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The ins and outs of video call etiquette

By Nicole Cooke

Video call on a laptop

Much of 2020 has thrown us off-kilter, but a major change we have experienced has been the transition of using video calls going from a novelty to the new norm. As we physically distance, video calls are now with us for meetings, interviews, dinner parties, and social celebrations. But even the most seasoned professional can find video conferencing a little awkward at best - so what are the 'rules' when it comes to video meetings?

One of the most unsettling things about video calls is that it's a new environment in which we have not really been primed on how best to act. We’ve spent most of our careers dealing with people face-to-face rather than checking if people can hear us due to our technology settings. Without the sense of in-person cues, video etiquette is vastly different from in-person interactions, and the fumbles of the first few minutes of video conferences can set the tone for the rest of the interaction. 

Luckily, most people are understanding of the change involved in adapting to our new environment and the fact most of us are learning to operate in a virtual world where we can still connect during such a tumultuous time. While there aren’t any hard and fast rules, we've all gone through a steep learning curve - video call etiquette depends on a range of factors including the purpose of the interaction, the people involved, the company, and the context of the communication. Is it a webinar or a brainstorm? A casual team catch-up or an all-company meeting? So, how are we expected to act on the other side of the screen? Does industry matter? Who makes the rules?

What are the considerations involved with video meetings at work?

Cameras on?

This one is a tricky one but generally, the consensus is that if the other participant's cameras are on, yours should be on too, although often cameras can be turned off when you are not actively speaking to help save bandwidth. If you are speaking, then it is without question that your camera should be on, if not it would be the equivalent of delivering a speech through a wall. With your camera on, be sure that last night’s pizza boxes or bottle of wine aren’t visible, and your background is as clean and uncluttered as possible. 

If you need to leave the meeting to attend to something, turning your camera and sound off and excusing yourself will help reduce the distraction for everyone else. Likewise, if you are walking whilst attending a video meeting, turning your camera and sound off can help stop others from feeling distracted or motion sick from the movement. Also considering if the catch-up or meeting can be done as a phone call is a valid consideration – not all connections require face-to-face interactions and phone calls can often be a more efficient way of achieving the purpose of the meeting.

Managing noise and sound

With many of us working from our homes, there are sometimes partners, pets, kids, housemates, or the noisy gardener next door. Outside noise is beyond your control, but it can be very distracting for others on the call and you can control who hears it. Turn the tunes down and hit the mute button when you can, it’ll be more relaxing for everyone, including yourself. Be mindful of when you are using the mute button to avoid the dreaded silent conversation and responses of, “you’re on mute!” Using headphones can be a great way of ensuring others don’t hear everything that’s going on in the background and you maintain your focus without having to mute and unmute, especially as more video calls start taking place back inside the office.

Moderating speakers

Talking over one another in a meeting that’s face-to-face is a lot easier to manage than when five people all with different Internet speeds try and talk at the same time over video with slight delays in sound. Setting an agenda at the start of the meeting to communicate the structure and expectations of attendees to contribute is more important than ever with video meetings. The chat function can be used to manage attendee feedback and helps stop those awkward moments of, “no, you go!” and people talking at the same time. Many video conferencing applications also have the functionality to let you ‘raise your hand’ which can be a good habit for managing contributions and who speaks when especially in larger meetings.

Eating

In the good old-fashioned days of the office, when people worked closely in one space, the most irritating food issue was generally smelly food. Eggs, tuna, fish being the source of many office complaints. But with video conferencing, no longer are these issues, instead, there’s whether or not we should be eating on camera. If your camera is on, the general rule would be no but in smaller team meetings, if eating was previously considered ok in face-to-face meetings, it may still be considered acceptable. Consider how your crunching may come across on video though. In larger conferences where you have an opportunity to turn your camera off and mute yourself, then sure, eat! Who’s going to know? But if you need to talk or think you’ll need to, save the snacking for another time.

Appearance

It can be easy to give in to the temptation to wear sweatpants and an old t-shirt on a video call, but if your colleagues expect you to have a professional appearance, dress for your video conference the way you would for an in-person meeting. Team meetings are a little different, but anything larger than your normal team, spruce up and put a comb through your hair – a small effort will go a long way. Generally, the culture and etiquette your team and company employed previously in face-to-face meetings should still apply, although many companies are now more relaxed with dress standards for video meetings.

Paying attention

Maybe it’s just me, but I find it harder to focus on video calls at home than I would at the office. Perhaps the distraction of remembering things around the house that need cleaning, or your cat has just wandered into the room nonchalantly with a mystery feather in their mouth. It can be hard not to be taken out of the meeting and into your familiar surroundings. But what are the rules for when there’s a knock on the door or a kid about to parachute off the kitchen bench? The fact is, we’re in our living rooms, studies or perched on our dining tables. Within reason, answering doors or tending to general life around us is not just justifiable, it’s expected. Excuse yourself, be polite and quick (as people are waiting on the other end). But remember that normal meeting etiquette still applies over video: be considerate of meeting participants and refrain from constantly checking your phone or computer during the call.

Pets and kids

As many of us work from home, video calls can provide a window into someone’s life outside of work, which can be a huge insight as we pull down the barriers that can separate colleagues. Kids and pets appearing in the frame are things often beyond our control. Cast your mind back three years ago when the BBC reporter’s whole family burst into the room. It was a charming moment that went viral. Accepting that life will continue to happen around us will make a more relaxed video call. And there’s nothing better than an interesting anecdote from the meeting.

Industry dependent?

It’s hard to have blanket rules across all industries and types of companies for video calls. Much like how different industries have certain dress codes, there would be a different set of rules depending on where you’re working and who you’re working for. An air of discretion and common sense should be used when thinking about what would be considered good etiquette for video calls. Some workplaces might be okay with cameras off or a casual outfit, others might have a certain expectation that you would dress and appear as if you were at the office.

Video calls can sometimes feel more unpredictable and daunting than face-to-face encounters, especially as most people are not overly familiar or well-practiced with the technology. But following the pandemic, they have allowed us to maintain important connections and provided the benefit of reducing meeting travel time and giving us back some more time in the day. As we adapt to the integration of video meetings in our lives, we will no doubt adjust to what feels right, and the way we use video calls is bound to change as well. It’s not just about having flexible working arrangements, it’s about us being flexible within them.

RELATED: Of course, it’s a whole different story when it comes to job interviews over video, check out our guide to The ultimate guide to prepare for video job interviews.
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