When we’re in a virtual meeting with someone who is fully engaged and using an array of expressions, we can easily forget we are sitting at a computer at all. Instead of getting bored, tired, or self-conscious, we connect and engage in the conversation the same way we might in an office or at a café. These kinds of calls don’t just feel better; they’re also more effective in accomplishing their purpose, whether that’s collaboration, productivity, or connection.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the virtual meetings that run less smoothly. In these meetings, we feel distracted, self-conscious, and antsy, and by the time we exit the virtual room, exhausted. This virtual fatigue is as real as it feels. A Microsoft study on the effects of virtual meetings found that the same brainwave patterns associated with stress and overwork spike during virtual meetings. And on top of this stress and exhaustion, the study also found that sixty percent of surveyed people feel they are less connected to their colleagues now.
So what can we do to combat distraction and disconnection as we head into our new “normal” that includes more remote work and virtual meetings? Two of the biggest problems faced in virtual work right now are self-consciousness and a lack of human connection. Here are three body language strategies to help you improve your virtual approach.
Virtual Challenge #1: Self-consciousness. Dr Tara Well, a psychologist at Barnard College, draws the comparison between your box on a virtual call and a mirror, and points out that virtual calls can feel like going through an important meeting with a mirror sitting in front of you. The mirror shows your quirks, emotions, and reactions in real time and this is of course stressful, distracting, and unsettling. In fact, a survey found that 72% of employees reported feeling distracted by their own appearance during video calls, and 59% felt more self-conscious on screen than in-person.
Body language strategy #1: Get your set-up right. In an HBR interview, communication consultant Rachel Cossar breaks down the ideal computer set-up for virtual calls. She encourages people not to just open their laptops on a table or desk with the camera facing up at them, but to actually set up their computers so the camera is eye level and about three feet away. This set-up is ideal for communication because it exposes your whole upper torso. With your torso exposed people can really see your movements more clearly, and this frees you up to communicate more effectively while speaking the way you always have in the past.
Body language strategy #2: Direct your focus away from yourself. As Well said, your box is mirror-like and makes you self-conscious. The set-up in strategy #1 is a good first step because it distances your vision from your computer and from your own box. Also, when you’re speaking, focus on the camera lens in front of you. This looks the best to people listening because your attention will be directed toward them on the receiving end. When you’re not speaking, actively observe the person who is and the way other people react.
Virtual Challenge #2: Lack of human connection. An in-person meeting usually consists of a lot of shared context. People greet each other, shake hands and pat shoulders, they smell the same coffee, and are all situated around the same table. But online, we each exist in our own world and are trying to connect on common ground that’s entirely virtual and two-dimensional. Not to mention, we’re doing this from our own rooms with our own environment and potential distractions. All of this makes it more difficult to feel connected to another person, let alone an entire group.
Body language strategy #1: Compensate for absent emotions. Use body language to make up for emotions you might otherwise communicate verbally in a meeting. Twenty people can’t say “agreed” on Zoom, but they can all nod. You can’t all greet each other verbally or with handshakes, but you can smile, wave, or nod as new people join. When someone else speaks, try not to fidget, scowl, or roll your eyes (the kinds of things you avoid in-person too). Instead, show engaged posture and physically lean in a bit when you find something interesting. Getting your set-up right, like recommended above, will help you do all of these things more naturally.
From Insights to Action. The bottom line is that virtual meetings are affecting our self-confidence, our ability to connect, and our energy levels. If we want to maintain our connection and collaboration, we have to adapt our approach to meet the new environment. Remember that in the virtual environment where we are often muted, our body language frequently paints the full picture that is received on the other end.
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