Among the lasting memories from the Covid-19 pandemic are going to be the many embarrassing moments that public-facing figures have subjected us to on online platforms.
The more obvious examples are the well-publicised images of politicians attending what are supposed to be off-camera meetings – and even virtual parliamentary sessions – naked, in bed or, in one particularly harrowing image, in the shower.
But while these lapses are embarrassingly human, more damage is caused by just plain unprofessional presence in virtual meetings from people who should know better, says mobiLearn founder Dr Hasmukh Gajjar.
“For some reason people don’t seem to realise that, even though a meeting is virtual, people can still see you and judge your professionalism from what they see,” he says.
Almost 17 months into the pandemic and large-scale work from home initiatives, you’d think most of the people who have regular online meetings would know how to do them properly by now, Dr Gajjar says. But, instead, the opposite seems to be happening and many people are actually getting worse.
“We were recently subjected to a ghastly session when a cabinet minister spent two hours briefing a parliamentary oversight committee while reclining on the living room couch, captured by a smartphone. This is not the image that a responsible government would want to project. Frankly, I was horrified.”
Private sector leaders and professionals are not unscathed. The scourge across the board is the use of virtual backgrounds. As desirous as it may seem to have the parliament buildings as a background, or key commercial brands as virtual background, nothing destroys the digital dignity as much as a virtual background that scalps a headgear or yanks parts of the meeting attendee’s face into a contorted distortion.
The work from home lifestyle is not going to go away, Dr Gajjar adds. Indeed, we will probably be engaging more on virtual platforms in the future as businesses, schools and tertiary institutions shift to online tools. Most mistakes that people make on virtual meetings are not as extreme as some of the earlier examples, but most of us could improve our online presence to some extent.
mobiLearn creates educational content, mostly in video format, and Dr Gajjar believes this qualifies the organisation to help individuals make the most of their online meetings and project the correct professional image. Key areas of focus for “dressing up” for virtual meetings are a good Internet connection, great audio, excellent lighting, framing within a video and basic etiquette.
“Most people do not know, or simply are totally inexperienced on how to setup a video conference,” Dr Gajjar says.
He offers some basic advice in getting ready for a virtual meeting, starting with how to position your computer.
It’s best to raise the computer off its base so that the camera is slightly higher than your head, maybe just to the top of your head, with the camera pointing straight to your eyes. When looking at the screen keep your eye on the camera so the other participants see you looking directly at them. This also ensures they are not looking up your nostrils.
Light is also important, and this is easy to perfect. Don’t sit in front of a window if you can avoid it, but rather ensure you have a light source falling from behind the computer on to your face. You could also place a white cloth or paper on the surface for some fill light.
Before joining a meeting, make sure there is nothing distracting in the background – and rather do not use virtual backgrounds.
Your Internet connection will make a big difference to your experience, and how others perceive you, Gajjar says. To avoid micro stall, it’s best to attach directly to the router with an Ethernet cable.
Once your environment is set up, there are some rules of engagement that will help you to show other participants how professional you are.
Turning off participants’ video diminishes the engagement, so Gajjar believes we should keep video on as much as possible if the Internet connection allows.
At the same time, microphones should be muted while you’re not talking, to avoid interrupting the speaker.
What is really vital is that people should dress for virtual meetings, exactly as they would if they were attending physically, Gajjar adds.
“Meetings in the virtual world are no different to those in the physical world. And you should extend the same effort and courtesy to others, even though you are working from home.”