Communication in the era of COVID: issues with ZOOM calls

When I started working in corporate America, we had a CEO who hated e-mail. He would tell everyone to stop playing games copying everybody all over the place and just pick up the phone. The phone had two definite advantages: It was immediate, and you could speak candidly without leaving a permanent record. The downside, of course, is that your side of the conversation could be misreported by the other party, and the other party wasn’t tied down to any commitments they had made. That’s why, in my experience, it’s a good idea to go with e-mail if you really want to get something done, not just feel good about things getting done when you hang up the phone.

In the era of COVID, though, we’re moving into different types of challenges for communication. One of the biggest is the ZOOM call. At its best, ZOOM and other such platforms allow a small group of people to get together, work sort of face to face, and then get to work on what was decided. But the more people on a call, the more things are going to blend in with an old style corporate conference call. This means that when you speak, maybe half the people are listening and the other half are working on something else. Worse, the half that are working on something else will be listening for keywords and will tend to pop up with questions or comments about things that were discussed twenty minutes ago. Worst of all, some of the time you’re going to be the person who was working on something else. Those lower than you on the totem pole will grumble, but if anybody above you happens to be paying attention at that moment, this is also an opportunity to make a bad impression.

They say that 90% of communication is non-verbal. The ZOOM call doesn’t change this. But it can be a challenge because the things that catch attention now – the confused response when your name comes up, your talking too long or cutting something too short and all those other things that make certain meetings tedious – are not things where you can feel the mood in the room. And yet, everything you do – and some things you don’t – will affect how you are positioning yourself for the others on the call.

A few tips:

  1. Pay attention to the number of attendees going up or down.
  2. If you’re speaking and another mic cuts in, make sure you’re not cutting someone off.
  3. Before the meeting, have a list of keywords you’re watching for, but make sure to note other ways those topics might come up. You don’t want to miss something because you were paying attention for the wrong thing.
  4. Watch the chat and the microphone icons. If someone who usually has useful comments isn’t saying anything, they may be trying to communicate. Looping them in will both advance the meeting and make you a friend.
  5. Be extra polite. You can’t really tell who’s listening without saying anything and you want to be sure who is frustrated but silent the way you can in an in-person meeting.

Above all, remember that even after COVID, a lot more people are going to be working from home. But we’re not in the era of The Year Without Pants anymore. A lot of the people working from home will not be techies who think Slack is the greatest thing ever invented. So you still need to watch your communication. The message you’re giving is nice, but the impression you’re giving is going to be super important for building alliances, getting your points across and having people want to make the things you believe in happen. Stay safe out there!

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