For the past 20 years, there has been a common complaint among meeting planners and conference organizers that went like this: “How can I get attendees to turn off their phones?”
Today, there is a similar complaint that’s a sign of this new era of remote work: “How can I get attendees to turn on their cameras?”
They are related issues. When one stands at the back of a keynote presentation or a meeting room and sees a sea of faces bathed in the bluish glow of a phone, it’s clear that people are making a conscious choice. They are deciding that whatever is on their phones is more important—or at least more engaging—than whatever’s happening in front of them. This is much the same when it comes to videoconferences.
Like so much of how people view bad meetings, there is a sense of resignation that there’s just no way to get people to turn on their cameras and engage. But it can be fixed. You can get people to turn on their video cameras in online meetings. In general, people should feel like they have a reason to be on camera and they want to do so, rather than simply being told they should do it. So, what are the practical steps to get meeting attendees to turn on their cameras in videoconferences?
First, it’s important to understand and perhaps be sympathetic to employees who don’t want to be on video. Yes, when they started their jobs, most employees implicitly agreed to show up in their workplace and be seen in meetings. However, they didn’t agree to give colleagues a daily view into their sanctum sanctorum. There are all manner of reasons why employees may not feel comfortable having their home offices and bedrooms on camera. Some of these issues are not easy to address, but some—such as bad lighting—can be ameliorated if a company provides a stipend to fix up one’s at-home space.
As an additional caveat, even though videoconferencing is easily available with the push of a button today, not all meetings need to have a visual component. Only using audio is fine in a lot of scenarios, especially between two people. Video might provide a richer call, but it might also be unnecessary. Granted, once meetings include more than four people, the cues of who’s talking and how others are reacting can be a world better when using video versus an audio call where half the time is spent either interrupting others or enduring awkward pauses.
If you have a case where using video makes sense, it’s helpful to set the expectation before the meeting that you’re going to be using video. No one wants to be in pajamas, expecting to not be seen, and then be asked to go live in front of colleagues. Also, if you’re leading the meeting and you’re not using video yourself, then it’s hard to expect that others will blink on first.
In the same vein of preparation, ask that attendees use a set-up that will make for a good experience on video for themselves and their fellow attendees. When attendees use phones to join a meeting, it can lead to weird angles and distraction as they move around. It’s also not very helpful as an attendee to view a video meeting on a 6-inch screen; devices with larger screens lead to better experiences on video calls. And for all of the articles that offer tips for using a webcam—lighting from the front, a view that’s at eye-level, etc.—not everyone has studied up on their own. Therefore, it doesn’t hurt to pass along some best practices to make attendees feel comfortable and to improve what everyone else is seeing on video.
Next, it’s important that people actually have a reason to be on video and they engage through the camera early on. That could be brief introductions or it could be small breakouts at the start of a meeting. If the meeting commences with one person just talking, attendees logically see no reason to be on display for others. Ironically, this can be a vicious cycle: If attendees don’t have their video on and seem not to be engaged, it may exacerbate the speaker’s lack of connection with an audience that seems to not even be present.
There’s a sense of inertia when it comes to attendees being on camera in an online meeting. If people start with their cameras on, they’re more likely to leave them on and vice versa. To this end, enabling a preference for attendees to use video at the start of the meeting can prompt more cameras to start up and stay on as things kick off.
Finally, a good rule of thumb for all meetings is to be mindful of how long you’re asking attendees to sit passively and just watch someone else on a screen. Instead of planning to present a slide deck for 30 straight minutes and then take a few questions at the end, think about chunking presentations or breaking them into shorter, more digestible segments; processing what’s being said at least every 15 minutes is a good practice. On its own, it’s valuable for attendees to have some regular engagement among themselves during a meeting, but it also serves as a reinforcement for people to stay on video. After all, when one person decides to turn off video, it can be contagious and other blank boxes will follow.
In the end, video isn’t always necessary for remote meetings. But if you’re going to use video, let people prepare, then use it well.