Remote work is hard. Is your face well lit? Can your boss hear your kids? What if your partner walks by the camera? Whether you love working from home or can’t wait to go back to the office, video calls have become an integral part of today’s work culture, bringing challenges unfamiliar to the physical workplace. If the flurry of viral Zoom fails in 2020 taught us anything, it’s that digital workplaces have a long way to go towards replicating the intuitive ease of in-person meetings. You’ve gotten so used to comporting yourself in physical space that transitioning to a Very Online work style can be a technical and emotional minefield. Not only do you have to adjust to a whole new format of productivity, you have to learn how to look good doing it.
The fact is, presentation matters. A poorly staged video call can distract from your message, no matter how strong it may be. Even if you’re wildly charismatic in person, that charisma might not carry over a shoddy wifi connection, a poor camera angle, or any other of the countless ways your call can go haywire. You could have the idea that saves your employer from bankruptcy, and it could all be lost in a scrambled connection.
On the flip side, a well-prepared Zoom call can carry all the benefits of meatspace with the added conveniences of screen-sharing, real-time chat, and seamless integration with countless different customer resource managers (CRMs). It takes work and careful planning to look your best on Zoom, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. These six tips should get the ball rolling on your journey to video conference par excellence.
Know When You’re On
How many times have you heard your own dog barking in your video call only to realize your mic was on the whole time? The simplest things are sometimes the easiest to overlook. Turning off your mic is a good place to start.
How to mute your audio
In the bottom left corner of your screen is a button with a microphone icon and the word “mute.” If you find that ambient noise from your surroundings is making its way into your video call, the best move is to click the mute button so that it displays a red line through it. This switch will be accompanied by a small popup box that reads “Mute My Audio” plus whatever keyboard shortcut your operating system uses (Alt + A on Windows/Linux, Command + Shift + A on Mac). When you see that red line, your audio will be off, lowering the chance of unwanted distractions from your environment. To unmute yourself, simply click the icon again, or until the red line disappears.
A neat little trick
Once you master the basics of muting and unmuting yourself, constantly switching back and forth can start to feel pretty tedious, especially in smaller groups where the speaker tends to change more quickly. Luckily Zoom anticipated this issue and added the space bar feature. Basically, if you keep your audio on mute, pressing the spacebar will temporarily unmute your microphone. This feature is especially convenient if you only want to chime in for a quick second, as you don’t have to spend valuable wrist energy moving your hand to and from your mouse or changing your fingers’ position on the keyboard. This is my favorite Zoom feature, as I would be at high risk of carpal tunnel if it didn’t exist. I’d like to personally thank the developers at Zoom for saving me thousands of bottles of Bengay per week.
Turn off your video
While less often used, it is important to know when your video feed is on. While this feature is more intuitive than toggling your audio on and off, it is worth going over if only to save you the embarrassment of anything unexpected making its way into your video feed or, god forbid, accidentally “pulling a Jefferey Toobin”.
To know when your video is on, ask yourself: “Can I see myself on screen?” No, not your reflection in the glare, silly! I’m talking about the pixel data sourced from your webcam. If you notice any trace of your image within the Zoom app, chances are 100% that everyone else on the call can see you.
If you’d like to avoid a webcam fail at all costs, the best solution is to turn your video off entirely. Luckily, there’s a button for that! Just navigate to the bottom left corner of the screen, and you’ll see an icon that looks like a camera sitting just to the right of the audio mute button. If you see yourself on screen, click on this button and your video should turn off; you should now see a red line through the camera icon. To turn your video back on, simply click the same button again, and voila! After a brief camera on alert, you should be able to see yourself on screen again.
Pro tip: if you don’t like using the mouse, you can also do the same thing with hotkeys. To toggle the video on and off, simply use Alt + A on Windows, or Command + Shift + A on Mac. Go ahead, save yourself some Bengay.
Optimize Your Setup
Now that we’ve covered the basics of working your camera and microphone, it’s time to talk about some of the subtler ways of improving your Zoom call performance. Turning cameras on and off is for babies, and you’re ready to learn the grown-up techniques! You have attained elementary understanding of digital zen, and it is time to walk fearlessly towards the Tao of Zoom in all its cosmic glory.
The basic question becomes: how do you adapt your IRL presence into the digital realm? What used to be as simple as showing up in a fluorescently lit meeting room has become a more atomized, piecemeal situation where every participant is responsible for their own subsection of a more abstract digital space. Part of our work now requires us to take ownership of our little square on the screen. Here are some ways to make your squares as radiant as possible.
