Work from Home – overcoming your reluctance to video call

Video calling or conferencing doesn’t come naturally to everyone. If it is new for you or you have been avoiding it thus far, this is the post for you.

Our COVID 19 lockdown means that work has moved online en masse. This post seeks to set out for the beginner what the crucial ingredients are to participate in a video call. I don’t discuss hosting a call just yet. As each person has different hurdles preventing them getting on that video call, I have tried to canvas all the main ones from psychological barriers to just a general discomfort with the unfamiliar. This post shines a light on what you need to get started. Scroll down to the most relevant parts for you, as usual I have bolded some key points to help the skimming.

Here is what we are going to cover:

  1. Tackle those psychological barriers
  2. Adjustments to your work space – camera, lighting, background and microphone setup
  3. Preparations for you (and those at home with you)
  4. Preparations directly before the call
  5. During the call

Tackle those psychological barriers

New is different. It seems weird. I like to get perspective on new technology by looking back on what went before and how weird that would have been then. When the telephone was being introduced there was the problem of what to say when you answer a ringing phone. This was the ability to communicate from afar in real time with people you knew. It was uncharted territory to everyone – people were limited to face to face within a small community or by letter to those further afield. So what to say when answering a phone? Thomas Edison favoured ‘hello’, at that time this was an exclamation of surprise and had no meaning which inferred greeting. Alexander Graham Bell favoured ‘ahoy, hoy’. Again, a very command-like attention-noting remark. 

This story has done the rounds in recent years on various online sites and if you are familiar with the British show QI you may remember when they discussed it. During that segment Stephen Fry talks about how rude a phone was at that time – it was like someone coming into your home or office unannounced and making a loud and annoying noise until you spoke to them. It would have been unfamiliar and deeply uncomfortable.

So it will be strange, but lean into any discomforts you have. Let’s break down the elements of a real life meeting and how this translates to a video conference.

  • The meeting room – this is provided by the video conferencing software that is being used – it is a virtual space. Just like a real meeting room which has different equipment inside (e.g. whiteboard, projector, seating set up), the software can have slightly different functionality depending on the software provider and how well the meeting host prepares. As always it is important to check the meeting room is fit for the needs of the meeting. 
  • The participants – the participants have a new option as while they will all be present, some can be present in voice only. Don’t be the one with no face. You wouldn’t go to a real meeting with a screen or paper bag over your head!
  • Eye connection – during a real life meeting you shift your gaze around the room to gain information to process the nuances of what is going on. Do this on a video conference by using gallery/grid view so you can see all the participants at once. This may help if you are nervous about your face being shown – people are unlikely to look at just you on full screen – you will be a tile in a gallery at a much smaller size alongside everyone else. I’ll say it again, as it really helps those with this concern. You will be the only one looking critically at your face in full screen mode. Everyone else will see you as a small tile for most if not all of the meeting
  • Non-verbal communication – in a physical meeting participants give non verbal cues to contribute such as nodding heads with points you agree with or glances to one participant to gauge their reaction to being assigned a task. This is all lost on an audio only call but can be done with video. In addition, the chat function is used for adding to the the meeting’s non-verbal communication too – you may signal your support for a point made or request clarification of a point. Chat is not natural to all, but working on becoming comfortable with it is an essential ingredient of realising the benefits of video conferencing. It’s easy to think of it being ‘passing notes in class’ but it is more akin to a replacement for some of the subtlelies of human conversation.
  • Turn taking – it happens in real meetings as two participants go to talk at the same time even when you have all the benefits of being in the same room. So it will definitely happen on video calls too. Experienced hosts may ask for people to raise hands or some software allows participants to raise a virtual hand when they want to speak. It is difficult for the host to manage, or participants to self manage, interruptions when they can’t see all the participants on the video gallery. So this is another reason to be there on video so you can pick up and send visual cues to signal who will speak next.
  • Meeting materials – agendas and background reading will be sent as electronic documents and it facilitates the meeting if you can add any key questions or comments you have in advance if this is requested by the participant. I suggest this is even more important when you are a beginner as it ensures that any key points you want to make are done before the meeting even starts so that you don’t need to be making complex points during the session when you feel unsure.

So see it as a natural evolution of communication and one which you can get to grips with. Now let’s look at the four steps, from preparing ahead of time to what to do during the call. 

