The powerful impact of ‘video-on’!
During the early period of COVID lockdown, all of us who were able to work from home were asked to do so. UGM research showed that most people experienced benefits, such as greater flexibility, that they would like to maintain, even when our situation improves. Thus what’s been termed the ‘hybrid workplace’ is now set to become the norm for most professions, with three days at home and two in the office being a common formula. A consequence of this is that more of your regular meetings are now going to be virtual. In other words, even if a percentage were virtual previously, now almost all of them are likely to be technology-mediated. So how we use the technology options available to us matters a great deal, if both performance and inclusion are to be achieved.
In this context, the ‘video-on’ function plays a vital role in enabling your virtual meetings to be high quality and inclusive, so that business problems can be successfully tackled and useful decisions made. Yet data we’re collecting from our clients is a cause for concern. All too often virtual meetings are being conducted with some or all team members only available to each other in a single channel – audio. The ‘video-on’ function is actually off! There are often excuses or explanations proffered: I’m at the kitchen table; my kids are visible in the background; I’m in my tracksuit; I’m still talking to our IT department about connection issues. And so on! But, as with many factors influencing performance and productivity, if the powerful impact of ‘video-on’ was better understood, you’d likely feel motivated to ensure it’s a feature of every single meeting. This is particularly important for culturally diverse teams.
Intonation – what it is and why it matters
In culturally diverse teams, intonation differences can cause a lot of problems, if your virtual meetings are audio only. The term intonation is used to refer to all those musical, non-word aspects of a language: pitch, rhythm and stress, for instance. From birth, babies listen to the music of the talk around them and internalise its patterns long before they can produce coherent sentences. Intonation is learned early and held unconsciously. It’s very hard to change and it’s common to use the intonation patterns of your first language when speaking a second one.
The challenge is that languages have different systems. In English, for example, stress is used to signal the most important parts of what is said. In this way, listeners know what to pay attention to and can infer the speaker’s underlying attitude. In a sentence like, “He didn’t forget to send the email”, different words can be emphasised to produce a range of sentences with quite different meanings!
But in some languages, almost every word in a sentence can be highlighted. Speakers of such languages can bring this pattern to their use of English, heavily stressing too many words. They can then sound annoyed or angry, even in a simple exchange. In many Asian languages, tone (not stress) affects the meaning and a soft voice can be used to indicate seriousness or strong feeling. In the same situation, English speakers would tend to use a higher pitch and more volume to show key points.
These aspects of the language are notoriously difficult for people using English as a second or third language to notice and learn. This is an important reason why the ‘video-on’ function is so useful. If you can see the relaxed and friendly facial expression of a colleague who may sound a little brusque, then the visual signals offset and correct any unintentional negative impression. Body language (e.g. gestures and facial expressions), plays a crucial role in signalling meaning, with some studies finding that as much as two thirds of meaning is conveyed nonverbally.
Getting a turn to speak in a virtual meeting
These days, effective performance in a team can be measured, in part, by your ability to handle virtual meetings successfully. Getting a turn to speak and making appropriate use of that turn are two of the fundamental skills required. But rules for taking a turn to speak vary across cultures. Mismatches in turn taking style within a meeting can result in lost contributions and false evaluations. People whose ideas and arguments are never properly heard can be regarded as less valuable. People who dominate discussions can be viewed as aggressive or as poor listeners.
When all participants share the same cultural background, our research shows that exchanges can flow relatively smoothly. But that’s much harder for a culturally diverse team, especially if your virtual meeting is audio only. This is because many of these turn exchange signals are visual. Someone wanting to say something often shifts their posture or indicates with a change in facial expression that they’d like to speak. A small gesture can function as a signal to colleagues that you’d like to contribute.
The inability to make a contribution is, firstly, a personal loss with personal consequences, such as being evaluated as passive or lacking initiative. Those unable to contribute can feel sidelined and excluded. But it also affects the quality of the meeting itself. If only two or three out of a possible six or seven people contribute, this has the effect of narrowing the team’s thinking.
In contrast, ‘video-on’ will help you to be responsive to the richness of visual cues known to underpin trust and rapport among diverse team members!
PRACTICAL IDEAS TO APPLY IN YOUR BUSINESS
Assess your virtual meetings!
Score your team from 1 to 5 on each of the points below. 1 is low, 5 is high.
- To what extent does your team use the ‘video-on’ function to support inclusion?
- How would you rate the quality of team members’ video and audio connections?
- To what extent do your meetings have a clearly stated purpose which is shared ahead?
- How would you rate the level of involvement and contribution in team meetings?
- To what extent do your team meetings promote a sense of belonging and connection?
- Is there a norm of one speaker at a time that is enforced if need be?
- To what extent are relevant people with particular expertise drawn in, as well as those who have said little?
- Do team members make sure meaning and intention are clarified when necessary and misunderstandings repaired as they arise?
- Does your team regularly review the quality of your meetings in order to identify and action potential improvements?
A score of 40 and above is good. Your virtual meetings are likely to be productive and inclusive. Scores below 36 indicate room for improvement.