make zoom great again

As our perpetual state of lockdown, locked out and varying levels of restrictions drag on – the constant refrain we are hearing is how people are “so sick of Zoom“!

I put it to you that people aren’t sick of Zoom, they’re sick of bad Zoom.

I recently attended an online, 80’s themed, Murder Mystery party for a friend’s birthday! It was such a clever night and a great way to celebrate our friend while still in lockdown! We all had a character and most of us dressed up (costumes are easier online because they don’t need to be transportable and they only need to be from the waist up! No pants or shoes to match your costume? No worries!! PJ pants and ugg boots it is then!!). Each household had readied snacks and drinks. No one was complaining about being on Zoom! Saturday night at 8pm for a couple of hours and Zoom was our best friend.

People aren’t sick of Zoom, they’re sick of bad Zoom!

So what makes Zoom good or bad? Bearable or intolerable? Fulfilling and productive or life-sucking and downright depressing? Here are a few of my observations and thoughts.

A MEETING THAT SHOULD BE AN EMAIL IN PERSON SHOULD STILL BE AN EMAIL IN ZOOM-LAND

Don’t assume that a team’s desire to be together will override the frustration we all feel at being in a meeting that should have been an email. Endless recitation of facts, details, calendar items and reading through text heavy PowerPoint slides is not what meetings are designed for and are not a good spend of your Zoom-credits. Meetings exist for relationship building, collaboration, learning, vision casting and role assigning. Send the details ahead of time or circulate them for reading afterwards. Too much information sharing translates to a monologue that is hard to sustain in a physical room let alone a virtual one.

ZOOM TIME IS DIFFERENT THAN REAL TIME

There have been multiple studies and papers released about the realities of Zoom-fatigue. It takes greater effort to remain focused due to audio differences and the reality that our computer’s other open tabs and notifications beckon. We are more self-conscious and aware because we are more visible to ourselves and others than we would be in a physical meeting space – we consequently expend energy managing our appearance, body language, facial expressions etc more than is necessary in real life. There’s less “collective effervescence” – the experience of laughing together, rapidly exchanging ideas and energising creative interactions – because of the clinical need to take turns to speak and the inevitable annoyance that comes when audio intersects and gates. We are more sedentary – less likely to adjust our sitting posture. And a multiplicity of other factors that mean an hour on zoom costs us more than an hour in real life.

If you would normally meet for an hour, meet for 45mins. Normally present for 30 mins? Try 20.

Clearly communicating (and adhering to) the proposed timeline of a meeting will also help participants pace themselves and increase their capacity to remain engaged for the entirety of your time together.

ZOOM MEETINGS REQUIRE STRONG LEADERSHIP

Even more than in real life, whoever is hosting the meeting must work actively to maintain control of the meeting. Establishing and communicating expectations about how this meeting will function is important. Having a clear sense of flow – minimising down time between segments or presenters, reducing talk about the mechanics of the meeting, and making definitive statements about transitions between topics or modes – will help a meeting feel more in control and purposeful. In real life, we can use body language, non-verbal clues, physical actions, facial expressions and other means to demonstrate we are wanting to move on. This doesn’t translate so easily to Zoom and so it takes more effort to keep tight reign of oversharing or meandering contributions. But it is essential for maintaining the engagement of the entire group.

The size of your group will determine what degree of “free-flow” is manageable and helpful – whether microphones should be muted or open (for example). Leaders should feel the liberty to request participants to make changes for visual or sound quality purposes (Turn the radio off. Tilt your screen up a little. Close the curtain behind you.). Who is in your group will determine how much ‘power’ you give participants and how much you restrict to host privileges. The more interruptions that come because of mismanagement of the meeting dynamic the more frustrated and fatigued participants will become.

ZOOM SKILLS & ZOOM BUDDIES

Zoom has customised their platform to have multiple functions that can make meetings more dynamic and a more accurate replica of in-person gatherings. Whiteboard, breakout rooms, chat function, screen sharing, split screen viewing, emoji responses and other options are great for changing up the presentation mode and inviting interaction. However, they can be hard to navigate while maintaining a helpful dialogue.

“And the o….therrrrrr … thiinnnnn …ggggg … I’ll just share my scre … oh, nope, …not that .. and yes, the other thing is … ”

You’ve all done or heard a version of this. The more practiced you are in the engagement of these tools and the more advanced preparation you do, the smoother these things will flow. But if it is at all possible, I recommend traveling in pairs! A co-host who can mute the person whose dog has started barking in the background, or rearrange breakout rooms to accommodate people who’ve joined the meeting late, or interject with appropriate questions or comments participants have made in the chat allows the presenter to keep full focus on what they are communicating or on listening fully to the contributions of a participant.

VIDEO ON OR OFF?

Research indicates that having the video muted increases the energy and longevity of participation for group members, but it reduces the feeling of engagement for the presenter or leader of the meeting. It can also impact the feeling of shared experience if not all members are visible on the call. What are they doing? Are they fully engaged? Have they gone to the bathroom? Are they doing other work?

This can be detrimental to the accountability and commitment of team or group environments. If there is disparity between perceived engagement in a group it will be hard to reach consensus or for participants to conclude a meeting feeling it was effective or productive. This can quickly diminish engagement from participants – why should I have my camera on when others don’t?

A quick statement of expectation from the meeting leader is helpful to establish expectations. “It’s fine for your cameras to be off for this next segment …” or “Can I have all cameras on just while we sort out our decision on this?”

Likewise, narration from participants can bring understanding and build (rather than erode) trust. “I need to have my camera off right now because my child is doing something in the space I’m in” or “my internet is lagging so I’m switching off my camera to hopefully see yours better”.

Some notes for you, the presenter, it’s important that participants see your face well lit and well positioned (not up your nose!) in camera. And research also indicates that seeing your hands is helpful for trust and engagement from participants. If nothing else, the movement you generate on your screen will help re-engage and keep engaged those watching you. Be sure to toggle quickly between shared screen and your video screen to maximise involvement.

EMBRACE THE ZOOM!

As much as it is a distant second place to real life gatherings, Zoom has afforded us a level of relational connection and ministry/work functionality that we would not otherwise have been able to experience during these last 18 months. I would go so far as to say I LOVE Zoom because it allows me to replicate my work contexts and output in a way that means I’m still employable (!) and I am still actively engaging my gifts, skills and passions.

It is what it is and where it is for the foreseeable future. We would do well to embrace that reality and work to maximise its offerings rather than perpetuating the frustration of both attitude and experience.

In my world, Zoom has opened up opportunities that would not have existed for me in real life. Participation in multiple overseas conferences, workshops and forums. Learning from ministry leaders and key thought leaders of a status and location that would be otherwise inaccessible. Maintaining relational connection with family and friends through shared meals, celebrations and online experiences. I love Zoom!

**THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT**

Make sure you laugh! Do what you need to in order to elicit laughter from the group. Even if you can’t hear it or they can’t hear each other – psychologically we know that our brains associate laughter with comfort. We are more likely to recall a meeting positively if we have laughed at some point – even if the meeting itself was weighty or long. Laughter releases happy hormones that increase wellbeing and shift attitude. Do what you gotta do!!! It can take an inordinate amount of effort. It can seem frivolous or time wasting. It might be uncomfortable to deal with the silence (or the sound of your solitary chuckling!). But it is well worth it. Make laughter a goal of every gathering you are part of.

How about you? What steps might you take to Make Zoom Great Again and maximise it as a resource to us while we navigate these strange and challenging times?

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