When the world shifted from in-person to virtual everything this year, we found ourselves logging a good number of hours on video conference calls. And while it has its perks (check-in with colleagues, happy hour with friends) it’s also fairly awkward—and uniquely exhausting.
Here’s why: Conversations depend on facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, explains Paula Niedenthal, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—and this real-time feedback can get interrupted when it’s happening over WiFi. “If we smile, we anticipate that someone else will smile back. When our prediction is confirmed, it feels great. When it isn’t, it feels like an error,” Niedenthal says.
“It takes a lot more energy to come across as engaged via video,” says Paula Rizzo, media trainer and author of Listful Living. That means you have to exert more energy even when you’re not talking, just so the other people on the call can tell you’re paying attention.
Add to that trying to navigate where to look, when to jump in, and how to decipher voices mangled by technical glitches and you’ve just upped your cognitive load—at a time when personal connection is at a premium. Do it several times a day and no wonder you’re tapped out by dinner.
Here are seven ways to make our digital connections less taxing and more fulfilling.
Pin the speaker.
“Performing in front of your peers while also scrutinizing your own appearance splits your focus,” says Julie Brown, networking coach and author of This Sh!t Works. Niedenthal’s solution: “Pin” the video of the speaker or use the view where the speaker is highlighted so that your view stays focused on them, rather than yourself. This also takes up less data bandwidth and makes it feel more like a face-to-face meeting.
Keep your eye on the camera.
No matter which view you’re using, make it a point to look at the tiny camera hole during the conversation, says Rizzo, so that the other person sees you looking at them.
Limit the size when possible.
Larger meetings mean more opportunities for speaking over each other or more people lurking in the background which makes it a more disembodied experience. Try to keep it to 15 or fewer if at all possible, Niedenthal suggests.
Ask for explicit responses.
All the technical “noise” of being in a virtual space and trying to coordinate lagging responses can make it harder to build consensus on a video call, Niedenthal says. To remedy that—and increase engagement—encourage people to use the chat feature, raise their hands as you take a tally, or ask people individually for their responses.
Use people’s names.
Dale Carnegie said “a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound,” so be sure to use the names of your fellow attendees to engage them and make them feel seen. Also, make sure your display name is your actual name (not “iPad2”).
Keep it brief.
You need a little buffer between video calls so your brain can rest, says Brown, so consider a focused and clear agenda so that you can get done what you need to in 30 or 45 minutes instead.
Have a hard out.
Because video calls require more energy and focus, they drain you more quickly. At the same time, it can feel awkward to leave. Set an end time (if you’re the host) or let everyone else know when you have to leave—even when it’s a social call—so that no one is in the awkward position of having to be the one to call it.
Video calls will never rival the power of the in-person meeting, but they’ve become a vital way to stay connected. Brown sees it as an opportunity to forge new practices that promote work-life balance.
“Getting these windows into our home lives has taught us that each and every one of us has a big messy life outside of work, and no one wonders what people who work from home do anymore.”