COVID-19 sure has made me appreciate technology that I admit previously taking for granted—particularly Microsoft Teams and Zoom. But let’s face it, as great as it is to have options, connecting with our colleagues or classmates over videocalls each day just isn’t the same as IRL.
Don’t get me wrong. Virtual collaboration has its perks: convenience, flexibility, efficiency, and especially the comfort of being in your own home or room. But it’s just so easy to feel distracted, that sometimes, we wonder if anyone’s really paying attention at all.
Don’t be discouraged by this! Here are some tips to boost virtual engagement, no matter your role in the meeting or class.
When the cameras are off, how can you tell if anyone is listening, or if they’re even in front of their computer at all? You can’t! Being able to see everyone in attendance helps you gauge if they are actually engaged. But it also impacts our own focus as well. Staring at a sea of black screens is boring, and makes us feel detached. Knowing others can see us discourages us from doing distracting activities, like eating or texting. Turning the cameras on is an easy fix to keeping everyone focused on each other. Many of the suggestions listed below rely on cameras being on to implement!
Create an Agenda
Have you ever been to a show with a printed program listing the performances/events/speakers? I’ll bet you followed along pretty closely. It’s just human nature to keep track of what’s happening and what’s coming up. Setting a clear class or meeting agenda before the conference begins accomplishes the same thing. Include the meeting/class topics, expected preparations, and the anticipated outcome in the meeting invite or on a shared screen as you get started. It’ll keep everyone a little more organized and on track.
Respect People’s Time and Schedule
Meetings have increased since people began working from home. Collaborating with others is a little harder, with people having to wait to responses to their emails and IMs. People are busy, so make sure you aren’t wasting their time. Only invite those who actually need to be there! They will not contribute to a meeting that is unnecessary to them. Inviting the right people makes sure that everyone who is there will be engaged. If others need to know the decisions that were made or the actions that were assigned, just send a them a follow-up email.
Give and Request Feedback
I admit that I totally took for granted the little things that make a huge difference in face-to-face communication, such as hand raising, facial expressions, and body language. It made it so easy to do a little check-in to gauge the energy in the room. These days, it’s a lot harder to “read” a virtual room. Lucky for us, Microsoft Teams and Zoom offer many features to improve engagement. It’s important to use these built-in tools to bring energy to remote sessions.
Encourage participation with the “raise hand” button. Students can use Zoom’s breakout rooms to work and talk in small groups. Microsoft Teams has Live Reactions tool to allow participants to express how they’re feeling—those emojis provide immediate feedback. Use poll questions to solicit feedback and participation.
If all else fails, ask people directly for their feedback. “Jamal, what do you think? Kim, do you agree?” For a larger crowd, tell people to virtually raise their hands if they agree or understand.
Engage in Chitchat
Before the meeting gets rolling, curb the awkward silence with some small talk. We frequently wait a few minutes for everyone to join the class or meeting. This is a good time to get to check in on each other. C’mon—just because we aren’t on campus doesn’t mean the everyday break room chats have to disappear! It may sound simple, small talk really does make everyone feel more connected. Your presence will be felt, and it won’t seem like you're all just staring at a screen.
This is just for work colleagues—it especially breaks the ice with students, so they can build a relationship with their professors. Just because we're in a pandemic, doesn’t mean that professors and students shouldn’t get to know each other. Join the meeting a few minutes early. Ask folks how their weekend was, whether they enjoyed the reading, or how their feeling about how everything’s going.
Videoconferencing is the new normal. Staying engaged, and encouraging others to stay engaged, can help you all form personal connections, even at a distance.
-- By Eliana Trotman, Pitt IT Student Blogger