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Here’s how to have effective (and less awkward) virtual meetings

Human behaviour changes during video calls — here’s how to lessen the impact and have productive virtual meetings

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How human behaviour changes during a video callHaving better virtual meetings: the theoryWhat ‘good’ video call behaviour looks like: the two key factors5 ways to have better virtual meetings: how Juro does it

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  • During a virtual call, human behaviour changes: normal behaviours come across as negative, it's harder to speak up without speaking over someone, and we have to work harder to understand how people are really feeling.
  • Because video calls reduce a team's ability to communicate, the key to better video calls is to improve this.
  • Having an equal distribution of conversational turn-taking and developing a high average social sensitivity are two key factors that lead to 'good' video call behaviour.
  • Rather than just focus on how to make video calls more productive, focus on taking steps to make every meeting better.

Virtual meetings aren’t the problem; human behaviour is

We've all felt it at times: a stilted silence following a question, or two people yet again trying to speak at the same time. There's something about team meetings over video that can make awkwardness more commonplace, and effectiveness harder to achieve.

And yet, with fewer companies back in the office for the full five days a week, it seems like team video calls will be around for a while yet. So how can we make those calls less awkward and more productive, and avoid Zoom fatigue while we’re at it?

The more we researched this topic, the more we realised that this isn't a problem to do with video calls themselves: it's a problem to do with how human behaviour is altered by video calls. The solution? Well, it rests on human behaviour, not on making quick tweaks to how we use the software. Turning 30-minute meetings into 25-minute ones may give us time to go to the toilet, but it won't solve the fundamental weirdness of trying to simultaneously bond with and challenge multiple people in tiny, grainy boxes on a screen.

The problem isn’t video calls themselves: the problem is how human behaviour is altered by video calls

How human behaviour changes during a video call

The minute we jump onto a virtual call, our tried-and-tested social skills seem to disappear. Tiredness, anxiety, awkwardness and feeling disengaged are all commonplace in the virtual world. Here’s what’s going on:

  • We interpret the same behaviour in others more negatively. Sound delays (of even just 1.2 seconds) can make us subconsciously view the other person as less friendly or less focused. It's easier for silences to feel uncomfortable or to worry that what you've said hasn't been received well.
  • We're not aware of when someone else is about to speak up. In real-life meetings, something called 'gaze awareness' — seeing people's head movements in our peripheral vision — lets us know who is about to speak next. Without it, people are more likely to speak over each other or withhold from speaking at all.
  • We have to work harder to pick up cues regarding what people are (really) feeling. It's more difficult to spot smaller gestures like a sideways glance or a hesitation, which can help us to read between the lines of what someone's saying. This extra work increases our cognitive load and so we're more likely to give it a miss and take words at face value.

Essentially what these three things mean is that a team's regular communication ability is hampered when it moves to video call.

A team’s regular communication ability is hampered when it moves to video call
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Having better virtual meetings: the theory

There are ways to dodge this problem altogether (having meetings in person or making them asynchronous) and sticking-plaster attempts to reduce the symptoms (making video calls more structured or audio-only). Here, however, we look at how we can try to have fundamentally better team video calls. And unfortunately there is no quick win: the problem has to be solved the hard way.

Because video calls reduce a team's communication ability, the key to better video calls is to improve a team's communication ability. In fact, perhaps the need for a focus on communication ability is actually helpful: in subsequent face-to-face meetings, these fine-tuned team communication skills will be off the charts. A bit like distance runners who train at altitude to sharpen their performance in a marathon, video calls might be a great way to force us to hone these skills with more urgency.

The key to better video calls is to improve a team's communication ability

In 2012, Google set out on a quest — code-named Project Aristotle — to understand what makes a perfect team. The company's People Operations and People Analytics departments are notoriously data-driven: they've been known to analyse everything from how frequently employees eat lunch together to what sets apart better-performing managers. The project took five years, was led by a group of ex-academic researchers, and studied 180 Google teams in total (115 in engineering and 65 in sales): a mix of highly-effective and less-effective teams. Such was its scope and the interesting nature of its findings that the New York Times ended up doing a full write-up of Project Aristotle.

The most surprising finding of the study was how many variables it ruled out. When it comes to how well various teams performed, the similarity of team members' interests or educational backgrounds didn't explain the differences. Nor did the extent to which they were motivated by the same rewards. Or how long the team had been working together. Even the sum of the individual IQs of the team wasn't correlated.

