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5 things everyone should know about virtual meetings

Is it worth inviting everyone to a virtual meeting? Do you stare at your own picture on the screen? Assistant Professor Niina Nurmi discusses some of the best practices from remote meetings, based on a recent study.
Niina Nurmi, photo by Mikko Raskinen.
Image: Mikko Raskinen.

1 Large remote meetings are inefficient and make people sleepy

In many workplaces, remote meetings have become information-sharing channels to which everyone is invited – there’s no limit to the number of people who can participate. But with so many participants, only a handful are properly shown on screen, with the rest appearing alongside as tiny images or black boxes with initials. This is inconvenient for everyone because it’s hard to observe other people’s reactions. The study also found that inactivity during a meeting causes fatigue, which reduces cognitive performance by one-fifth – and sleepy meetings continue affecting work efficiency even after they finish. If a meeting is only supposed to provide information to some people, it’s better to send them notes afterwards instead of having them attend.

2 The ideal remote meeting lasts less than half an hour

Research shows that people start feeling tired 10 minutes into a remote meeting, and their fatigue increases dramatically after 30 minutes. So it’s better to keep virtual meetings short and stimulating, with discussion encouraged. 

Reading out slides frustrates people, because they can absorb information quickly. Going through such material in remote meetings is a waste of time. Remote meetings take up more time than in-person meetings, and the communication isn’t as rich; only one person can speak at a time, and time is lost switching speakers. Instead, everyone can familiarise themself with the material independently, and the meeting can then be reserved for discussion only. One-way information can be provided in writing or through recordings.

3 One person multitasking affects other people’s experience

Organisations typically have stricter standards for reading emails and other ancillary activities in live meetings than in remote meetings. People can easily get distracted by their own tasks in a remote meeting. This is especially true if cameras are off – participants can feel under-stimulated and compensate by multitasking.

If a participant sees someone else reading an email during a remote meeting, that can lessen their willingness to participate in the discussion. It’s particularly discouraging to find the meeting organiser, chair or another high status participant concentrating on other matters. So be aware of your role in a remote meeting.

4 Giving feedback remotely is difficult – but important

Getting feedback on what you’re saying keeps you on your toes. But it's impossible to get any feedback from black boxes or initials. Thumbs and emojis can be used to boost people's activity, but their use is strongly linked to organisational culture. They don't match the effectiveness of feedback in live meetings – affirming noises or nods actively signal to the speaker that people are listening, and this encourages them to continue.

5 Staring at your own picture is distracting – hiding it reduces stress

Research shows that people stare at their own picture in virtual meetings. Many find it distracting and stressful. A person with many remote meetings could spend hours of their day staring at themself and silently criticising themself. In face-to-face meetings, people aren’t as aware of their own gestures and appearance.

Turning off the camera might help, but it leaves the others in the meeting without visual cues from your image. But you can hide your image from yourself, leaving the camera on and your reactions visible to others.

Read the study by Niina Nurmi and the Institute of Occupational Health, which found that overload and boredom cause drowsiness in remote meetings link

Virtual meetings tire people because we're doing them wrong

Drowsiness during virtual meetings results from lack of stimulation, not mental overload

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Niina Nurmi, photo by Mikko Raskinen.

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