Adjustments to your workspace

Prior to being invited to any call, a good preparation step is to take a look at your workspace and consider the following:

  • Camera position
    • What camera am I using (webcam, camera in laptop/tablet, smartphone) – each will have an optimal position
    • Where should I place the camera – it is usually better to have it at eye level or just above rather than looking up at you. Get a stack of books or something to place it on top of or use a stand if you have one.
    • If you have more than one camera choice make sure you consider the positioning of both the available camera options in case there is a glitch with using one and you have to swap (I’m not saying this will happen, just that if you have two camera options then prep both).
    • Make sure your device can sit with power supply where you have placed – this may mean moving where you plug it in. Don’t rely on the battery for the whole call.
  • Lighting
    • Is there any bright lighting in the background – light shining through a window directly behind you will cast you in shadow so you may have to close that curtain
    • Is there good natural light on my face or do I need to put a desk lamp to create some extra lighting (make sure it doesn’t shine right into the camera). Sit with your camera on and adjust lighting until you are happy with the set up. You may need to swap out light bulbs for the best lighting – if you took a lamp from your bedside table it may have a soft white bulb but for better lighting you may need a warm white (typically used in kitchens and bathrooms) or a bright white (used over workspace areas).
  • Background
    • Remember that most major video call services will now let you blur your background (here is the instructions for blur in MS Teams). So as long as you have a short distance between you and the background it won’t have to be visible.
    • Of course there may be services who don’t offer this option or you may forget to turn on the blur (the link above explains MS Teams allows you to switch it on mid call) . Calls scheduled in Teams have blur but note that the quick check ins which don’t appear first in your diary may not have a blur option. So give the area behind you a tidy up just in case (or move your camera angle to the best half of the room for a background).
    • Its a good idea to review the personal objects in the background and remove anything unsuitable. You will be blind to these everyday objects round your home but others may infer things from those objects. So keep anything in the background to standard household objects like fruit bowls and vases or to personal objects that pass the test ‘I would be happy to put this in my workplace office’.
  • Remove anything likely to create background noise on the microphone
    • Consider which microphone you will be using (typically inbuilt to your device) – ensure it is close to where you will be seated so it picks up your voice clearly. Don’t put it next to anything noisy like the fan in your PC if this sits on your desk.

To consider the above you may need to find out where the camera and microphone are on your device. So consult your device manual or search for a useful guide on line. There are many people providing helpful guidance online in videos and blogs – get your device brand and model and google it.

Preparations for you and those at home with you

Practice video calling with a helpful colleague. Don’t make your first video call a large video conference with clients. Try in a low pressure situation. Get a few calls (one to one) and conferences (group meetings e.g the team catch up) under your belt before engaging with clients or other external facing situations. This Netsafe guide for video calls in your social life is a good place to start practicing with family and friends.

These are the immediate preparations when you have a call scheduled:

Firstly ensure you are work attire presentable. Yes, we are on casual mode but you will know how casual is ok for your workplace and the nature of the call. Don’t forget to change out of your track suit bottoms – during the call you may have to get up from your desk to close a curtain or retrieve a file or book so you can’t rely on being seated the whole call. (If this does happen, remember to disable your video momentarily – see below)

Quickly check your workspace set up – camera position, lighting, microphone position and visual check of background. Do any quick fix ups.

If you have kids in the house, check in with them shortly before the call and have some connection time. It is easy to spend the hour before the meeting preparing for the meeting or doing other work with the kids shut out. However try doing this preparation earlier and connecting with the kids shortly before the call so that you reset the time you are absent from them. They will be less likely to interrupt the call and will be happy to spend time with the other parent/caregiver. If that fails, the family may need to be prepared to take a local walk.

For those in a bubble with kids and only one adult, firstly I salute you. It will be tough but the key is making those on the call aware you may need to drop out and make sure you know how to switch off the video and microphone when this happens. When you switch the video back on the participants will know you are back on the call. If you are in this situation, do speak frankly to your team about what really needs to be real time and what can be done asynchronously. Any real time team meetings should be optimised to make it easiest on staff members in this situation.

So in short check you and your workspace are presentable and the others in your bubble are prepared to make themselves scarce. 

In the five minutes before the call

For your first few video conferences, start this process of connecting in 10 minutes before the meeting is due to start. Once you are more confident you can reduce this to 5 minutes. However if you are invited to a video conference in a system you haven’t used before go back to allowing yourself 10 minutes to orientate yourself to the new system.

