Courtesy in the Zoom Age: How Civility Can Transform Your Virtual Meetings

By Shelby Scarbrough
Zoom

One of the clearest impacts of the COVID pandemic has been the blurring of lines between home, workplace, and school, creating sometimes awkward intersections where a business meeting on Zoom may be interrupted by a dog barking, street noises filtering in through an open window, or children toddling into the background.

We are all much more adept at navigating these reminders that it’s still not business as usual. And yet, I remain surprised at how many people I speak with virtually who seem unaware of the need for a few basic actions to ensure that the Zoom “window on their world” conveys a message of professionalism.

In my book Civility Rules! I address the common misconception that civility is simply an elegant way of describing good manners. Civility goes deeper, linking behaviors integral to respect, honor, trust, empathy, and courtesy. I describe it as a way to recognize the humanity in the people around us and in ourselves, a challenging task when we are face to face, made much more difficult when interacting with others remotely.

Fortunately, there are a few actions all of us can take, whether moderating or attending Zoom meetings, to demonstrate our respect for those present, our intent to honor their time, and our desire to earn their trust.

  1. Give some thought to lighting and backdrop: In a regular business meeting, we really don’t need to spend money on lighting and backdrops, but if we take a moment to consider the view of the others on camera, it is always nice to see someone in good lighting, with a reasonable background – NOT like the boring wall usually behind me. I really must do something about that!
  2. Turn on the camera: We all have had bad-hair days or last-minute meetings that popped onto the calendar right after a workout. As a general rule, turn on your camera whenever possible. A great deal of communication happens non-verbally and keeping your camera on ensures that others can take cues from your expression, recognize when you are preparing to speak, and navigate pauses in the discussion more easily. Although, I really must admit, when I am not camera-ready to a basic degree, I briefly apologize for not being on camera without a lot of detail and spare everyone the discomfort of me, as my friend Keith Smith puts it, “in my all in all.”
  3. Turn off the microphone: Many Zoom meetings now automatically mute attendees when they join the conference, but it’s helpful to double-check that your mike is off when we join or if there are any loud background noises that will be distracting to others.
  4. Communicate expectations ahead of time: Just like in-person meetings, hosts do well to share an agenda ahead of time and include general guidelines for attendees. Should cameras be on? Will the meeting be recorded? Is attendance mandatory? Clear guidelines help everyone to know what’s expected and to prepare accordingly.
  5. Make “eye contact”: Remember that when we’re looking at the video of others or ourselves on the screen, we appear to be looking off to the side. Whether we’re speaking or listening, if we train ourselves to look at the camera, not the screen or our own image, we will not look cross-eyed or disconnected to the other meeting participants.
  6. Pause more often: Even with visual contact, it can be difficult to know when others have finished speaking. We can pause frequently and intentionally invite comments or questions.
  7. Be present: Avoid the temptation to check messages, respond to a text, or eat while others are speaking. Be fully in the meeting; no multitasking. I am so bad at this one.
  8. Hosts wait for the last guest to leave: If we are the meeting host, let’s wait until all attendees have left before ending the meeting. It’s the digital version of walking people to the door to say goodbye.

It’s especially important to consider civility during hybrid meetings when some participants are in person and others attend virtually. In these cases, I recommend adopting a very inclusive approach: We can be sure to direct questions to all participants, and if those on virtually have been quiet – which should be the case – we can make sure to inquire directly to those meeting participants to make sure to get their input and feedback.

These simple practices of civility are more than good manners. They better integrate participants, ensure clear communication, and facilitate productive interactions and engagement. They are just still solid practices for our informal work world.