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How to engage your team during virtual meetings (and get them to turn on their webcams)

In our need to communicate, collaborate, and stay connected, meetings over video conferencing apps have become part and parcel of our work-life under the new normal. 

As we get used to the virtual early morning stand-up meetings, weekly team updates, company town halls, and quick check-ins, some agreement on video conferencing etiquette is in order. Specifically, do you have to switch on your video function all the time, or can you leave it off on some calls? Or maybe, should you keep the camera on during virtual meetings and turn it off only for a short while for some agreed-upon reasons?

As a leader, do you insist that your team members turn their cameras on while meeting? If you don’t, you have probably noticed that your team might not be communicating as well as they used to. You might have noticed how a few team members who leave their cameras off are not as participative and do not contribute much in a meeting. Then you wonder, what can you say to them without calling them out and making them feel attacked? 

Empathy is key

The first thing you need to understand about fostering better communication and connection, in general, is that if remote co-workers don’t feel connected, valued, or a part of something, then it’s no wonder they don’t want to turn on their cameras. Building and maintaining relationships in a remote setting is a whole new territory that requires a generous amount of understanding, patience, and trust. 

There may be numerous reasons why someone would turn up to a call with their camera off. Bringing one’s authentic self to work has taken on a new meaning with everyone working from home. People are now at their most vulnerable when there’s no filter. Some are a bit more self-conscious about how they appear. Sometimes the person might be having a difficult day and would be more comfortable staying off-camera for certain meetings. 

More often, it may simply not be convenient to switch the camera on while working from home – even with the option of using a virtual background. If you don’t have a good connection, it’s going to show. If you have a chaotic environment, it’s going to show. People might see kids climb up to you or your elderly parent walking up and down, and there’s nothing you can do. So, people’s lives have become a little bit more open than we are used to.

While it’s clear that practicing empathy and understanding is essential even during video calls, there may be circumstances that you will need your team to have their cameras on during an online meeting.

One may coach and encourage but not control. From a human resources perspective, while we can encourage everyone to turn on their cameras to increase the visual interaction, thus continuing to build human connections virtually, we should not expect nor demand it. So, let me give you some advice to encourage remote employees to turn on their cameras. 

1. Set expectations

Leaders should give their people a heads up if they will be required to turn on their cameras. This is the case for critical discussions, team building, and remote interviews. For communication to be more effective and impactful, let meeting participants know ahead of time that they will be required to turn on their cameras and are free to choose a background to mask their environment if needed. 

Ask your team to turn on their webcams during meetings. Include a reminder in meeting invites. If the expectation has been set and people still aren’t turning on their cameras, share your concerns. 

For example, state a simple fact: “Hey team, I notice that most of you don’t have your webcams on, and we discussed that we’d like to see you on camera to foster better discussion and involvement in the meetings.” You can also share your story: “Guys, when your camera is off, it causes me to feel that you’re not engaging in our meetings. I’m concerned that if we don’t use our webcams we’ll be disconnected which can lead to poor results, and we don’t want that. We value everyone’s view and really want you to contribute.” You may even empathize: “Would you please turn on your webcams for our meeting? If you have any concerns, please send me a private message, I’d be happy to talk.”

2. Begin and end with small talk 

In my experience, it’s during the first few minutes and last few minutes of meetings that people engage in casual, personal talk (i.e., what they did over the weekend, or funny things their kids did). 

This kind of interaction is incredibly important. If employees don’t slow down sometimes and just connect with each other, they burn out. The work itself will benefit from some social interactions, and people might find their work rewarding when they get to know their colleagues, their interests, families, or their sense of humor more. They build connections that foster trust, innovation, and dialogue, which improve how work gets done. You don’t have to be besties with your co-workers, but remember that you’re not working with machines (and you’re not one either).

3. Stay on course and be brief 

How many of us have been victims of extremely long meetings? Going ‘round and ‘round, jumping from one topic to another, or often losing focus. 

Some meetings are just messy. As a result, people disengage because it all seems overextended and purposeless. For many of us, going to meetings is a part of our jobs, but they don’t have to be long and aimless. So, if you’re in charge of the meetings, consider these questions: What is the purpose of this meeting? How do I keep the discussion on track? How quickly can we accomplish it?

4. Get them to talk

If your intent is to engage people, get them to talk, answer a poll, and chat. 

People are often disengaged because their role has not been defined. Without a clearly defined role, they are more likely to sit back and answer emails during your meeting. Also, invite participants to do something every few minutes. Compliment specific people while engaging them. “Hey Kevin, you did well with your client in the new market. What are some of advice you can give to your other team mates?”

5. Foster a safe space

Sometimes people don’t contribute to meetings because they don’t feel safe to do so. They might not feel welcome or are unsure of how or when to share their views. So, help them see their role clearly and sincerely and tell them why you value their attendance. If you can’t do that, maybe they shouldn’t be in the meeting.

Today’s workplace leaders need to build a level of trust among the people they work with so that team members are engaged and encouraged to fully participate. After all, trust is the glue that binds a team together – and the team thrives when trust is present. – Rappler.com

Boris Joaquin is the president and CEO of Breakthrough Leadership Management Consultancy, Inc, founder of the Project Purpose Team, Inc, a corporate educator under the Duke CE Global Educators Network (UK) and a registered Investors in People (UK) specialist. 

A management and marketing professional, Boris was involved in various industries both local and international for more than two decades. He recently received the 2020 Gawad Sulo Award for his work as a corporate educator. This award is only given to a select few who have significantly contributed in the field of education.