10 tips on video conference preparedness — and etiquette

Realize others can see what’s behind you, have files open before the call, it’s OK to be honest (and funny) … and more

By Jennifer Thibodaux, JMT Speaks
New Jersey | Mar 25, 2020 at 11:07 am
Op-Ed

It’s Day 3 of Week 2 of the new normal. Which means you’re getting used to working from home — and communicating on video calls.

Don’t know how to handle this new interaction? Join the club.

I’m not tech-savvy enough to give you how-to guidance on using WebEx, Teams or Zoom, but here’s what I’ve learned after WFH and using video calls several times a week for the last several years, as both a lawyer and a communications specialist.

Here are 10 tips on video conference preparedness and etiquette while working from home.

  1. Look nice(-ish)

I really hate to sound like a lawyer, but the answer to, “Am I presentable for a video call?” really depends. Consider who is joining the video call (a client, your colleague, your boss) and your normal in-office dress code. Then, factor in the state of the world and your life right now. Many of us are balancing WFH jobs, child care, homeschooling and general stress and anxiety. Before COVID-19, the WFH wardrobe was more casual than an office wardrobe. These days, stopping short of wearing what you slept in is likely a good rule of thumb. But, in all seriousness, you should have a gut sense of what’s right for your call and your audience.

  1. Look at the window into your world

Take a look around you and what may be captured on video. The video call is a window into your world. What you allow others to see is a personal decision you should actively make before you wish your client, colleague or boss could “unsee” your stack of dirty clothes or the poster of the Backstreet Boys from 1999.

  1. Get organized

I take notes by hand, so I take out my legal pad and pens before the call instead of fumbling around on my desk while on video. Regardless of how you take notes, get organized. Open your Word document or other place that you take notes. This goes for electronic files, too. Open up whatever files you need for the call, so you don’t have to search for them while everyone is watching. And, remember, those files may take a while to open during the call while your computer works to do so much.

  1. Check your monitor setup

Check your display settings if you are using more than one monitor. For example, I dock my laptop, close it and work with a large monitor. I open my laptop to use its camera during video calls. This changes my display settings, so my laptop is the main monitor (and the Help Desk says it’s permanently stuck this way). I like to look at the camera during the call, so I drag the documents I need to use to the separate monitor so I can glance at them during the call. Understand your settings in advance and play around with what works.

  1. Check the virtual window to your world

Screen sharing is the virtual equivalent of the window into your world. If you anticipate sharing your screen during the video call, close your email. Your Inbox and the email notifications are distracting. Consider closing browsers or other documents, particularly if they are not work-related. If you use two monitors, drag the documents to the screen you intend to share in advance, so you are ready to go.

  1. Alert your WFH ‘colleagues’

My WFH colleagues typically consist of a toddler and his caregiver, but, now, I’m sharing an office with my WFH husband. I alert everyone that it’s not the best time for my son to throw open the door (I’m lucky to work out of a spare bedroom) and barge in. Each morning, I tell my husband when I expect to have calls, and he does the same. Added bonus: sharing the AirPods! If you are WFH in a small space, figure out how to fairly share that space well before the video call. Otherwise, your roommate may saunter into the kitchen behind you in their pajamas or start talking about your toilet paper supply without realizing you are (both) on video.

  1. Remember that calendar reminders are your friend

Please don’t mindlessly snooze your calendar reminder. Use those reminders to double check all of the above. Did you remember to throw on a sweater over your workout tank? Are your notes out and files open? Do you need to plug in your cell? Where are your headphones or AirPods? Do you need to make a pit stop?

Also, refrain from dismissing the five-minute reminder and waiting to join the call at the “0 minute” reminder. Instead, join the call at least five minutes early, at least in the beginning while you are getting used to Teams, WebEx, Zoom or whatever system you are using. Regardless, you never know when the internet or VPN connection is slow or when the system is going to prompt you for a password that is already saved, so you can’t remember it. Give the tech time to do its thing. Not to mention that punctuality is professional and a plus.

  1. Mute your line the instant you dial in

I learned this early on in my WFH tenure: Mute your line the instant you dial in. You may have to mute yourself on both Teams, WebEx or Zoom, and from your cell phone, so it may take a few calls to figure out what’s what. Why is this important? If the system picks up the tiniest noise when you dial in, whether you are clearing your throat or moving your chair, it thinks you are talking and now your face is displayed prominently and largely as the speaker until the meeting begins. No, thanks! Muting yourself instantly avoids this. Even if the host has muted everyone from the start, the double mute doesn’t hurt. Just remember to unmute yourself in both places before speaking.

Once you check the sound, take the extra time to check how you actually look on video. Is your head cut off? Are you too close to the camera? Is the lighting too dark or too light? Having this extra time is key to ironing out noise, light, and display (personal and electronic) issues.

  1. Don’t forget that, um, everyone can see you

Once the call begins, refrain from texting, getting distracted by email, or doing other things. Too much multitasking is rude and distracting. Not to mention, you look (and probably are) disengaged. You shouldn’t act any differently on video than you would as if you were in person in a conference room. We can all see you!

Also, try to keep the eating and drinking to a minimum while on camera. Enough said.

Lastly, if you have to step away for a moment, remember that most systems allow you to message some or all participants. Shoot a quick message off so everyone knows you haven’t disappeared or fallen asleep under your desk, George Costanza-style.

  1. Honesty and humor go a long way

Stuff happens. You are late to a call. You have a ton of unexpected background noise. In the pre-COVID-19 world, I learned that honesty (with a bit of humor) is the best policy: “I’m sorry, my neighbor’s landscaper picked this exact moment to mow the grass.” In the post-COVID-19 world, it most definitely works too.

These are unprecedented times. In this new normal, you might be switching hats frequently during your day and end up with spilled coffee on your shirt and no time to change as the five-minute video call reminder pops up.

Honestly, just do your best.

Jennifer Thibodaux is a seasoned professional speaker, writer and storyteller. She founded JMT Speaks to help other professionals realize their strengths and apply them to their current position or pursue different opportunities. She is especially passionate about helping working mothers navigate challenges at all stages of their career and children’s lives. She currently is a senior legal editor at Thomson Reuters Practical Law and previously was a partner at Gibbons P.C. Contact Jennifer at jennifer@jmtspeaks.com or read more at www.jmtspeaks.com

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