Video Call Essentials


TL;DR: Camera on. Microphone on. Go.

For my entire industrial career my work relied on effective video calls. I started working as a remote employee for three years, then as a “local” employee, but communicating a lot with remote customers on a day-to-day basis. Today, too, a lot of my time is spent communicating with a remote HQ.

Effective video conference calls are not rocket science, but they may require some setup. At its essence it boils down to this:

  1. All participants have their camera on all the time
  2. All participants have their mic on (almost) all the time

These may not be intuitive, or what you do today — so let me explain why this matters.

1. Camera on

Reason #1: Non-verbal communication

Shockingly, there’s a more to communication than just words. There’s facial expressions, there’s eye rolls, there’s “I’m on the call, but actually I just went to the toilet,” there’s nods in agreement. Missing these cues can result in anxiety of the speaker as a result missing any feedback about “how did what I just said land?”

Seeing people’s faces gives you some of the feedback you need.

Reason #2: Work is all about relationships

If you have a meeting where once in a while one of your team mates who’s usually in the office dials in from home — this is not that important. However, if you are having a meeting with somebody who you primarily work with in a remote fashion, seeing them is a big deal.

Why?

The way the things you say are heard, interpreted, and valued depend highly on the relationship you have with that person.

Let’s say you spent days researching a JavaScript framework to use for a new front-end project. You read blog posts, you read books, you watched conference videos. You made your decision.

Then, a colleague that you regard highly says: “just use React, I use that all the time, it’s rock solid.” What do you do? Chances are, you are going do what he or she says. Not because they’re your boss or “the decider,” but because you trust this person’s judgement, because of the relationship you have.

You don’t have this relationship with the random people on the internet that wrote those blog posts, you don’t have that relationship with the people who gave those conference talks you watched.

This is why celebrity endorsements work, you feel you have a relationship with this celebrity (although be aware, the reverse may not be the case). As a result, such endorsements mean more to you than some random dude you never heard of telling you to buy something.

Like it or not, relationships matter.

Seeing people is important in creating and maintaining those relationships.

Which brings me to the second essential element of effective video calls.

2. Microphone on

A few months ago I gave a lecture about remote work to a class of students back the university where I did my PhD. I gave this lecture remotely, through Skype. I shared my screen with them, so I didn’t have any visual feedback. They had their microphone muted.

It was like talking to a wall for an hour.

Like you need non-verbal feedback, you also need some verbal or “noise” feedback. An “uhuh,” or “right!” goes a long way in getting enough feedback to give you confidence that people understand what you’re saying, or are listening at all. This is especially important if a camera is switched off, or there’s 10 people sitting behind one camera.

I’ve noticed that during my three years working remotely I’ve learned to at least once a minute make some noise that suggests whether I’m following along or not.

“Hmm”

“Uhuh”

“Ok”

“Makes sense”

“Right…”

There’s another reason for the unmute-by-default rule: the barrier to feedback and asking questions is higher when you’re muted. If I have a small remark to make, and I have to decide if it’s worth unmuting for, in many cases I’ll keep quiet.

Now there are exceptions to the mic rule. For instance, I have to take calls in the evening, from home. Recently I had two pretty noisy flat mates move in. If there’s serious background noise (like baby twins screaming like devils), temporarily mute your mic, it’s ok.

Still, by default: unmute.

But I don’t have a camera, and my mic sucks

Buy a camera, buy a good microphone or plug in a headset, if you have conference group calls — buy a good quality conference mic.

Seriously.

This is basic stuff and it makes a world of difference. If you regularly work with remote people, get the technical aspects sorted out.

Mic on. Camera on. Go.