In fact, researchers from Carnegie Mellon showed that there is evidence of a 'collective group intelligence' that is completely separate from the IQs of the team members individually. Across a range of different tasks — from brainstorming uses for a brick to planning a shopping trip — the groups that did well on one task tended to do well on the other tasks, and the groups that fared poorly on one task tended to fail across the board.‍

Fitting in with Project Aristotle's findings, the Carnegie Mellon researchers concluded that what distinguished the 'good' teams from the dysfunctional ones wasn't who the team was comprised of, but how the teammates treated one another.

The effectiveness of a team depends less on who it’s comprised of and more on how those people treat one another

Strangely, the 'good' teams didn't appear to behave in the same ways as each other. As Anita Woolley, the study’s lead author, told the New York Times, ‘‘some teams had a bunch of smart people who figured out how to break up work evenly. Other groups had pretty average members, but they came up with ways to take advantage of everyone’s relative strengths. Some groups had one strong leader. Others were more fluid, and everyone took a leadership role."

‍But as the researchers continued to watch the teams, they noticed a pattern. There were two behaviours that all the 'good' teams shared in terms of how teammates treated each other:

1. Equal distribution of conversational turn-taking and 2. High average social sensitivity

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What ‘good’ video call behaviour looks like: the two key factors

⚖️ 1. Equal distribution of conversational turn-taking

This means that everyone in the team speaks in roughly equal measure during a video call: no one person or group of people dominates the conversation. In some teams, conversational leadership shifts from person to person between each of the tasks; in others, everyone speaks during each of the tasks. But in both cases, everyone has spoken a substantial amount by the time all the tasks are over. In fact, if only one person — or only a small group of people — speak, then the team's collective intelligence declines.

How to develop an equal distribution of conversation in a virtual meeting

Instead of trying to measure the distribution of conversational turn-taking objectively — which would require a lot of time with stopwatches, and would also perhaps infringe privacy rights — it's best to ask team leads (anonymously, if necessary) to subjectively score how equal they believe it to be. Use a scale where 10 is everyone in the group speaking for exactly the same amount of time and 1 is one person speaking 100% of the time. They should include themselves when they give a score for the team. This score can be reassessed every quarter or so, to give an idea of whether it's improving.

Some of the initiatives below can help to improve conversational turn-taking:

  • ‍Rotate the meeting chairperson constantly. As well as helping to improve conversational turn-taking, this also reduces the burden of emotional labour on the manager or team lead, and encourages a sense of shared autonomy. At Spill we put the name of the person chairing the meeting in the name of the calendar invite, so that they know up front.
  • Brief the chairperson to make sure everyone gets a say. Aside from keeping the meeting to time, running the agenda and focusing everyone on the meeting objective, one of the key roles of the chairperson should be to hold the space so that everyone gets an equal chance to speak. This can involve stepping in when one person is dominating the conversation, and inviting opinions from those who haven't spoken as much.
  • Offer assertiveness training to give people more confidence. This can be either done for the whole team or for individuals. The aim here is not to turn everyone into an extrovert — having a mix of different personality types within a team is extremely beneficial — but instead to give everyone, regardless of their level of introversion or extroversion, the confidence to speak up whenever they want to. For a limited time, we're offering free therapist-moderated small team sessions, including sessions on confidence. You can learn more and book a session (or multiple sessions) for your team here.
  • Do trust-building exercises to build a space comfortable enough to speak up in. People speak up more when they feel like they're in a psychologically safe environment. At Spill, we've done what's called the 'personal histories' exercise (taken from 'The Five Dysfunctions of a Team' by Patrick Lenconi) a few times before, which can help teammates to see each other as human beings with other life priorities and fears and hardships and dreams. It helps us to feel more comfortable around each other. Give a few prompts for each person to talk through their personal history: number of siblings, what life was like growing up, experience at school, first job, worst job, and so on. Ask each person to speak for around 10 minutes, with 10 minutes for questions. Often the questions are the most interesting part.

🐭 2. High average social sensitivity

‍ Social sensitivity refers to how skilled people on a team are at intuiting how others felt, based on their tone of voice, expressions and other nonverbal cues. Things like hesitating, looking away, seeming less enthusiastic than normal, avoiding direct questions, being unusually defensive — and much, much more. One of the measures used to gauge a person's social sensitivity is the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' test, originally developed by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge. Members of the effective teams in the Carnegie-Mellon study scored above average in the test, while members of the dysfunctional teams scored below average. Being able to pick up on subtle cues for when someone else in the group is feeling left out or unsure or slighted — or anything in between — turns out to be more than just helpful: it's critical. And even more so when you're communicating via a screen in a virtual meeting.

