After one year of parental leave, I experienced a quite new working environment at Lund University when I came back in June 2020. The offices (and campus) were empty and our meetings had left the conference rooms and moved onto the computer. Digital conferencing software, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, felt new to me. When I had left one year earlier, digital meetings were quite rare and something that was more talked about in theory than used in practice. Today, things look differently and I find the digital conferencing tools probably being the most used softwares on my computer. In the alumni office we have organised digital “fikas”, brainstorming in breakout-rooms, Zoom webinars with hundreds of participants, online conferences with colleagues from other universities all over Europe and a lot more.
And these are some of the things I have learnt so far from organising digital meetings the last four months.
1. Preparations are key
Ordinary, face-to-face, meetings take time to prepare but, in my experience, formal digital meetings need even more preparation. Go through your agenda beforehand, test the technical gear and make sure your settings are as you want them to be. Set a plan for breaks and, if you are several hosts, decide who will talk and when. In a digital meeting all eye contact and body language are removed, and you can generally only rely on verbal instruction. Make all the decisions beforehand to avoid any misunderstandings.
2. Set your meeting’s “house-keeping rules”
In a digital meeting you cannot be certain that your attendees’ screens look exactly like yours. Therefore, it is useful to be very clear about your meeting’s “house-keeping rules”.
The agenda. At the start of the meeting, talk through the agenda including technical details.
As a host, assign the order of speakers. If you are organising a virtual “round-table” or an introduction round, assign the order of the speakers. Your attendees may see other meeting attendees in a different order than you, so it’s nice for them to know when it’s their time to speak.
Questions and comments. Inform what to do if anyone has a question or comment. In a large meeting, especially if you are sharing your screen in Zoom (but also some other video conferencing tools), you will not be able to see if your participants raise their hands. Then a digital “raise hand” function is very handy. Let attendees know if you prefer them to speak out, digitally raise a hand, write in the chat or communicate with you in another way.
Add titles and company name. If you are in a large digital meeting or conference, you may also want your attendees to add a title, company name or similar to their visible name.
Get some help. The bigger the meeting, the better the reason to be several co-hosts present. If you are having a presentation where you share your screen, make sure that you have someone who is keeping an eye on the chat and if there are attendees that want to make a comment. It is very hard to do both on your own and it will take your attention away from the actual purpose of the meeting.
3. Breaks, breaks, breaks
Our IRL* events and meetings could usually last for an hour without a break. But I find that digital meetings lasting for longer than 30-40 minutes are exhausting. So, include bathroom and snack breaks regularly.
4. Bring on the light
We may also need to think about our own appearance in a different way in a digital meeting than in a face-to-face meeting. Sure, you can wear pyjama bottoms to your digital meeting, but make sure that you get some light into your face, so you don’t look like the living dead. Also, make sure that the light is fairly neutral, you do not want to look orange or like if you are strapped into a dentistry chair.
Brighten up your face. Never have a bright light, like a window, behind you. That will make your face dark and the background annoyingly bright. Instead, you want all available natural light to shine onto your face.
Look straight into your camera. Make sure that your camera is located leveled with, or preferably slightly above, your face. It is not flattering for anyone to be seen from a “frog’s perspective”.
Have a neutral background. It is quite intriguing to be able to see what your colleagues or conference participants have in their bookshelves and kitchen cupboards, but it is a distraction from the actual meeting topic. Make sure that you have a neutral background during your meeting or use the function “virtual background” (if available in your video conferencing tool). Please note that the virtual background requires a lot of processing power and not all computers can manage it.
*IRL – short for “in real life”