10 tips to promote engagement on Zoom while working from home

Two experts share their tricks for better remote communication, from Zoom meetings to hiccups in technology.

Woman working on laptop at home.
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Email, texts, and even video calls limit the amount of information we convey when communicating with our co-workers. Misunderstandings can come easily, potentially leading to conflict.

To get a better sense of how we can communicate more effectively remotely, Inverse reached out to two communication experts. Working from the Netherlands, Spencer Waldron is [Prezi]('s head of remote communications, a presentation software company with offices in San Francisco, Budapest, and Riga. Dr. Kate Stewart is CEO of Strategic Stakeholder Engagement Services and a faculty member at the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship at Montana State University. Here are their tips.

10. Don’t switch screens away from your face to share content.

“Losing the face-to-face connection to switch screens to other content or a deck that you’re sharing virtually can impact the clarity of your message,” Waldron said. “We conducted a Prezi/Harris Poll study that found that 85 percent of US and UK employees find presentations that show both a video of the presenter and a presentation on the same screen to be engaging. Losing engagement with your audience can lead to miscommunications. Additionally, our recent survey with Harris Poll found that the average mind wanders after 18 minutes during a video meeting, so keep it brief.”

9. Check joint meanings.

“When communicating virtually or face-to-face, don't assume that others have the same understanding of words, phrases, and concepts that you do,” Stewart said. “Our brains are skilled at ‘heuristics’ — shortcuts to making meaning based on what we already know. When you hear a word, such as ‘communication,’ a picture forms in your mind of what that word means. You assume that others have that same picture but, surprise, we all have different pictures. If we move forward thinking we're on the same page when we're really not, problems can occur. The solution? Listen to your words and check with others about their understanding as much as you can. That gives you a chance to align your pictures early.”

8. Be sensitive to the unseen.

“Hidden emotional agendas can impact the messages you are trying to communicate during your virtual meetings,” Waldron said. “This is why it’s important to encourage your colleagues to join with their cameras turned on. Before beginning the meeting, check in with each person, gauge the ‘room,’ and note each person’s facial expression or body language. Someone could have had a bad day, an argument with a loved one, or might be struggling with some other personal matter. Be sensitive to what’s ‘unseen’ even during a video call, as this can impact how someone understands your presentation or the outcome of a meeting.”

7. Use the right channel.

“Some communication channels are ‘rich’ and some are ‘lean,’” Stewart said. “Rich channels allow a large amount of information and feedback to be transmitted. Face-to-face interaction is the most rich because not only do we have words but also nonverbal gestures, expressions, intonation, gaze, physical proximity, etc. Email is quite lean, forcing us to make meaning from words on a screen. Complex or sensitive issues need a rich channel, whereas simple tasks, like scheduling a meeting, can be done through a lean channel. A mismatch between the channel and the message results in things getting lost.”

6. Pass the mic.

“Start the call by going around to the team and have each team member briefly chime in with their workload, questions, and ideas,” Waldron said. “On Zoom calls, it’s more noticeable when team members don’t speak, so make the time to give everyone a voice. This will also allow managers to address priorities and clear up any confusion with tasks, deadlines, and other topics. Some managers might also want to allow different junior staff members to lead weekly calls as a way to elevate their role.”

5. Avoid emotional trigger language.

“We tend to withdraw into more basic responses (e.g., fight, flee, or appease) when put into a defensive position by something someone says,” Stewart said. “When that happens, our reasoning brain goes into hibernation. If you (intentionally or unintentionally) say something that triggers a defensive reaction in your listener, she or he will not fully hear you from then on. They will be focused on the triggering statement and how to defend themselves, and their response may trigger you, too. This is where things get lost. If you are using a rich channel, you can notice and address the situation. If it's a more lean digital channel, you may miss the response and not have an opportunity to ‘find’ the meaning that has been lost.”

“There is a limit to how much we can do, but preparation, ground rules, and expectation management are helpful.”

4. Do an understanding/clarity check.

“Some people are less confident to ask questions in a group meeting,” Waldron said. “This can be magnified in a virtual meeting. Asking, ‘Does everyone understand?’ or ‘Is that clear?’ won’t motivate a lot of people to say, ‘No, I need some clarification.’ It is much better to reframe your question to something such as, ‘Let’s stop here before we move on. What are some things you still have questions about?’ This encourages people to speak up. Beyond this, it's wise to have follow up one on one with people if necessary.

3. Solicit feedback.

“As often happens in face-to-face meetings, digital communication channels make it easier to avoid engaging fully in a conversation,” Stewart said. “Extroverts and those with power tend to hold the floor. If that describes you, you are missing critical input from your team or conversation partner. In a digital environment, make even more effort to ask questions, listen, and seek feedback. If you are an introvert or low-power person, work hard to overcome the tendency to disengage.”

2. Have one-on-one calls.

“Much in the way that some universities have large lectures followed by smaller break-out symposium classes, managers should take the time during each week to meet one on one with team members for 30 minutes,” Waldron said. “This will allow for team members to speak freely, ask questions, and provide status updates on how their remote experience is going. Consider having ‘office hours’ without a set agenda to allow free discussion among colleagues about professional and personal discourse.”

1. Optimize technology.

“Recently, I made what I believed to be an important point in a Zoom meeting, only to be told later that my message had glitched and no one had understood it,” Stewart said. “Critical pieces of information can be lost due to technological shortcomings. There is a limit to how much we can do, but preparation, ground rules, and expectation management are helpful.”

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