Zoom meeting etiquette: tips from the KnowledgeOwl team

Catherine Heath | May 7, 2020

You’ve probably heard about the rise of Zoom, and might be interested in how we can surf the wave to get the most out of Zoom meetings. Many people are also using Zoom for social events. For example, people are yoga-ing on Zoom. People are dating on Zoom. People are dancing on Zoom. People are breaking up on Zoom. 

People are also still using Zoom for work, and this is the main topic we want to discuss today. What kind of etiquette should you use when attending Zoom meetings with your coworkers? Is there even a consensus at all? It’s a hot topic, so read on!

We have contributions from our Head Product & Documentation Owl and Resident Cheese Monger Kate Mueller, Head Professional Services Owl and Resident Sorcerer Stephen Zappia, Community Builder and Illustrator Catherine, and Knowledge Goddess and Chief Executive Owl Marybeth Alexander. 

What is Zoom?

Contrary to what you might think, Zoom has nothing whatsoever to do with transport. We think it might become a verb soon, just like “googling”. People will be asking: “Do you want to Zoom with me later?” Well, because that just sounds fun. 

In reality, Zoom is video conferencing software. It’s a useful tool for scheduling remote meetings, and we have long used it regularly at KnowledgeOwl. We are a remote-first company, and it’s the main way we connect – apart from Slack. Even though we use Zoom for meetings, we try to limit the number of meetings we have in general, which means everyone can be more productive. 

Zoom is a bit like Skype, or Microsoft Teams. What marks Zoom out from the herd is the ability to host “meetings” in your own personal meeting room, and control who can access the meeting. You can schedule meetings by sending particular links or codes. You can set up recurring meetings. Zoom also has some other fun settings you can play with, such as the virtual background, if your computer has enough processing power. 

Zoom virtual background

Zoom has surpassed 300 million daily active users (DAU) since 24 May 2020, up from 10 million at the close of 2019 – an increase of 3,000%. So many teams have gone remote, and Zoom is the perfect solution. People are also using it to socialize with friends and family, and host online classes and conferences. While this might seem like every software startup’s dream, these unintended use cases have caused a tide of complaints and headaches for Zoom. 

Outside of Venture Capital land, many people are starting to complain about Zoom Fatigue. According to this article by National Geographic which has been shared widely, “For some people, the prolonged split in attention creates a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing. The brain becomes overwhelmed by unfamiliar excess stimuli while being hyper-focused on searching for non-verbal cues that it can’t find.” 

On the other hand, according to the same article, Zoom has been a boon for people with autism who find social interaction much easier over video. So there’s a silver lining in every cloud!

Now, let’s get on to the Zoom tips.

How to survive Zooming

First and foremost, consider whether you need to use Zoom at all. Everyone might be Zooming, but you don’t have to.

Kate says, “First, does it need to be a meeting at all. Second, does it need to have video. We use video for our touch-base meetings and game nights but basically no other meetings, because those are more social and for team rapport. We don't use video for backlog review.

“I also try to treat them like in-person meetings in terms of etiquette. I silence my phone, I don't multitask, and I stay focused.”

It’s not uncommon for people to dislike meetings. Some of us feel lonely and jump at the chance for human connection, but other people consider them a distraction at best. Everyone is different, so be mindful that too many meetings are likely to be a problem. Think about your goals and whether you need Zoom.

1. To video, or not to video?

On Zoom, you have the option to either use your webcam or just attend through audio. Essentially, you can treat Zoom like a regular phone call. 

Catherine says, “Some people love video, some people hate it, and some people probably don’t care. Think about whether you actually need to use the video, since some people concentrate better without it. I personally much prefer video because I can see everyone’s face and how they’re feeling. I like to be able to address people individually, instead of talking randomly into the ether. And it’s also fun to see inside people’s homes. Maybe that’s just me!”

Remember that some people have a lot more meetings than you do. Video is not as necessary for them, and they might also concentrate better without it. 

Marybeth says, “I would like to emphasize some things Stephen and Kate said. Namely, think if video is really needed and, if not, take advantage of the fact that people can't see you. Like Kate will walk around to keep focus.”

