Video Calls: Observations and assumed best practice


As we approach a year of remote working here in the UK, it seems a little late to be drawing up a list of advice for video call communications. But, a blog wouldn’t be a blog if it wasn’t inspired by real-life experiences.

So, here’s a round-up of some thoughts and feelings about video call experiences.

A year in I observe some habits of my own which creep in to my own calls, and reflect on how the actions of others can have a negative impact on the effectiveness of communications.

I’m also mindful that a year of this kind of communication has brought a deeper understanding of its advantages and disadvantages.

So, see this post as a collection of observations, with a little bit of advice as and when.

Video is immediate and intense

The simple act of cropping a wide angle shot in photo editing software has the effect of stripping out distractions and focussing attention on the story in the shot. Cropping heightens impact by creating immediacy.

The same occurs in video calls. We have all spent a year seeing one another with very little context surrounding us. We have focussed on facial expressions, tone, and of course, content.

This intensifying of the communication experience means that we’re more aware of what is being said verbally and non-verbally. And as a result, the impact on us as recipients of that tone and content is more keenly felt.

The need to approach conversations with good intent and a buoyant mood is ever more important, not just for others but for ourselves.

Facilitated structured conversations where everyone has allotted time to speak is vital

The most remarkable thing for me over the past year is how different size groups demands a different approach to conversations.

One-to-one depends on building rapport and trust. Three-ways also depend on trust and rapport but here I think everyone needs to be mindful that no-one person should feel even momentarily that they’ve been excluded from an exchange. Collusion can in such instances quite destructive.

Larger groups need everyone’s participation for the meetings to work. This might mean giving everyone the ‘floor’ to speak for three minutes for example. Preparing people for their three minutes is vital.

If the meeting is of a suitable size, be sure to welcome everybody

I try to do this every time I join a meeting (assuming I join in a timely fashion). I don’t always observe it others. To see others join a call and not acknowledge their presence may not be intentionally rude, but it does have the impact of overlooking their contribution to the meeting. They might as well not be there.

It’s vital for everyone to feel welcomed and included in a video call communication. That might mean a quick pass around the participants with a question designed to stimulate engagement, or it might be as straightforward as just asking people how they are or what they’ve been up to.

If the bandwidth allows have cameras on (or explain why you’re not)

This is a slightly controversial point potentially. I do absolutely respect that we all have the choice whether or not to have a camera switched on. We don’t all need to be visible. It’s not a right for others to see you.

At the same time, the visual presence of others on a call is reassuring – on some level it communicates engagement.

I work with people who don’t always put their cameras on but, in the case of smaller meetings, will explain that they’re not going to for whatever reason. This is an act of contracting with the other parties on the call which counter-intuitively does signal engagement.

There are of course situations when switching off video is necessary for bandwidth purposes.

I do know of one person who was invited to interview for a job in a new organisation and every one of the five panellists actively switched off their cameras for the entire interview. It’s not a great look for the organisation.

Body language matters

I have been on calls where the face I see staring back at me isn’t the face I know I would see looking at me if we were all in the same physical space together. How we come across visually is vital in preserving relationships and promoting a sense of rapport. As time goes on and we become ever more familiar with video call communication, remembering how we’re reacting to someone is key to maintaining respect.

Cover the video panel up and be authentic

I often start up a video call and then minimise or ‘cover up’ all of the other video feeds. This way my eye isn’t drawn to my own face, and I’m not distracted by everybody else’s face. This often means that I can end up articulating a thought in my head for the group by staring blankly out of hte window. This could be seen as rudeness given my previous point. I do generally flag when I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I think that’s key – its another form of contracting.

Do you really need a call?

Just as visual cropping intensifies the incoming data we get from a meeting attendee or speaker, so the energy each individual brings to that call is intensified. Video calls are two-ways of the kind you’d see on television or hear on the radio. Its not a normal kind of communication. We respond as an individuals to the energy of others. If there is low-energy on the call then that will be self-perpetuating, contributing to low-engagement and possibly even resentment. We have a duty to ourselves and one another to question whether a group video call is the right way for this group of people to communicate.

Be observant

One of the most remarkable things I’ve noticed over the past year is how the benefits and drawbacks of video calls have heightened my awareness.

First, some people behave differently in different calls according to who is present on the call.

Second, how the apparent distance from others created by a video call brings about greater transparency in thinking and delivery that perhaps wouldn’t be perceptible if you were in the same physical space.

Third, video calls make us all vulnerable and importantly, can bring about the need for post-call decompression. If this were a physical meeting we would, even if we don’t realise it at the time, be managing ourselves and others as we left a difficult meeting by using non-verbal communication. In the video call experience there is none of the familiar coping strategies possible. When the call ends there is silence in which our own ruminations flourish.

Not everybody feels at ease on video calls

This perhaps is a catch-all for everyone. I know of two peers who came to video calls later during the pandemic than I did. I recall feeling unease at first early in April 2020; now video calls are second nature. But for my peers video is a thorny medium they don’t feel at ease with. Being mindful of that is important. I do also think it is perfectly acceptable to express that out loud to the group if you’re someone who feels uneasy.