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monday morning manager

Video conferences and online meetings are increasing but many people don’t know how to make the most of them

With video conferencing and virtual meetings becoming more frequent, problems can occur if you don't rethink your practices and procedures. On Public Words, presentations expert Nick Morgan addresses some of the subtle changes you need to consider for your virtual meetings. And on Productivity501, consultant Mark Shead reminds you of some technical matters that can be important:

Accept their nature

Virtual meetings will always be less than perfect. So Mr. Morgan stresses not to make them carry more freight than they can bear. Use them for less important issues, while saving emotional stuff for face-to-face meetings where expressions and body language can add to the mix.

Take breaks every 10 minutes

Mr. Morgan says recent research suggests attention spans generally appear to be about 10 minutes. In a virtual meeting, it's presumably no better, so plan your agenda into 10-minute segments, and take breaks to give people a chance to refocus. "You can either stop the meeting entirely or just urge everyone to get up and stretch. People don't need a long break, just a chance for a quick change of pace," he advises.

Get regular input

Skype and video-conferencing technology allows you to see everyone, but when using phones for virtual meetings the danger is that some people will put their phones on mute and focus on other tasks while half-listening to the meeting conversation. So Mr. Morgan recommends keeping everyone involved by going around the group, asking everyone – and he stresses everyone – for input.

Identify emotions verbally

Because you lack verbal clues with audio-only virtual meetings, it's difficult to read other people's feelings. So Mr. Morgan suggests making your feelings clear verbally and training others to do the same. For example, "I'm disappointed with the results of your group; how are you feeling about them?"

Exchange small talk

To heighten emotional connection and provide the equivalent of small talk, Mr. Morgan suggests getting everyone to send each other 30-second to one-minute video clips of what they are up to and what the weather is like where they are.

Take care of details

For video conferencing, Mr. Shead reminds you to ensure there is a good camera and good light. The camera built into your laptop is probably not suitable for this. He has been using a camcorder mounted on the top of his monitor, which allows him to zoom in and show exactly what he wants. Adding a few extra lights around you – he uses some large compact fluorescent daylight balanced bulbs – can keep you from looking pink or blue and enhance the quality of the image.

Keep a "preview" window open so you can check how you appear to others. He has seen people who show just their forehead or half of their face, or looking like they are in a witness protection program because a bright window behind them turns them into a silhouette.

Look them in the eye

Look directly at the camera so it appears you are looking the others in the eye. That requires a tricky balance, because you will want to occasionally look at the images on your computer of the other parties. But remember to spend the bulk of the time directly looking at the camera.

Check what's behind you

Be careful of what is positioned behind you, particularly if working at home. Mr. Shead recalls taking part in a video conference where the camera pointed into the main part of the house and somebody was wearing just a towel.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter