2020 has brought in a new age where video calls have become the default norm for meetings.
But even before the pandemic and the first full national lock-down in the spring of this year, I had committed to seek to do more meetings remotely through this marvel of technology back in 2018, (and been annually reporting on how far I'd been able to achieve this within my impact reports on myself). So in some ways, I've had a head start, but the move to video over in-person seemed to be a trend that was already growing - Covid-19 has simply accelerated it to force us all to start doing it sooner than we might have done otherwise.
However, it strikes me that (as with many things), it's very easy to undermine ourselves in this new format - not just in front of our colleagues, but also damaging our own self-beliefs and sense of worth, in having not fully worked out and adopted what the 'unspoken rules' of this way of meeting are:
I don't know what the exact figure is, but most video calls would probably be about 10 minutes shorter if we weren't all muting and un-muting ourselves when we want to speak, and forgetting which setting we'd last toggled the mic to.
I get that in some instances, there's good technical reason for having mics off (some people's laptop's have the mics next to the speakers, and so inspire ear-splitting feedback). But in the main, telling people to turn their microphones off if they're not speaking is akin to being back in school and told you have to raise your hand, and hope that the teacher decides you have something relevant to say. Hopefully we're all a little more adult now than we were in school, and can be trusted to act accordingly - after all, how many physical team meetings have you sat in, where the rule was you couldn't speak without raising your hand, and the chair granting you permission to open your mouth? It doesn't really instil a culture of openness, trust, and respect; and, if our hand waving doesn't get spotted by the person running the video call, we feel invisible and not important.
2) "where have you all gone?"
For people not used to there being options whereby the arrangement of how people's faces are laid out on your screen changes, it's easy to accidently minimise or change the whole view so that while the rest of us can still see and hear the person, they're desperately panicking that they've lost us all and can't find how to 'get us back'.
Once we've done a few calls, and had this mishap ourselves, its easy to avoid, but for the un-initiated, making what feels like a novice mistake can be a serious dent to our confidence in ourselves: after all, if we can't manage to keep a window open on our laptops, how can we be trusted with anything more involved?
3) "please ignore my laundry"
Working from home is a mixed bag - I video blogged about this recently, whilst laid under my duvet... not everyone has the luxury of a space in their homes where they can easily set up an office, or have a wall that isn't covered in their kids drawings, or has an airing rack in front of it.
As part of instilling confidence in others, we strive to create a professional image for ourselves (after all, we wouldn't have normally turned up to work in our dressing gowns, would we?). Having to apologise for what people are seeing of our lives, before we can even start to address the topic of conversation for the call puts us on a back foot in questioning our own value and importance (especially when we see how beautiful some other's people's kitchens appear to be...).
4) "I'm sorry about my kids"
Even physical meetings were never completely immune from occasional interruptions (people confusing room numbers, lunch or drinks being delivered, and such like). And most of us also had our phones on in case our kids' schools needed to contact us in an emergency. So why do we feel we have to apologise for our kids now, when they're not doing anything they wouldn't normally do, and neither are we?
If I'm leading any call where someone's kids wander by, or try and get their parents attention, I'll either invite them into the call, or use it as a prompt for a short break for the rest of us. Treat kids like human beings, and they'll have a better chance of growing up like ones we can respect and be proud of.
Parents shouldn't be made to feel guilty for having their children in their lives.
5) "try turning your camera off"
Just because everyone is now doing video calls, doesn't mean that everyone lives in an area where there's sufficient internet bandwidth to handle it smoothly (only 12% of the UK has access to fibre broadband). Similarly, not all video conferencing software is the same - there can be notable differences between things like Zoom and MS Teams as to how much internet speed you need to be able to hold a call.
And there's also other factors, like what sort of magic computer chips live inside your computer, if your home Wi-Fi router shares its signal between how many people are on-line at once, and such like - all of which means that in any given group call, there's usually always at least one person who can't be visible because to turn their camera on would mean that everything freezes for them. And to be the only person in a meeting that's essentially 'hidden' in this way, when everyone else has managed to remain visible, means that they can be easily forgotten and overlooked. And they'll usually feel it's their fault for having chosen to live in a poorly digitally-connected community, or not having been able to buy a laptop that's able to handle streaming video calls.
All of which point to video calls being potentially very damaging to our belief in ourselves as being able to be taken seriously as a 'working professional', before we've even opened our mouths to say hello and introduce ourselves. And this only further damages our belief in our own competence, and undermines how we build (or maintain) working relationships with other people.
So perhaps the next time you're on a call and someone's background looks a little cluttered, they're struggling to be able to share their video, or they need to find how to re-size the window on their screen, you can remember how it was for you when you started doing video calls. And you can offer them some encouragement and validation that they're not the failure they think they are, just because no-one thought to explain to them where all the buttons are?