Catherine says, “Since I often engage with people outside the company who may not know me well, or at all, using the video is quite beneficial because they also have the visual cues. Video is better for clear communication than phone calls, and I also usually talk to just one person at a time. So I probably use video a lot more often than everyone else.”

Maintain strong boundaries with your Zoom meetings, and don’t feel you have to go to everything. As several team members have said, you may prefer to keep the video off and walk around during meetings. Some of our team routinely keep their video off, and this is just fine! 

2. When Zoom gets you down

Meetings are so often an excuse not to get any work done. This problem can be exacerbated by Zoom. 

Kate says, “I should also say: y'all probably don't know this, but I actually tend to loathe meetings and used to have some attitude problems during them (or...shall we say, trouble controlling my facial expressions), so I have had to make a careful study over time of what helps me be the most pleasant version of myself in meetings. 

“I pretty much always snack before a meeting, and I always make a cup of tea to sip during the meeting. A huge part of why I have a standing desk is so that I can stand and shift my weight around and do stretches during meetings, because I tend to get antsy and unfocused if I don't. All of those small changes help me be a much more delightful person to have a meeting with, and I can focus a lot better and make it a more productive meeting, too.”

Sharing a hot drink – coffee, tea, or other drink of your choice – can also be a nice way to bond during the meeting. Or simply a good way to keep yourself awake. 

3. A journey starts with a single step

Kate says, “When I am not leading a meeting and there is no video or screensharing (which is quite rare for me at KO but has been the case in other places), I would wander around, which also helped me keep my focus. Especially if it's a brainstorming meeting, I brainstorm best in front of a whiteboard, so I actually have a couple whiteboards at home and I'll use these during meetings to help me visualize what's being discussed.”

Think about how you work best, and set up your workspace so you can be the most productive during Zoom meetings. 

Marybeth says, “I think one of the reasons people dislike meetings is the feeling of wasting time. I use meetings as a time to get my steps/exercise in, do chores around the house/yard, etc. Especially if it's one of those meetings that really didn't have to be a meeting and I really don't have to be there.”

When you’re the CEO of a company, you probably have a lot more meetings than everyone else. It’s your prerogative to make sure you are using your time wisely. 

Marybeth continues, “If I'm more actively involved, I don't multitask but I do wander around. It's much easier for me to concentrate on what people are saying when I'm moving around and not looking at faces. Even when other people are sharing video, I often don't look or minimize it so I don't get distracted by them, their facial expressions, their surroundings, etc. It's much easier for me to concentrate when I can focus on their words.”

4. Consider whether you need to record

Stephen says, “ Recording the call is very useful for writing minutes and capturing actions, but ensure everyone knows the call is being recorded.” The “record” function on Zoom is excellent for people who want to review the meeting at a later date, or for people who couldn’t make the meeting slot in the first place. But you need permission to record.

Stephen continues, “Treat a Zoom meeting like a regular face-to-face meeting - it would be impolite to start playing on your phone or type an email while someone’s talking in a meeting room, so avoid doing it on Zoom.”

There we have it! Adapt yourself to Zoom as a platform, but also remember you are in a meeting and not just at home by yourself. Do what you need to do, but also be respectful of the other participants and their needs. 

5. Think about the visual environment

When you do use video, you need to think about the setup a little bit – just as if you were the costume and prop director for a movie. Your coworkers are your (willing) audience, and things will go a lot more smoothly if you give the right impression.

Kate says, “I also always try to give a look at the surroundings behind me, since my desk is now in my bedroom--I have done some last-minute cleaning before some of our calls.”

Catherine says, “I read this on Seth Godin’s blog post about Zoom, but he said you should think about lighting (ie make sure there is no bright light behind you, so people can see your face properly) and also try to ensure your face fills the screen. I think this helps other people read your emotions and figure out when it is their turn to talk. I also raise my laptop on a pile of books so it is right in front of my face and I don’t have to look down. Basically set it up like you would for a photo shoot!”

