Your Zoom Meetings Can Be a Lot More Productive


Covid might not have done much for workplace gossip but it has created a whole new genre of workplace mishaps. Magazines are now filled with stories of home-based workers getting caught on Zoom meetings with their pants off, cats cutting their connections to major clients, and participants going to the bathroom with the camera on and the door open.

Those stories are inevitable. Over the last two years, we’ve grown used to meeting online. We’ve held sales meetings in spare bedrooms, made pitches at the kitchen table, and planned product launches while kicking back on the sofa with the laptop on a blanket and our feet on the coffee table.

During that time, researchers have had plenty of opportunity to track what was once a rare form of working. They’ve observed meetings, run experiments, and tracked results, and they’ve now come up with some best practices for meeting virtually.

With Covid both behind us and in front of us, companies everywhere will need to understand how to make the most of their Zoom meetings.

We’re all going to be holding them for some time to come.

Your Zoom Instructions

Some of the most precise guidance comes from teaching, where video conferencing has long been in use. Back in 2011, four registered nurses published an article in Teaching and Learning in Nursing that described the lessons they’d learned while combining in-person lectures with video teaching.

The aim of their experiment was to increase the number of registered nursing classes available to students. A college offering an associate nursing degree broadcast lessons to a community college 70 miles away that lacked resources to offer teaching beyond practical nursing. The co-operation lasted for four years at which point the community college secured the funding it needed to offer its own associate nursing degree. Over those four years, 185 nurses graduated from the host campus and 43 from the remote site. Each semester 60 students at the host campus were divided into two groups. Half went to a traditional classroom and half took part in a videoconferenced lesson in which ten students at the remote site also participated.

The teachers shared their experiences and produced a number of best practices.

First, they explained that it’s important to develop a back-up plan in case of technological failure. “Considering that videoconferencing is certainly not infallible as with much of the available classroom technology, it is best to have a backup plan in place to resolve problems before the first videoconference class,” they wrote.

Ideally, a technician will always be on hand to fix any problems but as that was rarely practical, the teachers incorporated two steps.

They recorded each class so that if the feed broke down, they could share the tape with the remote students at a later date. And they made sure that the instructor at the remote site had access to the Powerpoints and notes that would be used at the host site.

“This was very helpful during times when the connection between the two classes was lost,” the nurses wrote.

Videoconferencing technology has improved a great deal over the last decade but even Zoom can have its connection and access problems. Even if you rarely have to use it, you should have an alternative prepared if your chosen platform fails to work. And delivering handouts before the meeting will both ensure that participants know what to expect and gives them material that they can use at their leisure.

When it came to delivering the classes themselves, the nurses found a number of methods worked best.

Instructors, they argue, “should  intermittently have eye contact with students at the host site and also look directly in the camera to maintain contact with the remote site.” Powerpoints and other visual aids should have only limited camera time, with the focus on the instructor for the majority of the class time.

And muting the microphones at both sites countered problems with excessive noise.

Again, these are tips for hybrid teaching but the principles apply to virtual meetings too. Even if you’re sharing a screen, meetings are between people so visual aids should be used to enhance information-sharing not replace personal interaction. Remembering that the screen shows the other person but that the lens above the screen shows you will help to maintain eye contact with participants.

And putting everyone on mute is always a good idea.

The nursing instructors even found that certain kinds of clothes work better on screen than others. “We found that complementary solids looked best on camera (e.g., red and black; yellow and green; pink and blue). If prints were worn, small intricate designs or stripes should be avoided because such items are distracting when on camera.” Even the sound of jewelry tapping on a desktop would be picked up by microphones.

A good clue to what to wear for a video meeting is to look at what television newscasters wear during broadcasts. 

The nursing instructors also mentioned the importance of backgrounds. Their first backdrop was a white erase board but that created a glare that overpowered the instructor. The solution was to use a darker background.

But more recent research has found a more precise solution.

The Creativity of Zoom Backgrounds

In 2021, Adam Palanica and Yan Fassat of Klick Inc., a healthcare technology company, ran an experiment using Zoom backgrounds. Using the company’s Slack channel, they recruited 80 participants who were all working from home during the Covid pandemic. They divided the participants into three groups and set up Zoom meetings with them. During the meeting, the participants were given three minutes to perform an Alternative Use Test, a standard test of creativity. The participants had to think of as many different uses for a shoe as they could in three minutes.

The experimenters used a different Zoom background for each group of participants. One group saw a plain grey background; a second group saw a nature background made up of a river, mountains, and palm trees; and the third group saw a busy, urban scene.

The experimenters didn’t draw attention to the backgrounds but they were what the participants saw as they performed their creativity tests.

The participants’ test results were scored according to their fluency, flexibility, elaboration, and originality. What the experimenters found was that the participants that saw the nature background had higher creativity scores than those who saw the other two backgrounds. “Individuals who viewed nature stimuli developed more detailed responses and more distinct or unusual responses, and slightly more ideas and categories overall compared to those who viewed urban stimuli,” the researchers said.

And because the control background produced similar responses to the urban background, the researchers concluded that the sight of nature during the Zoom meeting was what promoted the higher degree of creativity.

“It appears that the nature imagery of virtual backgrounds may foster serene and pleasant affect, which in turn, can restore cognitive performance to produce novel ideas,” the researchers write.

Not all Zoom meetings depend on creativity, but if you want your meeting to generate new ideas, using Zoom backgrounds that depict natural settings will improve everyone’s imagination.

Not All Meetings Are Zoom

Not all meetings need any kind of background, though. During the pandemic, workers frequently complained of “Zoom fatigue,” a particular kind of exhaustion caused by constant eye contact, seeing your own image on the screen, a lack of mobility, and a higher cognitive load.

If a phone call, even a conference call, can do the job then keeping the meeting on audio and skipping the screentime should be the more productive choice. Regular meetings between a small group to exchange information aren’t the same as the first meeting with a large distributed group. Business school teachers Willem Standaert, Steve Muylle, and Amit Basu recently created a workflow to determine the right format for meetings in a post-pandemic world.

The decision-making framework begins by asking the purpose of the meeting. Is the aim to share information, make a decision, communicate sentiments, or build relationships?

Next, meeting organizers should consider which capabilities they need for that meeting. Will they need to share computer screens, see body language, observe what everyone is looking at or hear everyone’s voices?

Finally, having understood the goal of the meeting and the resources they need to meet that goal, they can choose between audio conferencing, video conferencing, telepresence, and face-to-face meetings.

A meeting to build relationships, for example, should ideally take place in person. An exchange of information can happen on the phone. Decision-making should happen by video chat.

“Meeting the right way is not simply a matter of using the most sophisticated technology available,” the authors warn. “While using technology with unnecessary capabilities is not likely to reduce effectiveness, it does consume scarce and costly resources that could be used more effectively to secure capabilities that contribute to meeting effectiveness. If people have to meet for multiple objectives that fall within different categories, the capabilities required by the most demanding objective can be the decisive factor in determining how to meet.”

So as we enter a world in which some meetings will be held in person and other get-togethers will take place on Zoom, it is worth remembering the new rules.

Have a back-up plan if the technology fails. Look at the camera. Use a natural background if you’re looking for new ideas. And make the technology fit the meeting.

And close the bathroom door.

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