Brains have evolved to rely on input from our body and our perceptions of other bodies. Judgements about identity, moods, thoughts, and emotions are based partly on what we see of other people. Online, our minds are together, but our bodies are not. This messes with our heads.
It’s one reason why managing a group of people online can feel draining, whether it’s a meeting, focus group or workshop.
Microsoft Teams is rolling out a new Together mode, in which the participants are placed in a coffee shop or a lecture hall format. This helps to give a sense of being in the same room and gives more sense of body language. Apparently, some people even turn sideways to speak to the person next to them!
Sitting slightly back from the webcam does help to show some body language, especially hand movements. You can lean forward with your chin resting on the hand; a classic ‘I am listening’ pose.
But until this becomes super realistic, or we can do virtual worlds without clunky headsets, we will have to help our brains adapt to the environment. Smaller groups (if possible), frequent breaks, and ways of keeping attention focused all help. It is worth the effort to use a simple whiteboard to deliver or capture key points. Participants have too many distractions – including seeing themselves on screen.
Signals for turn-taking in speech can be very subtle, and are often missed online. You need more overt ways of bringing people into the conversation. Use names, ask for agreement or disagreement, and have people hold up a pencil or a pen if they want to make a point. (It looks more professional than putting a hand up or using an icon).
And since you are missing the sense of ’emotional contagion’ (picking up on feelings in the room), it is especially important to check your perceptions and understanding. Use paraphrasing and summarising to be clear.
You can keep people engaged by setting them short tasks. Just because they are online does not mean they can’t use a pencil and paper to write down a few ideas.