. For external meetings, we ask that our team showcase a Carneros Resort and Spa photo as their background.”

Video conferencing etiquette

1. Mute yourself when not speaking.

2. Be on time.

3. Ensure your technology works correctly.

4. Use technology to fully engage remote participants.

5. Choose the proper software and hardware.

6. Wear work-appropriate clothing.

7. Frame the camera correctly.

8. Have the right light.

9. Look into the camera.

10. Pay attention.

Source: Owl Labs

Business casual had been the mantra at the Hess Collection Winery in Napa long before the pandemic struck in spring 2020. Now attire for employees can be even more relaxed depending on who they are interacting with.

“I’ve seen some people on calls who had been working out or were going to,” Sarah Davila, director of human resources with the winery, said. That’s fine with the company for internal meetings. When it comes to interacting with the public during virtual tastings a more professional dress code is required.

When employees with the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce started attending online meetings dressed in attire that would not have been permitted in the office President/CEO Joanne Webster had a talk with her four-member team. It’s not just about the image one presents with colleagues, but everyone the chamber interacts with.

“We talked about making sure that you didn't take a big drink of something in the middle of a presentation, that the camera is always on, to dress appropriately, and to show up like it’s a pre-pandemic meeting,” Webster said. “You need to put energy into how you present yourself in this new platform.”

At Marin Health in Greenbrae (formerly Marin General Hospital) camera functions must be on during meetings, the 220 full-time employees need to mute themselves when not talking, and questions should be submitted via the chat feature. All of this is done for a smoother meeting, so people are not talking over each other, and allow the speaker to be heard without interruption.

While most employees at Empire West Plastics in Graton are tech savvy, the company put on training sessions for an expanded version of Slack and then Zoom. To make sure information was understood by all, people were trained in how to send informative follow-up emails.

“We have to be a lot more clear with each other than we would have had to have been. We are doing detailed follow-up emails so everyone understands the same course of direction,” Sonya Yonash, CFO and vice president of the company, said.

The 10 a.m. staff meetings are now via telephone. Yonash admits a lot can be missed when the 35 employees are not all in the same room. It’s not possible to read people to know if they understand what is being talked about. That is why the detailed emails have become necessary; so there is no miscommunication.

“If we feel we need to see people, we do a Zoom call, but we try to keep it to a fairly small group so there is no talking over each other and the meeting doesn't go on and on,” she said.

Slack meetings at the plastics company are reserved more for one-on-one interaction.

Ideas for better online meetings

Prep work

• If the purpose is collaboration, try sticking to five to seven people—otherwise, it’s a lot of people on a call with only a few contributing.

• Agendas help keep the conversation on track and make for more productive meetings. Prepare your agenda ahead of time and send it to all attendees to allow them to formulate their thoughts and get up to speed on the topic at hand.

•Try to keep meetings to less than 45 minutes, and avoid scheduling meetings back to back to give people time to recover. If you need to go longer than an hour (such as a planning session), account for short breaks so folks can relax and recharge.

During the meeting

• Spending time to make a personal connection usually results in a more effective meeting. Set the right tone by chatting about the weekend or asking how people are doing before you get down to business.

• Give people a reason to turn on their camera by facilitating an active conversation where everyone has a chance to speak. Encourage participation by calling people by name. Switching views frequently, going from screen sharing to gallery view to spotlight, can also help keep attendees’ attention.

• Avoid multitasking or tab surfing so you can be as engaged and involved as possible. Show presenters you’re listening by using meeting reactions. If you don’t want to interrupt, share comments in the in-meeting chat.

• When conversation starts to drift, engage in procedural communication to refocus on the goal at hand. Suggest tabling unrelated discussion and following up offline to keep the meeting on track.

• Women and people of color tend to experience unconscious bias in the workplace, and virtual meetings can magnify these inequities. Be mindful of who’s talking and who’s being talked over, and strive to engage all voices equally.

After the meeting

• Leverage meeting recordings, transcripts, and note-taking apps so you can send highlights to all stakeholders. That way, everyone can stay informed without spending their entire day in meetings.

• When you send around the notes or recordings, ask for additional feedback or contributions. This creates a more inclusive environment for those who don’t feel as comfortable speaking up in the meeting, or for those who weren’t there.

• Evaluate meetings, especially standing meetings, after each occurrence to make sure they’re still serving their intended purpose. If not, make them shorter, less frequent, or cancel them altogether.

Source: Zoom

Things to think about

Camera angles, extraneous noise, backgrounds, lighting—they all can make a difference. Some of this is intuitive, for others it needs to be taught.

“We have provided our sales team with resources and training on how to lead more engaging presentations. This can include everything from camera position, your background, how you are seated, how to address essentially a blank audience. This is where we most feel the impact of Zoom meetings. How to still convey a sales message and presentation in an impactful way,” Peterson at Carneros Resort said.

If the camera angle is too low, people may see your nose hair; if it’s too high they might be looking down your top. It’s best to look directly at the camera, not at the other people, yourself or something on your desk. Looking into the camera and not at the other people on the screen will give the appearance of making eye contact with everyone.

What’s in the background can say more than you want to. While it might be interesting to inadvertently share what’s on your bookshelf, you might want to take a look at the titles.

And photos, well, those too can be more revealing than ones you would ordinarily have on your office desk. Unmade beds, underwear on the floor, messy closets—they all reveal more than you probably meant to.

“On Microsoft Teams and Zoom and other platforms you can change your background. Some use it all the time and some don't bother with it,” Davila with Hess said. “Most are smart enough to not be showing themselves at the pool. While everyone would be jealous, I don't think it would be appreciated.”

The mute button can save you from an embarrassing moment. Extraneous sounds come through tiny computer microphones. Things like the dishwasher running, or the dryer buzzing can be loud to others. A sneeze or cough can sound amplified.

“If a kid or husband needs you or someone is the at door, put it on mute,” Webster with the San Rafael chamber advises. “You can’t help the neighbor’s lawn mower or if the cat walks across the keyboard, but some things you can, and you need to pay attention and be as professional as possible.”

The Sonoma Valley chamber has a policy that meetings are set up so everyone is muted from the get-go. “It saves a lot of confusion and difficulty at the start,” CEO Mark Bodenhamer said. The raise your hand and chat features are ways for people to be engaged.

“The other thing I’ve found that is incredibly important is to have a preset agenda and to stick to that because people have the ability to check out,” Bodenhamer said. “You don’t have the ability to read a room and feel the energy going up and down. Anything you can do to add structure ahead of time is better, especially a year in when everyone has Zoom fatigue.”

For the 145 employees at Hess not every meeting is strictly about work. At Halloween they dressed up, the winery has had virtual meetings that were essentially bring your pet to work day, and other employee recognition events.

“We have done parties and trivia games to have a little bit of fun,” Davila said.

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