5 ways to make video meetings a little less awkward, from a Google expert

Google Hangouts, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other video chats and conferences can be weird. Here's how to make them better.

Alison DeNisco Rayome Managing Editor
Managing Editor Alison DeNisco Rayome joined CNET in 2019, and is a member of the Home team. She is a co-lead of the CNET Tips and We Do the Math series, and manages the Home Tips series, testing out new hacks for cooking, cleaning and tinkering with all of the gadgets and appliances in your house. Alison was previously an editor at TechRepublic.
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Alison DeNisco Rayome
3 min read

In our new socially distanced world, video chat reigns supreme as the primary form of communication for many workplaces and groups of family and friends looking to keep in touch. Whether you use Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, or Google Hangouts, Meet or Duo, you've probably noticed that despite being able to see everyone's face, it's still not quite the same as a pre-coronavirus pandemic in-person conversation. But why?

In a recent blog post, Google UX researcher Zachary Yorke explored this virtual video quandary, and suggested a fix. Here are five ways to make video meetings feel more natural and help you stay connected. 

Read more: 10 free Zoom alternative apps for video chats

Think twice before muting your mic

Even under the best circumstances when everyone has a strong internet connection, there's still a very slight delay from the time someone talks to the time their voice reaches the others on the call. This only gets worse when someone has laggy audio, or fumbles to hit the unmute button. Even a delay of five-tenths of a second is more than double what we're used to in in-person conversations, Yorke wrote in the post. 

"We're ingrained to avoid talking at the same time while minimizing silence between turns," Yorke wrote. "These delays mess with the fundamental turn-taking mechanics of our conversations." 

As a solution, for smaller group chats, Yorke recommends staying unmuted to provide bits of verbal feedback (like "mmhmm" and "OK") to show active listening. In larger meetings, you can try speaking more slowly to avoid unintended interruptions, and give people time to interject if needed, Yorke recommended.

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Give some visual cues, too

In our face-to-face conversations and meetings, we often pick up on social and visual cues: Someone leaning forward who might want to add to the conversation, or someone with a confused expression at a point you've made. But these cues can be harder to see on video, potentially resulting in people speaking up less, Yorke wrote. 

One thing can make a difference, he added: Visual listening cues. For example, when you need to engage, keep your eyes focused on your fellow video chat participants, instead of on your inbox or another browser tab, and show that you're listening by nodding and smiling. This will help everyone better read emotions and analyze ideas, Yorke wrote. 

"This is especially important when we need more certainty -- like when we meet a new team member or listen to a complex idea," Yorke wrote. 

Make some time for personal talk

Many in-person meetings might start with some informal small talk, with coworkers sharing small pieces of their lives and families. This is a good thing: Research shows that teams that sometimes share personal information perform better than teams that don't. When leaders model this, it often boosts team performance even more. But the switch to video conferencing can sometimes make it feel like you have to get down to business faster.

Yorke recommends carving out time at the start of meetings to catch up a little, and setting aside time for informal video chatting with coworkers over coffee or lunch breaks to build connections and morale. 

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Chat about how you want to work

When there's a workplace problem, remote teams are more likely to blame individuals instead of analyzing the situation, hurting cohesion and performance, one study found. To keep everyone on the same page, even when working styles are different, you should have open conversations with your newly-remote teammates about how everyone prefers to work, and how you can complement each other, Yorke wrote.

Use the 'talking stick'

Video conferences are often less dynamic than in-person ones, and fewer people tend to feel comfortable sharing, Yorke wrote. But higher-performing groups tend to be made up of people who are more sensitive to emotional and share the floor more equally, as opposed to those made up of individuals with higher IQs, one study found. 

In your video conferences, you can encourage more balanced conversations, passing the proverbial "talking stick" around to each member of the group to ensure everyone has time to speak, Yorke recommended. You can also remind others to do the same.

For more help on your video chats, check out tips for how to use Zoom like a pro, how to look and sound great online with your webcam, and how to turn your phone into a webcam.

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