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Thoughts on Online Living II

In physical meetings, where you sit and how you dress has an impact. How does this work in online meetings?

Previously, I pondered how online meetings and social distancing might, somehow, be a force for good; disrupting the social norms and our ingrained ways of interacting and allowing different personalities, styles and individuals to come to the fore (perhaps at the expense of classic ‘D’ personality types).

In this second blog, I’m thinking more about the practicalities of meeting online; the dynamics at the virtual meeting table and why appearances still matter. I may even offer some hope for dealing with that.

Musical Chairs?

When I turn up at a ‘real’ meeting, I instinctively scan the room before deciding where to sit. Choice of position is important.

Sitting opposite someone can be seen as imposing, threatening, formal. Taking the chair at the ‘head’ of the table is a power play or about being ready to chair and guide. The far end provides great visibility, or can provide a position from which to take a dissenting role (protected by perceived distance). Flanking positions at each end offer influence and impact without threat. Mid positions offer a degree of anonymity, subtlety and flexibility.

Seating matters in meetings

For those with a keen eye, it can be fascinating and informative to watch as a room fills up and later arrivals wonder which space to claim or the limited options remaining. It can and does have an impact on the flow and outcome of meetings.

Switch to the online world and there is no choice of chair; whichever technology is used has its own algorithm for deciding where participants are placed on the screen. Often these positions change throughout the meeting, without the volition of those involved (which can be irritating).

A distinct set of skills are needed to chair the meeting online. Equally, participants need to learn a new tool kit and code of conduct. For those wanting their point to be noted, a combination of strong body language and active use of typed chat comments can be effective; neither learned behaviours of pre-emptive dominance nor surreptitious stealth can be relied on. Attendees need to learn the technology tools for being noticed, as well as the body cues; for example, the Raise Hand feature is handy, if available. Equally I have seen people wave a flag or lean close to the webcam. Speaking over someone is considered poor form and can incur the wrath of the organiser’s mute-attendee function. To deal with the ‘sea of faces’ phenomena I recommend ‘pinning’ (subject to your choice of meeting platform) the people whose reactions or input you most want to observe and actively encouraging or deferring to them as required.

A good meeting leader/chairperson should carefully control the meeting. Requesting that people are on mute much of the time, with video on; establishing rules at the start of the meeting; encouraging people to provide sufficient pauses for interjections etc. are all good skills to practice and enforce.

Many articles dwell on being correctly (and fully!) attired. More than that, attendees should give at least as much consideration to the first and lasting impressions they present as they would in a physical meeting. A recent community meeting my wife attended (during the blazing early summer) had a council member attend in shorts and no shirt. This was talked about for weeks, as was that individuals online and offline behaviour. Online is not anonymous.

Dressing for the part and attending to other aspects of appearance (hair, shaving, perhaps make-up) remain as important as ever. It’s not just marketing fluff either, there is actual science behind it (it’s referred to as ‘Enclothed Cognition’); even Vogue has got in on the thinking (though with rather less science involved).  

For some, these new conditions with less direct face-to-face interaction and supervision may seem like an opportunity to slack off. Much to the contrary, it takes even more discipline and commitment to stay productive in our new working environments. When it comes to work attire, if you are used to presenting yourself in a certain way to your clients or in the workplace in general, keep those standards when attending video conferences. Your clients and coworkers will continue to see you as the professional that you are, you will be demonstrating a conscious effort to remain focused, and probably most importantly, you will be subconsciously reminding yourself that you are still at work… just in a different setting.

Ahli Moore, Founder and CEO of X-Factor Solutions

“Dress for success” is a real things and evidence based

According to a study performed by psychological scientists at Northridge, Columbia and California State University, our clothing has an impact on our thoughts and our ability to think in an abstract manner. It affects not only how others perceive us, but how we perceive ourselves. Likewise, according to a study published in the Human Resource Development Quarterly, “Respondents felt most authoritative, trustworthy, and competent when wearing formal business attire but friendliest when wearing casual or business casual attire. Significant two-way interactions were found between dress preference and mode of dress worn on self-perceptions of productivity, trustworthiness, creativity, and friendliness.”

Mark Zondler in Mikago.com (2016)

It’s also worth attendees remembering that their background environment is also part of the impression they create. Whatever is in the field of view of the camera should not cause distraction, though the occasional touch of human life is charming.

Taking it a step further, we need to be aware that online meetings constrain us to 2 of our many senses; there is value in making the visual and auditory experience especially strong in order to benefit from the additional impact this can have. Ideally, your co-attendees should be paying attention to you, rather than anything else in the field of view. This will include choice of (upper) clothing, hair, facial hair and makeup.

Like it or not, your appearance says a lot about you before you’ve even had a chance to speak. People make snap judgments, it’s just in our nature. Right or wrong, during normal business hours we don’t want to see our attorney in coffee-stained pajamas, or our investment banker in an undershirt. Knowing this, why not take advantage? Make it so when you appear on screen people feel like they might miss something important if they don’t listen to your every word.

Nicole Page Theodore, Owner of The Theodore Firm

I feel somewhat liberated by the ‘real-life’ experience of remote meetings with people in our respective home environments, but let us not forget the impression we create entirely.

I’d like to acknowledge Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, for the research references and highly appropriate quotations.

By Simon Hudson

Interests: Knowledge management; Information Architecture; Flexible working technologies

Passions: Physics, music, classic cars

Aspirations: To drive a V8 Vantage to the Amalfi Coast; to play guitar to a crowd of 1000+; to ski more than once a year; to make a difference

Background: From teaching to quality assurance, technical development to international marketing and from business development to business start-ups, Simon has flitted, butterfly like, learning from each experience and bringing that breadth to his client facing and business development activities. Simon is articulate, opinionated, understanding and suffers from an insatiable curiosity.

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