Many of us are still mostly working from home. Even when lockdown lifts, it’s likely that we’ll move to a hybrid model comprising both home working and office working. (I wrote about this last month: The new model of office working.)
Many people working remotely are getting tired of back-to-back video calls. This means it can be hard to keep their attention during your online meetings. One answer is to include audience participation activities that help to bond the team and reinforce your desired outcome.
When running face-to-face meetings, I always have a few energisers up my sleeve to use when I feel energy levels start to dip. Online, this is even more important.
For this article, I’ve teamed up with Jackie Barrie, the author of Experiential Speaking: Engaging icebreakers, energisers and games. She’s currently working on a new book explaining how to keep people engaged online, and is kindly giving us a preview of some of the content below.
I hope you’ll find at least one idea you can try with your team, and look forward to hearing how you get on.
Why presenters need to be engaging online
Four factors that cause ‘Zoom fatigue’ were identified by Jeremy Bailenson from Stanford University – they apply equally to other video-calling platforms:
- Close-up eye contact causes ‘stressed hyper-arousal’. Studies have found the usual radius of interpersonal distance is 60cm / 23in yet the usual video-calling image seems closer than that. To avoid this, sit further back from the screen
- Video calls demand ‘increased cognitive load’ compared with audio calls because there is so much to pay attention to. In a study, participants performed better on audio-only guessing and recognition games than video equivalents. To avoid this, allow camera-off time or switch to audio calls occasionally
- We experience ‘intensive mirror-image viewing’ when we look at our own face on screen all the time. This is unnatural, unnerving and distracting. To avoid, this, turn off self-view
- Sitting still for long periods can downgrade cognitive performance, whereas ‘dividing attention’ and moving around (such as walking on a treadmill) was found to enhance creative and divergent thinking. To avoid this, try a standing desk, and encourage attendees to go for a walk outside to get some fresh air during breaks, if they can
In addition, research by Bausch found that staring at a screen reduces blink rate by 66% – but blinking is essential to keep the cornea lubricated and remove debris through tears. To address this, look away from the screen regularly to focus your eyes on something further away.
7 principles of online engagement
Jackie recommends that online meetings you run are underpinned by these seven principles, to avoid causing fatigue for you and your audience:
- Set expectations around interaction, by telling them in advance that the event will be fun – but reassure introverts and shy people they can opt out of any activity they don’t want to do. Get everyone involved before the meeting, perhaps by inviting contributions you’ll use as quiz clues; by posting to their home (through the mail) props they’ll need; or by emailing voting signs they can hold up during the event
- To maintain their attention, invite the audience to do something every 15 minutes or so. It can be a quick thing, such as raising their hand, answering a question in the chat box or clicking a reaction icon
- Gameify your content, maybe by using a tool such as WheelOfNames to pick a lucky dip winner or to randomise your agenda. Or play a higher/lower guessing game when reporting a series of departmental results
- To regain attention, do something unexpected. For example, you can introduce a new topic by changing to a virtual background that has the title as a headline above your ‘talking head’ (you’ll need to create the text as mirror writing before you save the image, because Zoom will show it in reverse). As well or instead, you could play a copyright-free jingle or music sting to set a new mood for your next topic (you’ll need to tick the option to ‘share computer sound’ and mute everyone else to get the best sound)
- To get people looking at something other than the screen, mix the real world with the virtual world. For example, ask them to describe what they see outside their window, or to find something in their home that relates to your theme and then show it to the camera. Anything physical gets people out of their chairs and moving around, which increases bloodflow, brings more oxygen to the brain and recaptures their attention
- On the subject of looking away from the main meeting screen, you can use external tools such as Menti, Sli.do or AhaSlides to capture questions, brainstorm ideas or run polls and quizzes. These external tools increase engagement because participants have to access them from their mobile phone or by opening a different tab in their web browser
- Activities like this might be fun, but they are not only for fun. There must be a point. So you should always give a reason why you are asking people to do something. When they understand why, and can see how the activity fits with your desired meeting outcome, they are more likely to be willing to get involved – and the result is more likely to be ‘anchored’ in their memory
Audio v video
Remember, in order to give people a break from their screens, you might achieve what you want to on an audio call.
The new social media app, Clubhouse, is an example of this return to audio-only communication. It’s a big relief for users who don’t have to worry about doing full hair and makeup, tidying their home and setting up their studio lighting and microphone before every call.
Jackie suggests some occasions when it’s appropriate to turn cameras off:
- To give people a break from looking at their self-image (which is a psychological distraction), give them permission to turn off their video and audio for refreshment breaks, for example. A minute or so before the end of the break, remind them to turn their video and audio back on so they’re ready to start again (this also helps your meeting run to time)
- To save bandwidth if their local broadband speed is slow (we’re all totally dependent on it, but many suppliers are overloaded and the signal can drop out for any of us, any time)
- For safeguarding reasons (such as if you have a participant who wouldn’t want other people to see their home environment in the background for personal reasons)
- Depending how many attendees you have in your meeting and which platform you use – for example, Webex has been known to lag if too many videos are on
Apart from these exceptions, I recommend you encourage people to put their camera on, to build trust and participation.
