Is It Okay To Check E-mail During A Video Conference?

 width=Last week, I came across this Entrepreneur article on video conferencing etiquette, and now I’m dying to hear what everybody thinks should be in the “rules of video conferencing etiquette.”  As noted in the article, we’re on rather new turf when it comes to video conferencing, so the rules are still evolving, and the traditional politesse of face-to-face and phone don’t necessarily apply.

Why bother with etiquette?

For me etiquette deals with two main issues:

  1. Beauty – making the visual and technical experience as painless and pleasant as possible, and
  2. Social Sensitivity – making participants feel respected, acknowledged, and able to contribute.

Of course these two things often go hand in hand, like the rule of no gum-chewing.  Aesthetically, it’s not particularly pleasant to have to watch and listen to someone chomp on gum as they’re talking.  Culturally, it’s probably not a huge breach of etiquette for a generation that grew up chewing gum anywhere and everywhere, although there are still plenty of people who feel that it’s unprofessional to chew gum in certain settings, like interviews, classrooms, and meetings.

VSee culture

No gum-chewing also highlights that etiquette can be situation dependent.  For example, in our team meetings, a lot of niceties get dropped because we’re familiar with each other, so we get lazy about certain things.  Besides, our company culture is also very laid back.  So people are not always good about having good lighting.  They may forget to lock up their cats.  They get really bad about looking into their cameras.  They sometimes eat and drink at meetings, and I know for a fact that people are responding to instant messages and e-mails.  However, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in their pajamas, although I have to confess to being guilty on occasion.

Aside from VSee

Having history lets you get away with those kinds of things, but I’d be much more careful at a meeting with a new client or when helping out with a customer demo.  If etiquette is about aesthetics and good impressions then I’d better make sure my lighting is good, position my camera so I appear to looking at the person, close my closet door with its mess, and take off my shawl which makes me look like a bundled up grandma.  After all, presentation does matter, and it’s important to remember that everyone is the star in a video conference.

Rules to Follow

So here are the points made in the article that I think are useful in any setting:

Mute yourself when you’re not talking – especially if you’re not in a really quiet office or if you know you’re going to multitask.  Microphones can be annoying good at picking up surrounding noises whether it’s someone mowing their lawn or the local school band practicing or the sound of clicking as you answer an e-mail.

Establish a visual background.  While you don’t want a mess in your background, I think a completely blank wall is just as disorienting.  People need visual clues about a person’s setting to help them place a person.  Maybe it’s because we rarely see anything in the real world without some kind of context.  Of course, you also want to make sure your background sends the right message about yourself!

Use good lighting. A video conference is not the place for creating a romantic atmosphere.  People generally meet on video because they actually want to see each other.  You might want to check out this VSee blog on lighting for some tips.

Look into or just beneath the camera when you talk.   This gives a sense of eye contact and mutual acknowledgement.

Gesture less and with smaller, slower movements.  The blurring effect can be quite dizzying and distracting for others.

Rules to Consider

I’m still on the fence with some of these rules:

No drinking and eating.  If people have coffee and bottled water even at high-powered meetings I don’t see why it should be taboo at a video conference, especially if you’re doing a lot of talking.  Eating can be more distracting depending on what you’re eating, and I think it’s fine for a lunch meeting where others are also eating.

Be careful of wearing certain patterns and colors of clothing.  Honestly, I can’t remember being distracted by the pattern or color of anything anyone has worn in a video conference.  But of course, I’m doing desktop video conferencing where everyone is a 3×3 box and not 28-inch life size HD images.  Colors might matter a little more in those cases.  The rule of thumb is no red, white, black, or strong color contrasts.

No multitasking.  This is a lovely ideal, but I don’t think that it’s realistic unless you’ve got someone who always runs a tight meeting or you’re doing some major negotiating.  Consider how many long meetings you’ve been trapped in where people are talking about things that don’t concern yourself.  One of the nice things about VSee calls is that it’s very easy to drop out of a call if you need to leave.

“Muting” the camera.  Some people temporarily mute the camera if they need to go to the restroom or if an unexpected visitor enters the room.  It gives you some control and privacy over what you deem appropriate for others to see, but it can also be a little like opening the door and then shutting it in someone’s face as you race around cleaning up your house so it can be presentable.  I haven’t decided if I think it’s less distracting to “mute” or to just get up and leave for a few minutes.  Maybe people should leave a message if they need to mute for an extended period of time.

So what protocols do you think are important for video conferencing?

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photo credit: Stmarygypsy

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