2020 changed work—possibly forever. Millions of people started working remotely for the first time, and they learned it's not quite the same as working in an office. I've worked remotely since 2009, and I've spent a lot of that time thinking about the etiquette of remote meetings, answering questions like when you should mute during a video call.
But as people start transitioning back into the office, I hope they'll take some of the lessons they learned from online meetings to improve the in-person ones. Here are four video meeting rules that I think should follow us back to the office.
1. Say "go ahead" when you overlap with someone
Have you ever tried singing with someone over Zoom? Me neither, but regardless, it's not really possible. The problem is lag.
Lag, the gap between when you start talking and when everyone else can hear you, is somewhat inevitable in video calls. The result: people talk over each other without meaning to. I've noticed a pattern—an improvised etiquette—that's evolved in response to lag in meetings. It goes like this:
Two or more people start talking at the same time.
After a second, they both notice this is happening and stop talking.
One or both people say "go ahead" to the other.
One person goes ahead and makes their point.
This person, when done, asks the other person what they wanted to say.
It's such a small thing, but I've seen it happen organically in several different contexts: work, church, Zoom happy hours. There are variations. Sometimes it's another person entirely who follows up to make sure everyone gets a turn, for example. Still, the pattern is fairly consistent, and it works pretty well.
And the best part is that many of the people doing this aren't even aware of what "lag" is. They're just responding to the limitations of the tech in a way that feels natural. There's no lag in real life, of course, but I think this habit should stick around regardless. At least, the intention behind it should stick around.
In my experience, people don't really work to follow up on missed points during in-person meetings, and when two people start talking at the same time, one person gets to keep talking—the other doesn't. Going out of your way to let other people speak is a good thing, and so is following up to make sure everyone's been heard.
2. Schedule time for socializing
There's an awkward gap at the beginning of every video meeting. You know what I'm talking about: those couple of minutes where everyone is trying to log in and/or figure out why their microphone isn't working. This is why, at Zapier, we generally don't formally "start" meetings until a few minutes after the scheduled time. This creates an improvised time for socializing, which makes video meetings more fun.
Some teams go further. Our content marketing team schedules an optional water cooler conversation after monthly meetings so that we can all catch up. I've seen similar formats evolve in other organizations, and like waving at the end of video calls, a few minutes of scheduled socializing is a good way to fit a little bit of humanity into a virtual work environment that can be alienating.
But you know what? Offices can also be alienating and could also use some humanity. Most in-person meetings start with informal conversation, but intentionally allowing space for this will still be important as people get used to seeing each other again. People should be encouraged to show up a few minutes early for a meeting, maybe, or there could be time for conversation on the agenda. We've all spent the past year or so learning how hard it is to feel cut off from each other, and I hope that changes how we interact in person.
Take a few minutes to see how people are doing—it's worth it.
Learn how to make small talk while working remotely (without being weird).
3. Accept multitasking
One of my favorite parts of remote work is the ability to multitask during meetings I'm only marginally involved in. I'll admit I use Slack's schedule feature to hide the fact that I'm working while listening to presentations that don't impact my day-to-day workflow.
The reality is that most meetings don't require my full attention. That's why I often have a meeting on in the background while I work on something else. Sometimes I'll start working during a presentation and realize that it's relevant or interesting to me—and that's when I start paying full attention. That only happens because I have the option of multitasking.
I think companies should try to keep some version of this alive in the office. Maybe workers in the office should have the option to call in to auditoriums and conference rooms, or maybe we should just normalize people who aren't core to a conversation working on their laptops during meetings. There's a benefit to this sort of multitasking—it can keep people engaged without completely bogging down their calendar.
Of course, this takes trust. Managers need to believe that their employees are working on something relevant, not browsing Facebook, and to trust that their employees are capable of knowing when they need to pay attention. That kind of trust is important in a remote context—it's the only way the system can work. Companies heading back to the office would benefit from continuing to trust their employees like they do when everyone's remote.
4. Maybe just have fewer meetings
Remote companies tend to have fewer meetings. Or, at the very least, remote companies tend to think about whether they need to have so many meetings.
This is a skill that takes time to develop—learning how to work asynchronously and which things you shouldn't use meetings for are key to making the whole remote thing work. For example: one team here at Zapier replaced their daily standup meeting with an automated Slack thread. This accomplishes the same thing a meeting would—prompting reflection and keeping everyone informed—in much less time.
Meetings can eat up a lot of time, and it's worth considering whether that time is well invested—or if you could accomplish the same thing without a meeting. That's as true in the office as it is over video chat, and I hope we all think in those terms going forward.