Using breakout rooms
In practice, even people whose camera is initially off are likely to turn it on when they are in a breakout room, and then leave it on when they come back – which is just one reason why breakout rooms are a good idea.
Another reason is that breakout rooms let attendees escape from being watched by you – the leader or facilitator – so they can relax and talk to their peers. That’s why Jackie suggests always allowing a bit of extra time at the start of the first breakout for people to introduce themselves or catch up with each other before they focus on the task you’ve set.
Most of the video-calling platforms allow you to divide big groups into small groups using breakout rooms. You can then set them a task to complete or topic to discuss, and share the results when they are back in the main room.
Download my new PDF for 17 discussion topics you can use at the start of an online meeting as an icebreaker or check-in, in the middle as an energiser, or at the end to reinforce the learning and suggest action steps.
Running training sessions
Information doesn’t get transferred effectively via the old-school ‘chalk-and-talk’ method. Learning is more about what the trainees do than it is about what the trainer does. As the presenter, less is more! Getting attendees involved is more effective than not.
For example, when I ran a series of two-day workshop for UCLH leaders on the topic of leading organisational transformation*, the content was structured like this:
- Share credible research / theory and bring it to life with stories and examples that relate to their work/environment
- Discuss in breakouts and / or plenary and extract the learning (especially when debriefing insights from breakout groups)
- Conduct a practical activity to build skill
- Encourage attendees to feedback to each other
- Make personal notes in a journal, to capture the learning – as well as a personal development action plan at the end of the workshop
This was an on-site event, but the structure would be the same online in accordance with best practice for training. Here, you share new information then check their understanding by running a practical exercise where trainees can have a go at applying the theory to their own situation.
Ebbinghaus proposed the ‘forgetting curve‘, which suggests people won’t remember new information unless they make an active attempt to review, retain or recall it afterwards. This means it’s best to structure learning transfer in a way that includes followup revision activities.
One thing Jackie does is facilitate a series of online games based on Articulate (describing), Charades (acting) and Pictionary (drawing) using your own theme, jargon or concepts as clues. It’s a fun and competitive team session that generates lots of laughter while also helping participants to embed the key learning.
For meetings that run over a day or more, make sure you give extended lunch breaks so people can stretch their legs, get fresh air, and refresh their concentration for the afternoon.
You can also set up a social opportunity. I usually allow 90 minutes for lunch, and tell them the first 30 minutes is an optional lunch and chat, where they can move their laptop into the kitchen or dining room and talk to their colleagues while they eat together.
If you’re running a team-building session, you might arrange that everyone eats the same food by delivering a takeaway, ready-meal or recipe box to their home address, or by providing them all with the same recipe to prepare at the same time (depending on geography and dietary/cultural preferences of course). Even choosing a shared theme such as Italian or Asian will bring a sense of togetherness.
One meeting I facilitated this year had the objective of bonding team members so they could play to their strengths. It ran over three days and we used lots of different activities to keep people engaged.
To link the event to the company strategy, we focused on the value proposition of the work the team does. Some people had joined the company during lockdown, so they’d never met each other in real life. We therefore ran some exercises to help people get to know each other. Here’s one team-building activity that worked really well.
We used Jamboard to create a frame (that’s Google’s word for ‘page’) for each person. Other participants were invited to leave appreciative feedback as it occurred to them, adding virtual sticky notes to recognise each person’s contribution to the team in general or to this meeting in particular.
We gave them 20 minutes extra over lunch on the last day to make sure they had completed this task and written what they wanted to say about their colleagues.
Each person then had 15 minutes to review their own page before sharing what they had learned about themselves (optionally). For example, they might have recognised a strength they didn’t know they had, and need to make sure they use it.
This exercise was woven into the Strengthsfinder Tool – just one of many tools I’m accredited to use.
It was a positive and life-affirming experience for people who might have been feeling quite isolated. It also encouraged active participation over the three days of the meeting – because people knew they’d get feedback, it encouraged them to bring their best self to the event.
If you found this information useful, you might also enjoy my other articles on the subject:
- Leading global teams
- Running your team using virtual facilitation
- How and why to collaborate effectively
- Psychological safety and team effectiveness
- How to use body language to create rapport
- How to facilitate effective virtual meetings
Read more about the UCLH event here:
As preparation for her new book, Jackie has also published a list of 30 activities you can use on Zoom.
Many of my clients are reporting that a year of virtual meetings has reduced meaningful communication to transactional communication. So, next month, we look at how to bring back conversations that really count.