How to develop higher average social sensitivity in your teams for virtual meetings

Before diving into improving social sensitivity in your teams, it's worth taking a pulse check on where your teams are at right now. You can ask team members to take this open version of the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' test (free, 10min) and put their percentile into an anonymous spreadsheet. (The results page at the end gives both a score and a percentile).

Once you have a baseline of how socially sensitive your teams are now, you can track the effects of measures to improve their social sensitivity over time. Here are a few that we've found really helpful in our teams at Spill:

  • ‍Have frequent team retrospectives. Retrospectives are a space for teams to reflect on a recent period of working together as a group. We try to do them every six weeks minimum. After freeform discussion around what worked well and what didn't, we try to pull out some tangible actions in terms of what the team should start doing, stop doing, and continue doing. Retrospectives help people in the team to understand the nuances and explanations behind how people work, making it easier to spot issues earlier on next time round.
  • Write out and discuss User Manuals (or ReadMes). These are written 'how to work with me' guides that teammates can send to each other privately and/or discuss in person. Like how you'd have a manual telling you how to use a car or a washing machine, it can be incredibly useful to have a more explicit guide on what you need to know about a person in order to work well with them. (Otherwise we have to pick this stuff up by osmosis over months and years: much easier to make it explicit and do it up-front). Some of the information we give on our Spill User Manuals includes: how to get into my bad books, how to know if I'm not doing great, and how I like to receive feedback.
  • Have therapist-moderated group sessions. Groups of people who work together often avoid direct and honest conversation if it feels difficult, which keeps the harmony in the short term but can really harm team communication and trust in the longer term. Having an objective, qualified person moderate the session opens up far more honest conversational avenues.
  • Develop people's emotional literacy. We can't notice subtle changes in mood in other people if we aren't able to notice them in ourselves. Two things really help here: one is making it easy for people to think about and articulate how they're feeling at least once a week. We do this using Spill's Safety Net tool, which you can add on to any company-wide video call: it asks people to score how they’re doing out of 10 and pick three key feelings before they enter the meeting. The second thing that makes a difference is by giving employees easy access to therapy or coaching. If it's difficult to book, people only tend to use it when they are really struggling with their mental health. But if it's easy to book — on Spill it takes three clicks to book a video session as soon as the next day, all through Slack — then far many more people use it, and they can use it to learn and grow as well as in reaction to specific issues in their lives.

5 ways to have better virtual meetings: how Juro does it

We ummed and ahhed over this section — meeting etiquette, for virtual meetings in particular, has been done to death since the pandemic. That being said, here at Spill we definitely haven’t ‘cracked’ it and chances are, we’re not alone. 

Rather than regurgitate the many lists of things to do to make a video call supposedly productive, we’re going one step further by looking at how to make every meeting better.

We’re lucky enough to work with Juro and their incredible Senior Director of People & Talent: Thomas Forstner. Keen to get some outside input for our meeting conundrum, we asked Thomas how things are done at Juro. And we couldn’t have asked for a better response.

Thomas has kindly given us his permission to share a few highlights from Juro’s approach to having effective meetings, but first, it all starts with: does it really need to be a meeting?

1. "What should be a meeting at all?"

Spill and Juro won’t be the only companies out there looking to reduce the number of meetings in the weekly calendar. If you go through periods of loads of meetings to barely any, before the volume ticks back up again (we certainly do), it might be time for a rethink.

Juro uses a very nifty flow chart to determine whether a potential meeting is actually worthwhile or if it can be an asynchronous event (e.g. a video recording), before taking it a step further by defining different meeting types and offering them as a solution to different scenarios. Slack, too, offers suggestions for meeting types and suggests ideal lengths.

A good starting point is Juro’s rule of thumb: “If it’s a (mostly) one-sided update where no decisions need to be made, it should be asynchronous.”


2. “Proper preparation prevents poor performance”

Your team’s time is valuable, make the most of it. Give meeting participants the necessary preparation instructions in advance (such as reading, research or simply a quick history of the project’s context), set an agenda with time durations — that you stick to — and set the purpose and outcome of the meeting. And if people (including the meeting host) don’t do the necessary preparation, cancel and rearrange.

