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communication zoom

“You’re on Mute”

The company Zoom meeting has become a communication necessity for many over the last few months. “Can you move your camera up?” “I like that background!” “Can you turn your music off?” “I can’t hear you…

…you’re on mute.”

What better way to describe our current workforce communication strategies than a leader (or HR) unwittingly talking aloud only to realize – no one was listening?

Over the past several months, leaders have had to adjust the way they communicate with employees – but what have we learned? An effective communication strategy requires selecting the appropriate channel for message delivery – whether that be in-person, pen and paper or smoke signals – but what happens when options are limited? 

Zoom quickly became the default message delivery system for the COVID-19 work environment, but popular opinion is learning that “zoom fatigue” is a real thing. As more and more people are logging in every day, we have to wonder if Zoom has the capacity to replace traditional methods.  “Channel richness” is a term to describe the weight or ability of a channel to transmit information, and while video conferencing is better than old-school memos (distributed by hand around the office) it provides its own set of problems.

This sort of digital communication places us in an environment with inadequate cues for both verbal and non-verbal communication. We think we’re communicating “richly,” but the reality is we’re ill-evolved to communicate via video chat.

What’s the frequency Kenneth?

One issue that rears its ugly head is proprioception; the unconscious sense that humans keep track of where they are at any given moment.  For example, when you’re at a party, proprioception helps you to keep track of where everyone is. Who you’re talking to, who is in the kitchen making nachos, or which annoying party goer is talking too loudly in the other room. In the “real world” we use our peripheral vision, our hearing and even our smell to maintain awareness of what’s going on around us.  But what happens when we take a 3D world and force it to a 2D screen? 

To put it simply, our brain panics. In a video conference (when we can’t tell where everything is) our brain reacts with anxiety and “fight or flight” response. We freak out. Our proprioception tells us we’re too close and that people are the wrong size (much too small to be jammed in those little boxes). In a very short time, 10 minutes or so, our subconscious gets exhausted from having to muscle through an hour-long Zoom video call. So we switch to audio-only. We cycle through new virtual backgrounds. We adjust our lighting. And all of this exacerbates the faulty perspective, interruption issues, and connectivity problems. No wonder we’re all suffering from Zoom Fatigue.

Organizations that were suddenly thrust into “virtual only” mode have now realized that informal “watercooler” interactions at the office serve an essential purpose. VIdeo conferencing has its place, and always will, but people still need the means/ways to have social interactions with co-workers. There’s Slack and Skype and Teams. There are IMs and SMS chats. But what about the importance of body language, intonation and facial expressions? And what happens when (perhaps even worse) if employees, due to either Zoom fatigue or communication overload, are not interacting at all? Does trust erode and paranoia set in? Will it inevitably lead to fear that we’ll be communicating layoffs and furloughs via a video conference? (note: if we must communicate something as drastic as a job loss in this pandemic-world, let’s please deliver it in a way that indicates compassion and empathy.

I see you…

Obviously video conferencing is of critical importance for the near and long-term but here are a few tips for success: 

  • Have an agenda (clear and concise). Our lizard brains have a limited capacity for the Brady-Bunch style of Zoom – make your meetings short and sweet. Jump straight into what needs to be done and don’t wear people out with unnecessary socialization (unless that’s part of the meeting purpose).
  • Make video optional. Between pets climbing on the keyboard and kids running into the room, some work-from-homers have a bunch going on – and they haven’t showered today. Don’t require video, instead make it something they can decide.
  • Don’t force the “fun.” (Virtual) Happy Hours allow people to decompress. Doing (virtual) karaoke with coworkers builds camaraderie and is good for shits and giggles. Eating (virtual) lunch together allows for informal chit-chat. Make these options though; don’t require employees to join in nights, weekends or during their lunch hours. Give them a break. 
  • Take breaks. If you’re going to have long-zoom-slogs then (please!) let people’s brains rest. It’s better to have short quicker calls to gain an understanding of specific issues than to block away an hour at a time. Informality becomes your ally….and your employees aren’t wearing pants anyway.

Now please; unmute yourself before speaking. 

author: Christine Assaf

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