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How to have effective (and less awkward) virtual meetings

When it comes to making team video calls less awkward and more productive, there aren't any quick fixes

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How is human behaviour altered when we speak over video?What does 'good' video call behaviour look like?How to develop equal distribution of turn-takingHow to develop higher average social sensitivity in your teams

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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 call that can make awkwardness more commonplace and effectiveness harder to achieve.

And yet, with few companies planning to return to 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?

This won't be the kind of article that promises the usual, snappy '7 easy ways to make video calls more effective!'. The more we researched this topic, the more we realised that this isn't a problem to do with video call software: it's a problem to do with how human behaviour is altered by video call software and the impact of video technology on mental health. The solution is therefore at the level of human behaviour as well, not at the level of making quick tweaks to how we use the software. Turning 30-minute meetings into 25-minute ones may give us time to go 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.

‍How is human behaviour altered when we speak over video?

  • 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.

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.

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. Nor did 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.

Strangely, the 'good' teams didn't appear to behave in the same ways with 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:

What does 'good' video call behaviour look like?

⚖️ Equal distribution of conversational turn-taking

This means that everyone in the team spoke in roughly equal measure: no one person or group of people dominated the conversation. In some teams, conversational leadership shifted from person to person between each of the tasks; in others, everyone spoke during each of the tasks. But in both cases, everyone had spoken a substantial amount by the time all the tasks were over. In fact, if only one person — or only a small group of people — spoke, then the team's collective intelligence declined.

🐭 High average social sensitivity

This means how skilled people on the 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.

Now comes the tricky bit. Given that know these two behaviours are so important, how do we go about trying to develop them in our teams?

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How to develop equal distribution of turn-taking

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 re-assessed 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, as we explore in our post about writing better job specs (link) — 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 (link). We've done what's called the 'personal histories' exercise 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.

How to develop higher average social sensitivity in your teams

Before diving into improving social sensitivity in your teams, it's worth taking a pulse check on where you're 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. For a limited time, we're offering free therapist-moderated group sessions at Spill: you can learn more and book a session (or multiple sessions) for your team here.
  • 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 Pulse tool, which you can add on to any company-wide video call: it asks people to pick three to five feelings from the 'emotions wheel' 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 can they use it to learn and grow as well as in reaction to specific issues in their lives.

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 in 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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