Look directly into the camera
You need to look into the camera. The biggest hazard of Zoom, in my opinion, is that it gives you the option to look at yourself instead of at whoever is talking. As tempting as it can be to obsess over the minutiae of your appearance during a call, that behavior reads on the other end as distracted and disinterested, and not even the best multitasker in the world could evade this basic tenet of human psychology. A good remedy here is to look directly into your webcam as much as possible. It may feel awkward at first, but it goes a long way to simulate the feeling of eye contact, ensuring whoever’s on the other end that you are present and listening. While counterintuitive, deliberately looking into the camera signals strength and attentiveness. This technique alone will take your video calls miles ahead of where they used to be.
Find a good camera position
Another great way to improve your Zoom presence is to position your webcam just at or above eye level. To find the perfect angle, start a new Zoom call and observe yourself on the screen. If the camera’s POV could pass for that of a tall person looking down on you, definitely pull the camera further down. If you find you’ve inverted the tall/short POV, you’ve gone too far. Ideally, looking at yourself on screen should be as close as possible to looking at yourself in the mirror. If you find it difficult to execute these instructions with your current camera setup, it might be time to invest in an external USB webcam, as it provides a more flexible way to move your camera. If your funds are limited or if you’re feeling extra crafty, it is equally effective to stack your laptop on a pile of books.
Find a well-lit space
Good lighting is essential to improving your Zoom status. If your fellow callers can’t adequately see your face, they’ll likely believe you’re plotting their downfall while stroking a fluffy white a cat, even if you’re barely listening and just scrolling Reddit while eating chips. Nobody wants to look evil by accident! The best way around this hazard is to sit facing a light source during your call. If the light is coming from behind you, it will overpower everything in the camera’s view and render you a mere silhouette. However, if the light is in front of you (i.e. behind the camera), it will reflect off of your face and make you appear generally brighter and happier. While natural light is ideal, a ring light can do wonders to improve your call. Either way, good lighting can add a benevolent aura to your Zoom presence and generally improve morale for everybody, including yourself.
Communicate with the people around you
Even if you’ve absorbed and mastered every Zoom tip on the internet, the integrity of your Zoom call can still be thrown off by the unexpected entrance of a friend or family member. While this can be annoying, it’s important to think about the issue from their perspective. Your spouse, child, or roommate likely has no idea you’re in a meeting and is simply going about their business as usual. Sure, it can be tempting to see it as a potential source of conflict, but at the end of the day, we’ll all be better off if you communicate your needs. Luckily, there are several ways to do this.
Designate specific times
The most obvious, straightforward way to share living space in a work-from-home context is to simply designate specific times during which you will be busy. If you make sure your cohabitors know that you will be busy, say, between 10:00 am and 12:00 pm Monday through Friday, they will most likely avoid interrupting you during those hours. If plans change, simply communicate that to them in advance. If you’re living with others who also work from home, it’s important to reciprocate their effort to avoid interrupting valuable work hours. Work free from distraction is such a scarce commodity to begin with that we owe it to ourselves to create a harmonious environment where everybody has access to uninterrupted time.
Create a group schedule
To further help us create a home amenable to productivity, it can be useful to keep everybody in the house up to date on the same calendar. While you can accomplish this with something as simply as a physical, paper calendar, I’d highly recommend trying a more robust digital calendar from Google, Microsoft, or Apple. These tools allow you to schedule times in bulk, so you don’t have to write out monthly, weekly, or daily work hours by hand. Think of how much time that’ll save! Better yet, these programs let you schedule reminders for all of your cohabitors about any changes to the calendar, so that everybody can stay up to date.
Group texts are another option
Even with the many good reasons to use digital calendars, they come with a bureaucratic precision that you may want to keep separate from your home life. If that is the case, you’re probably better off starting a group text. While group chats have inherently fewer robust features than Google calendar, for instance, they can be all you need to coordinate and schedule work spaces between housemates.
Consider On Air Warning
In the words of John Lennon, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” We all know how easily and frequently life throws us curveballs. No matter how thoroughly you plan out your day, something always comes up. Online calendars and group texts can help, but they can’t really anticipate the countless different ways our daily schedule can change on a dime. That’s why products like On Air Warning exist. A microphone busy light, a camera busy light, and an overall Zoom status indicator, On Air Warning comes equipped with three LED icons finely tuned to turn on and off in tandem with your microphone, webcam, and Zoom meeting status. Built to clip onto the top of any computer screen, this USB busy light helps broadcast to the people around you the status of your Zoom meeting, letting them know (without interruption) whether or not it’s safe to walk past the camera or speak up. I’ve found this device to be an excellent remedy for work-from-home territory disputes, and it has made me more productive at my job.
To infinity and beyond
At the end of the day, we’ve barely scratched the surface of how your Zoom calls could improve. We haven’t even mentioned the countless CRM integrations, chatbot features, and other forms of automation available through the Zoom API. Because life isn’t just about avoiding Zoom Fails; it’s about attaining Zoom Excellence.