Love it or hate it, remote work is here. In March, our work life was redirected in an abrupt way. It wasn’t a well-planned organizational strategy built on robust analysis, thoughtful design, and an approved budget. Rather, today’s state of remote work was formed on little preparation, a lack of training and resources, fear, as well as uncertainty for the future.
Five months later, we are adapting and, in many cases, thriving.
I have spent over 15 years helping leaders and teams interact more effectively in the workplace, a face-to-face workplace. Meetings are the most common activity teams engage in to fulfill the work they are hired to do. In the “before times” teams would sit shoulder to shoulder around tables or in a common space. There was no muting and unmuting, few security controls, and certainly no children, roommates or spouses present. By all means, everyone wore pants.
When these same leaders and teams started to meet virtually, with or without video meeting platforms, I became curious. Are our remote meetings effective? Why do people keep their video off? Are the meetings where video is on more effective? Are there gender or generational differences in who uses video and who does not? The questions kept coming.
The internet is filled with articles on this topic. A quick Google search of “remote work” yields a mind-numbing 1,290,000,000 results. Yet, I wanted to hear directly from those experiencing it today. I conducted a survey of over 100 people to learn firsthand.
This article will review the results but will also discuss how visual cues (i.e. turning on your video for a meeting) contribute to the most important behaviors of high performing teams.
A quick review of the demographics: Women made up the majority of respondents at 72%; men at 28%. There was a broad representation in role with Individual Contributors making up 39%, Managers 26%, Directors 14%, and Executives 10%. Business owners made up 6%. To no surprise given my own age and my fellow Gen X’ers who support me, people 41-50 made up 42% of respondents. Millennials age 31-40 were 34%. People 21-30 made up 7% with people over 61 years of age at 5%.
The great news is that when people were asked how they would describe working from home, only 3% indicated “I don’t like it.” 89% of respondents selected that working from home was either “ok but would prefer a blended approach” or even “great”. While the survey did not inquire about productivity, it would be interesting to explore. There are conflicting opinions on the impact of remote work on productivity, especially now given the current context. However, the hopeful perspective to draw here is when people are satisfied or in a positive state of mind, they perform better and are more productive.
There were no gender or generational differences in the survey responses.
11% do not turn video on or will only do so if the meeting organizer requires it. When asked why their video was not on, the majority of these respondents selected they “prefer to multi-task”.
Not surprisingly, there were consistencies between those who stated virtual meetings were ineffective and keeping their video off to multi-task. It begs the question: Is the video off because the meeting is ineffective? Or, is the meeting ineffective because participants are multi-tasking with their video off?
Did people think that having video on would better the meeting? Yes. 54% of respondents felt that if all meeting participants had their video on, the effectiveness of the meeting would improve (29% were unsure and 17% said no). When asked for the top two reasons, the large majority selected that they would “see each other’s reactions and non-verbal cues” followed by “seeing each other’s face helps maintain engagement with each other”.
The fundamentals of human interaction, just seeing each other, were believed to be the most important factors to meeting success.
The case for using video
The survey had limitations and was a small sample size, but it provided a pulse on the experiences of professionals today. Respondents believed that just seeing each other contributed to meeting success. Observing non-verbal cues and engaging with others are related to the well proven requirement for effective team performance: psychological safety. This is a sense of confidence that a team will not punish or reject a member for speaking up. In most simple terms, it is demonstrated by conversational turn-taking and listening. Members of a psychologically safe team feel secure and confident that their voice will be heard. These members also behave in ways that reassure peers their opinions are welcome. This is not a team free from conflict. Rather, psychologically safe teams can be difficult. People challenge each other’s perspectives and invite critique from others.
Teams need other components for success like goals, clear roles and processes, productive conflict, and feedback. However, there are hundreds of articles on psychological safety and it has been proven to be the single greatest correlate to a high performing team.
Today, teams are remote and working together behind screens. Using video is the gateway to demonstrate those two basic principles of psychological safety in a remote team. It is the way to see in subtle ways who agrees or disagrees, who is listening and who is distracted, or who might have something to say but struggle to interrupt the extroverts taking over the conversation.
I worked with a team recently that made a group decision to keep video on and “no multi-tasking” was the primary meeting ground rule. The honor system was obviously in play. Subtle looks at text messages or toggling to email while still looking engaged on camera were well-honed skills. Yet, this team stuck with it and by doing so noticed their meetings concluding an average of 10-15 minutes early. This team found that by keeping video on, they moved through the agenda more efficiently and made faster decisions.
Here is the difficulty, sitting behind a screen is exhausting. “Zoom fatigue” is real. When meetings took place in person, our attention was broken up by depth of the room, distance from the speaker, and we could vary our eye contact with whomever was speaking. In addition, we could not see our own reflection or image gazing back at us. With video meetings, our brain is processing multiple sets of eyes staring back at us plus our own image (and our thoughts about our image) in addition to whatever is being discussed during the meeting. After three, maybe four video calls, we are tired. So, while having video on is an important strategy to maintaining psychological safety, it is also a quick way to burn people out.
The answer is not to use video all the time. Rather, use it intentionally for a specific purpose. If the intent of the meeting is to make a decision or solve a problem, video should be on. The team can observe reactions, engage people who benefit from an invitation to speak up, and model active listening. These are the types of meetings where everyone’s engagement and participation are critical to success.
Meetings that are intended to inform and discussion is not needed, then video may not be required. Conversations between two people may be better via cell phone while taking a walk. The physical movement may spark new ideas and will certainly be a healthy alternative to sitting.
Despite the circumstances, teams are adapting. Embracing the technology and leveraging it in the most effective way is what will enhance performance. Leaders play an important role but so do all members on the team. Everyone plays a role in the team’s success. Adapting to a remote work environment has been uncomfortable but that discomfort is an indicator that we are on a path of growth and progress.
If you’re still reading and interested in more, download my Tips for Remote Team Engagement.
Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leadership and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm.