"Hello... hello, can you hear me?" This sentence, like no other, stands for the kind of communication that has taken hold everywhere in the last two years - whether at work, in trade unions, school, initiatives or social movements. The video conference.
With the onset of the pandemic in 2020, the video conferencing provider Zoom, for example, saw a rapid increase in daily usage. In March 2020, 200 million people used Zoom per day; in April 2020, this figure had already reached 300 million. In comparison, 10 million people participated in video conferences on the platform every day in 2019. According to Statista, 72 percent of companies use video conferencing at least frequently and one in five respondents held video calls for 5-9 hours per week during the Corona pandemic. Whether one is heard in a video conference depends in part on the technical equipment. But not only. What are the obstacles to successful communication via videoconferencing?
The framework conditions are sometimes very uneven. Confined spaces or children to look after at home make it difficult to participate in video conferences in a concentrated manner. The internet connection also puts a spanner in the works for many: around a third of all people in Germany struggle with a poor internet connection several times a week. Prior experience in the digital space just as crucial to how well the switch to videoconferencing works.
In order to give everyone equal opportunities to participate in video conferences, it helps to talk openly about the obstacles and problems, to be attentive as an organiser and, if possible, to organise solutions.
A well-known problem in video conferences: One starts to speak or takes a short break and someone else takes the floor. This can have different reasons. Sometimes there is a mismatch due to a slow internet connection - which comes across as "falling into the word", but is not meant that way at all.
<s>Technical reasons are not always to blame for an unbalanced speaking pattern. Often the same people always come up at meetings. Still others do not dare to speak up. So some perspectives are very present, others are drowned out. The meeting is sluggish and one-sided. And causes frustration for all participants.</s>
This so-called "dominant speaking behaviour" has different manifestations: "not letting people finish", individuals dominate the conversation or 'quieter' voices are not heard. There are many reasons for this: people have different amounts of practice in speaking in front of groups and also power hierarchies in groups - also between genders - can lead to an unbalanced share of speaking.
When planning video conferences, special attention should therefore be paid to these dynamics. Because you are not in a room, participants can quickly feel (left) alone. What is needed for an online meeting in which everyone is taken along, has their say, stays on the ball and feels seen?
A round of introductions at the beginning ensures that everyone speaks once, can familiarise themselves with the technology and gives everyone present a sense of who is in the room. Clear agreements on the discussion environment and process provide a good framework: Who moderates the meeting? How do people check in? Is there a clear agenda for the meeting?
Formal procedures, such as a so-called double-quoted speaking list, can be used to prevent dominant speaking behaviour. One aim is to equalise the speaking shares of the genders: if, for example, there are only men on the speaking list and a woman speaks, she will be "quota-checked in". On the other hand, it should not always be the same people who speak. If a person who has already spoken and a person who has not yet spoken come forward, the person who has not yet spoken is also preferred. However, this measure is not a panacea and does not replace reflection on the origin of dynamics such as dominant speaking behaviour, power and knowledge hierarchies in groups.
In order to bring everyone along, variety is needed in addition to formalities. A good mix of methods creates a pleasant atmosphere for the different participants. Many providers of videoconferencing make it possible to work in small groups or so-called break-out rooms. Break-out rooms can be used to collect questions of understanding and initial discussion questions in "murmur rounds" after an input or to pre-discuss questions. This allows for a more informal and low-threshold conversation and activates participants. Those who feel uncomfortable presenting thoughts and arguments in a large group are given the opportunity to discuss them in a small group first.
Another obstacle to good meetings via video conferencing is 'zoom fatigue'. What this means is that video conferences are much more stressful than face-to-face meetings. Researchers at Stanford University have shown in a study that this is related to the intensity of a video conference. You see yourself all the time, have to send signals like nodding in agreement much more strongly and are potentially under constant observation.
This should be taken into account when planning a video conference. Short breaks can help. The study also recommends turning off the camera more often and taking a few steps around the room.
Video conferencing also reduces creativity. This is because the mental focus on the screen rather than on shared perceptions in a room is said to have a detrimental effect on creativity. One way of counteracting the creativity-diminishing effect of video conferences and at the same time bringing everyone along is to resort to written exercises. First of all, everyone writes down ideas and thoughts for themselves and these are recorded on a Miro board, for example. The further discussion can be structured on this basis. Advantage: You can also walk a few steps through the room, shake out your arms and sort out your thoughts.
Feedback rounds at the end of a meeting are a good way to find out what worked well and where there is room for improvement. In general, a good and clearly communicated structure, open eyes and ears help everyone to get involved. Discipline is important: only if everyone sticks to the rules is a frustration-free meeting possible.
We also try to improve and make all voices heard. What are your experiences? We are happy to support you in planning workshops and voting rounds. Feel free to contact us!