Getty Images; Illustration by Chloe Krammel
“I’m here live. I’m not a cat.”
It was the Zoom mishap the internet had been waiting for. A Texas lawyer, temporarily befuddled by a filter he was unable to remove, showed up on screen for his court hearing as an adorable talking kitten. And the masses, grappling with their own love-hate relationship with Zoom calls after a year of working from home, couldn’t get enough of it. Even the judge on the case tweeted about it.
In the Before Times, video calls for many American workers were a novelty — a rare occurrence you might encounter if, say, cross-country teams couldn’t get together for a presentation. Little thought was given to backgrounds or lighting, and certainly not whether your whole set-up might become the subject of critique online (thank you, Roomrater).
Nearly a year into the world’s embrace of remote work — more than 40 percent of Americans are working from home — and, oh, how times have changed. You’re not alone if you feel like you’ve been living through something like the five stages of Zoom grief:
- Denial: Yeah, sure, I’m good with a Zoom call right now (locks self in bathroom).
- Anger: Nope, not turning on my camera today, thank you very much.
- Bargaining: Can we just do this over email?
- Depression: What’s the point of even seeing each other?
- Acceptance: Let’s do this (no mention of crying kid, barking dog, and heap of dirty laundry in the background).
In all likelihood, Zooms are here to stay, even if we wind up using them less frequently than we do now. So if you haven’t yet made peace with the reality of video calls in your work life, it’s time. Need some help? We’ve rounded up some of the best advice we’ve learned from 2020 about making Zoom calls less stressful, more effective, and — crucially — a little less omnipresent in remote work.
1. Less is more.
The exhaustion you feel after a day of video calls is not just you. Despite not having to go anywhere for a Zoom call, it demands more energy as you strain to parse the information you’re hearing along with the few visual cues you can glean from staring at your colleagues in tiny boxes. At the same time, you might be managing children, pets, or other distractions in the background.
This is why you shouldn’t automatically mimic your in-person meeting routines with video calls, says Jason Fried, founder of Chicago-based software company Basecamp, author of Remote: Office Not Required (Vermill, 2013), and remote work champion. “If you have more time yourself, you’re going to be more productive,” Fried said in a recent Inc. stream event. It’s a mistake to assume that frequent video check-ins are what’s needed to make people feel connected and productive. Those calls may, in fact, require much more planning and stress on the attendees’ side than you realize, as they juggle what’s necessary for some relative peace and quiet. Take a look at how frequently you’re asking your employees and colleagues to be on-camera and consider whether it’s the best way to communicate.
Pro tip: Reconsider the humble telephone or thoughtful memo that requests responses — they might be more effective and less draining for everyone. And if a Zoom really is required, give attendees as much notice as possible.
2. Set up a dedicated spot and forget it.
Another way to make video calls less draining is to figure out the mechanics of your Zoom set-up once and then, if possible, leave it set up so that you don’t have to worry about it every time you log on. None of this needs to be expensive or time-consuming. The most important elements are a decent light source in front of you (portable light rings go for around $30), a well-positioned camera (right around your hairline), and solid sound (wired earbuds with a mic will do just fine).
Pro tip: In the desktop version of Zoom, go ahead and use the touch-up-my-appearance function in your video settings. It’s not perfect but it will smooth out the appearance of your skin.
3. Know your responsibilities as host.
In the same way that being on camera demands more of your attendees’ energy, hosting a meeting on camera demands more of you to keep people engaged. Beyond the basics of how you’ll run the show, like starting and stopping on time and sticking to a tightly focused agenda, give some thought as to what exactly the show will contain. If you’ve determined that video is necessary, then think about how you’ll begin and end strongly because those are both crucial moments where you can lose your attendees’ attention.
Pro tip: Start with action. That could take the form of posing a provocative question to everyone or asking them to share small victories. Likewise, at the end of the call, review any necessary follow-up tasks.
4. Stop staring at yourself.
We all do it: When the camera is on, we tend to look mostly at our own faces. Before the meeting starts, preview your video setup. Then remove vanity as additional distraction — and focus more on what your colleagues are saying — by hiding your own video from your view.
Pro tip: If you still find yourself zoning out, adopt a few active listening habits: Figure out beforehand what value you can add to the discussion; repeat what you’ve just heard before you speak to solidify your understanding; and take notes to keep your mind on the topic at hand.