How to Increase Your Confidence, Connections, & Energy in Virtual Meetings

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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The Power of Feedback, Especially Now

Few things are as costly as employees feeling disconnected from where they work, and with the sudden shift to remote work during COVID-19 this is a more pressing concern than ever. While remote work can be and often is a smooth and flexible process, it does present some legitimate concerns, especially when rolled out quickly with minimal training or preparation.

Research shows that remote employees often struggle to get information they need, they’re more likely to feel isolated, and they often feel that their remote managers are unaware of their needs. All of these issues become even more troubling when we consider that fifty percent of all employees say that they “rarely” or “never” meet with their managers one-on-one.

The good news for organizations and leaders of people is, by simply making one-on-ones the norm, performance increases and relationships improve. Regular feedback improves leader-follower relationships in three key ways:

Regular feedback reduces the power of emotions that get in the way. One of the most common and understandable uncomfortable feelings when it comes to feedback is that bosses fear speaking candidly. No one wants to tell their employee that if they don’t get their sales numbers up, they’re gone. By looking at the week-to-week numbers or performance together, you make the conversation around month-to-month or year-to-year more approachable and expected. Another fear is fear of emotions on the receiving end. Meeting consistently with someone who takes feedback too hard (i.e., they push back, get defensive, or seem completely crushed) will help reframe for them how to understand what the feedback means, what they can do, and guides them through their self-consciousness, fear of failure, and toward a place of receptivity and a willingness to try things differently.

Regular feedback is necessary to break through to people and influence performance. It’s nearly impossible to receive feedback once and immediately change for the better. Even talented employees need progress check-ins to see when and how they falter. It helps to think of frequent feedback as a best fit line. The line will naturally consist of dips in performance (i.e., as efforts slip or approaches are adjusted and tested), but the long-term trend should be positive. When feedback is inconsistent or nonexistent, the dips in improvement can lengthen or become the new normal.

Regular feedback builds and deepens relationships. While meeting one on one regularly may not always spark a beautiful friendship or mentor-mentee relationship, at bare minimum supervisors will get to know their staff personally. One-on-ones are an opportunity to discuss employee interests, motivations, style of communication, and long-term goals and desires. As rapport is built, employees feel more comfortable reaching out to managers for help, to share a new idea, to express a need, to speak up about problems they see, and to actively seek more feedback.  

From Insights to Action. “Out of sight” can quickly escalate into “out of mind” when it comes to remote work. By simply making feedback more regular, you can help build trust and dialogue around all of the uncertainty, change, and challenges swirling through the workplace right now.

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