Most systems will give you the chance to review your camera and microphone, test these and confirm you are happy with how everything looks before you join the call. So take this time to check where all the controls are. Controls which you will need:

  • volume – how to increase the sound from your speakers so you can hear others better, how to adjust your microphone if the others can’t hear you (this is the reason to test before joining so you are not asked to do this during the meeting)
  • mute/unmute microphone – some conferences will pick up sound from all participants whereas other conferences will be set up with a presenter and all others muted unless the presenter unmutes them. know how to mute your sound or risk being the one munching snacks during your team leader’s important presentation because you assumed the presented had everyone muted.
  • video – on and off in case you want to stop yourself being visible on the call for any reason
  • blur background – switch this on if you need this. 
  • Other functions you may need in the meeting – Review how to raise your hand in the meeting, where the chat button is and its functionality. There could be a quick start guide to review. Take the chance to explore this while you are alone.

So typically you will not join the meeting without this self-check step which others can’t see. Even if it did join you straight in, if you are joining 10 minutes early you will most likely be entering an empty meeting room so the risk of embarrassing yourself is very low.

During the call

Take note whether you are automatically muted on entry or not. If you need to manage your own mute button then make sure you do. If you are muted, then understand how to ‘raise your hand’ – sometimes there is a button for this, sometimes you need to say in the chat and sometimes it is just literally raising your hand on the video for the presenter to see. Remember to drop your hand once the host has come to you so you don’t leave your hand raised for ages.

Ditto with video feed – understand how to stop this video if you need to. Be aware that you are still visible the whole meeting even if something else is up on the screen. For parts of the meeting all participants faces are up in a grid as people speak. Then the meeting switches to a slide sharing presentation so you think it is safe to switch to multitasking, snacking or fidgeting. Be aware that you may still be visible on others screens for the duration of the meeting. They may have the attendees in a grid in one part of their screen and the presentation in the other part. So never forget that you are on video the whole time (unless you stop your video feed).

Also know that the meeting can be easily recorded. You will see the red circle indicating record when this is happening. This allows the meeting to be stored and referred to later. This also means that more people than the original participants may view the meeting. So never go off track and discuss matters with any sensitivity like staffing or disputes. You don’t want a member of staff being reallocated to the project months later and viewing the meeting recording to get up to speed only to find sensitive discussions on the recording. This arises if say there was a project related discussion, the meeting ended and most left but a couple of managers stayed on the call at the end to talk about a disciplinary matter or some other delicate subject.  Employment and privacy risks could arise. So be careful about any deviation from the stated meeting topic and ensure these are not recorded by having these discussions elsewhere.

During the meeting you may refer to something the other participants want to see. Video conferencing systems have functionality to stick things to a whiteboard, share screens and the like. But this is probably out of your comfort zone right now. Minimise the chance of this request by adding these links or references into the shared meeting material before hand (e.g. the meeting agenda, pre-meeting notes, project space). Or during the meeting be prepared to post the link to the material in the chat box. The presenter can then pick up the link from the chat and open it up for the group so you are not having to deal with the issue directly. The less confident you are with video conferencing the more I suggest you do your meeting preparation – share your thoughts by mark ups on the meeting documents beforehand. This means you get your perspective across without having to be too active in the actual call.  

One last thought – get your profile picture sorted

Before we get started, I will say that if you don’t yet have a photo displayed in the profile picture part of your email/Office/work social media profile then this is a place to start. If you aren’t currently displaying a static photo of yourself it is a big leap to video. So take a minute to find the best photo of yourself you can.

If the photo has other people or other unnecessary parts to it, use your computers ‘snip’ tool to select the portion you need and save it as a jpg. Upload that photo so at least when people email or engage with you in Office 365 they can see a photo of you.

Think about it this way. If you have a decent photo on your profile pic, that is what people will see most often when collaborating with you across the week (i.e. this pic will sit next to comments you make in documents, chat communications etc). So if you have a professional and flattering photo there, it flavours how you are seen on video. Most times people see your profile pic and in their minds you will be a hybrid of that pic plus what they see of you in the video on those calls. If you don’t have a profile pic then how you look on the video is the only mental image they have of you. Too much pressure when you are jumping on a call! So use a profile pic.

So that’s about it for getting started. Remember lots of people are in the same boat as you and it has never been easy to access training on how to use your workplace’s particular video conferencing system and those that you may need to use to talk with clients or other external stakeholders. There are a dizzying number of options for video call but focus on the couple which you will need most for your workplace. Once you are confident on those, it is easier to adapt to alternatives.

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