3. “If a meeting doesn’t start within 1 minute, everyone’s value starts to be wasted”

In other words, respect your coworkers and start the meeting on time. Since the pandemic and the advent of remote/hybrid working, late arrivals to meetings seems to be commonplace. For an in-person meeting, food deliveries, mad pets and losing track of time while browsing the internet are probably pretty unacceptable reasons to turn up somewhere late. The same goes for virtual meetings.

Instead, try implementing these tips from Thomas:

  • Set your calendar to notify you 10 minutes and 1 minute before the meeting starts: get into the habit of joining the meeting (virtual or otherwise) at the 1 minute mark.
  • Set your Zoom settings (if using) to let people in before the host arrives: this gives people the chance to chit-chat before getting started.
  • Intro the meeting: use your meeting agenda to give everyone a quick summary of what they can expect to happen.

4. “Work expands to fill the allotted time: keep it short, end early”

Juro refers to Parkinson’s law here, whereby if you only have 15 minutes of value content but your meeting is scheduled for 30 minutes, you’ll probably use up the full time slot. 

Human attention span is short and this is especially true when you’re meeting over a screen. Try speedy meetings, where meetings are scheduled for 25/55 minutes to give people 5 minutes time back to stretch, go to the toilet, make a brew or just sit in peaceful silence.

Another tip from Thomas is to set your default calendar meeting length to 15 minutes: even if you don’t keep to time, overrunning a 15 minute meeting by 5 minutes still saves more time than ending a 30 minute meeting 5 minutes short. 

5. “Screens and video chats are here to stay: make sure your norms and setups are remote-friendly”

If you’re part of a virtual meeting, it's likely you have a fully remote or a hybrid team. Whatever your situation, make sure you’re acting remote first. This means that every person should be on one camera, even if five people are in the office together and three people are at home. Split up, find a quiet spot and log on separately. Not only does this remove the chance for whispered side conversations, it makes remote attendees feel part of the team and not excluded from the ‘office group’. 

And if you suffer from exhaustion as a result of stimulus overload (constantly watching yourself), consider hiding your own face. In Zoom and Google Meet, click on your face tile and select ‘Hide self view’. The other meeting participants will still be able to see you but you can conduct the rest of the meeting focusing on them rather than yourself. 

We’ve also talked about the meeting conundrum here at Spill. Here are a few additional ideas for making meetings more productive.

6. Cater for different styles of working

We’re huge advocates for diversity to build a strong company culture. And with a diverse team, you’ll have a multitude of styles of working. The pressure to come up with amazing ideas on the spot can be too much for some people, while making progress using words rather than visuals can disengage others. 

So, mix up your meeting formats to let everyone feel comfortable and included. For example, rather than a group brainstorm (that, let’s be honest, can leave some people doing all the talking while others just watch on silently), join a video call and brainstorm individually for 10 minutes on a shared file before voting on everyone’s ideas and discussing. Or, ask a different person each time to lead the meeting: chances are, they’ll chair the kind of meeting they feel most comfortable with, giving everyone a chance to thrive in and show off their working style.

7. Try out new meeting platforms

There’s no rule that says every meeting you have needs to be held in Google Meet or Zoom. Scout out different platforms and give them a go to see how they could benefit your team, for example:

  • Great for silly GIFs, sharing music and informal, interactive meetings, Around aims to help hybrid teams ‘create, collaborate and celebrate together.’ 
  • An ‘all-in-one virtual collaboration platform’, Butter offers a session planner to build your agenda, set time limits, create a waiting room and preload your meeting tools. 
  • Figma isn’t a meeting platform exactly, but there’s no reason why you can’t adapt how your team uses an existing tool. Set up a FigJam for a brainstorming session, join a group video call, share some tunes and get started: with features like a built-in timer, stamps and the ability to follow collaborators on-screen, you can develop an inclusive brainstorming session that lets everyone participate comfortably. An added bonus: the screen quality when following collaborators on Figma is way better than the quality when watching someone screenshare on a video call, so for meetings where you’re looking at designs or detailed documents, we’ve found Figma can work better.

It’s true, video calls can be terrible. Without a bit of effort into improving team communication ability in general, they risk being terrible more often than not. It would be wonderful to find a quick hack that flips them into being lively, engaging and super-effective meetings, but real change happens by treating the cause rather than just the symptoms.

‍By focusing on the two key aspects of best-in-class team communication — equal conversational turn-taking and high average social sensitivity — we can hardwire it from the ground up. The added bonus? Our teams won't just have better video calls. They'll be better all round: as employees, as teammates, and as people in the world more generally.

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