As Kate has explained so well, the type of meeting where you need to use video is likely to be one more focused on building rapport. If you’re conducting a prioritization meeting which has the potential to get tedious, keeping the camera off and firing through the list is a much better way to keep folks engaged and respect their time. 

6. The untapped power of muting yourself

There’s a pet peeve that many of us have on Zoom, and that’s when someone’s microphone picks up unintended background noise. It distracts from the speaker, and sometimes hearing you chew is more than your coworkers are willing to endure.

We have a tip from our guest blogger and consultant tech writer Deborah Barnard: “For the love of god, mute yourself!”

Kate also has a lot to say on the topic of muting. “General Zoom etiquette--if you're not going to be talking, or if you're eating or drinking or there's static, get familiar with muting and unmuting. We've all had the moments where we muted ourselves and forgot about it, but I think that's far more forgivable than having the noise of me making a cup of tea (cupboards, spoon clinking, running water) in the background while other folks are talking. 

“When I got food poisoning, I actually muted and vomited during a video meeting, and then came back and continued. Definitely one of those moments where I was happy I knew how to mute properly. (I actually mute both in Zoom and on my headset for situations like that, just in case somehow one fails).”

Hopefully you won’t get food poisoning, but if anything unexpected does happen, make use of the mute button. You can also turn off your video if it’s on. 

Marybeth says, “Remember that noise cancelling headphones cancel noise for you, not the people you are talking to. The mute button is your friend, like people said.”

Most people understand that situations are a little difficult right now, and if there’s a baby screaming in the background or other family members running around, you can just make a joke out of it and move on. Remember that your noise-cancelling headphones only cancel noise for you and not for anyone else on the call! That’s also a tip from our newest team member, Sorin Pantis. 

Stephen says, “When on a group call, mute yourself if you’re not talking, or won’t be for a while, especially if there is background noise or static from your mic. Space to unmute is particularly useful, but only practical if you’re not doing anything else on your computer, as Zoom needs focus for that to work. Alternatively, Command Shift A (on a Mac) toggles your mute on and off, and can be made a global shortcut in Zoom settings.”

7. Play with your Zoom settings

Stephen continues, “Speaking of Zoom settings, check them out! There are heaps of handy little tools in there, for both the host and the attendee. Your Zoom account online has even more useful settings!”

Have a play around with the Zoom settings when not in a meeting so you can set yourself up for success ahead of time. Technical difficulties can be stressful while actually using Zoom with your coworkers.

Marybeth says, “Many people make fun of the common things people say in Zoom meetings (like can you hear me okay? can you see my screen?). I think those are good tools to make sure that people who otherwise might not speak up will let you know if there's an issue.

“Also it's okay to have technical difficulties during meetings. It's one of those common bonding experiences and nothing to be embarrassed about. Don't stress, but if you know you often have trouble connecting to audio or haven't used a tool before, make a point to get there early so you aren't the one holding up the group.”

Technical difficulties can be averted by setting up beforehand, and if your broadband is struggling you can try closing all other applications that might be using your connection. If necessary, ask your family members or housemates not to download anything while you’re Zooming!

Quickfire Zoom tips

  • Keep your meeting short, don’t make it longer than it needs to be, and decide whether it needs to happen at all.
  • If people are new to your team, make sure you invite them to speak and feel welcome.
  • It can be really fun to change your virtual background on Zoom, especially if you haven’t had a chance to tidy up before a video call!
  • Consider a standing desk, or walking around during your Zoom call.
  • Remember to mute! And noise-cancelling headphones don’t work on other people.
  • Think about the lighting and position of your screen so the meeting is more comfortable.
  • Visit the bathroom, arrange a snack, and brew tea before your meetings.

And there we have it! You will only have enjoyable and productive Zoom meetings from now on. Zoom is not going away soon, but you have the power to make the most out of this growing trend. 

About the author
Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

Catherine is the Community Builder for KnowledgeOwl. She is also a freelance writer based in Manchester. She writes blogs, social media, copy, and designs owl-based images. 

You can find out more about Catherine on her personal websites Away With Words and Catherine Heath Studios.

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