Updated: May 25, 2021
As a professional facilitator for virtual workshops and remote team work, I very often encourage my clients and workshop participants to turn off their camera during our live sessions. Video conferencing without video? Yes, exactly. But why would I do this as the facilitator? Should I not be happy to see the participants faces, to better read their emotions and have a better feeling for what is going on in the group?
Gallery view during one of my 'video' conferences. Looks boring, doesn't it? Which is why I don't even bother using it and click it away whenever possible. Instead, I focus my eyes on the virtual whiteboards (see the picture further below) where the participants work in real time - and where the magic happens.
Two main benefits led me to the practice of neglecting video feeds:
Higher participants' satisfaction
'Sorry, my internet connection is just so slow today.'
During the recent months, I experienced my participants being more and more reluctant to turn on their video feed, bringing up a variety of good excuses for not showing themselves. For me, a clear indicator of the infamous 'zoom fatigue'. Sometimes, I can actually sense, how tired they are. And that is, because video conferencing can put ourselves in a quite unnatural situation. For instance:
Gallery view, which can be a very stressing overall experience: 5, 15 or 25 people in front of us, presumably looking at every move we make. It feels as if we were sitting in front of a large committee or as if being in a job interview. And a natural eye contact is hardly possible - we never know to whom a person is actually looking in a given moment and for whom a particular reaction was really meant. Bottom line: We are very exposed and get too little in return.
Privacy can never be guaranteed: People can pin or highlight our camera feed in their conferencing tool and watch us from very close. Our face filling a 32" screen. Or somebody can secretly screen record the session - and we would not even notice it. Again, we feel (and we are) very exposed.
Seeing ourselves permanently also adds to the stress: Many people do not feel comfortable with 'looking into the mirror' all day long. What can be an important monitoring tool for a virtual facilitator (just as musicians monitor their sound on stage while performing) seems to be a nuisance for the vast majority of conference participants.
Some of my clients are in video calls 5 or 7 hours a day. What seems bearable for a short time span becomes a seemingly never ending, extremely demanding experience for them. On top of it comes the stress and the general fatigue we experience during the pandemic: Some people might have lost a relative or are worried for the health of a family member. They might worry about job loss or financial difficulties. They might experience loneliness or - on the contrary - feel exhausted by having their whole family around 24/7, caring for small children or home-schooling their kids while working in parallel.
'You may turn off your camera now!'
The moment I tell participants that they are free to turn their camera on and off at the time of their choosing - or leave it turned off during the entire session - I can regularly sense relief or even happiness in their reactions. And this usually leads to more openness to invest themselves into the meeting or workshop. Because the price for actively participating just drastically decreased. Which brings us to the second benefit.
You walk around in your room, watering your plants - and follow the voice chat.
Back when I was a kid, I remember having really good conversations with my parents while we were washing and drying dishes or did similar work in the household. Later, I discovered for myself that taking a long walk with other people often resulted in excellent exchanges. In my professional career it were then coaching sessions that gave me a similar experience. What all of these moments have in common? My counterpart and I did not look at one another while talking. We were looking at everything but ourselves. Feeling each other's presence, but not staring at one another. This made it so much easier, so much more relaxed to get to difficult or sensitive subjects.
In virtual workshops or meetings it is basically the same: Instead of being pinned down in front of your screen, overwhelmed by a wall of faces staring at you, you lean back, put your feet on the table, look at the ceiling or you walk around in your room, watering your plants - and follow the voice chat.
For most people I have worked with, this is a liberating feeling. Especially in longer sessions. It makes things so much more relaxed, consumes less energy and ultimately boosts productivity. Sometimes creativity as well.
'What if they are writing emails or shop online?'
If, as a team leader (or facilitator), you are worried about loosing control of what your participants are doing while their cameras are turned off, the following (or similar) questions might be interesting:
Is the meeting objective clear to everyone / Do they know why they are here?
Who actually needs to participate in the meeting?
Is the meeting time and duration adequate?
Is the meeting participative and interactive enough?
Is there an overload of work or dissatisfaction among your co-workers?
Regarding the first 4 questions, it is rather simple to act accordingly. If the answer to the last question is 'yes', then the problem lies somewhere else, is not only connected to the meeting itself and deserves the urgent attention of the team leader(s).
Instead of a detailed netiquette, I tell my participants that I trust their own judgement if or how much multi-tasking during the workshop is helpful for themselves as well as for the other participants.
No video and no visual at all?
Yes, I do use video feeds in virtual workshops. For instance in the beginning - just to get to know each other a little and connect the faces to the voices. Also, after breaks for an energiser or for substantial inputs or presentations. But give or take, 95 % of the meeting or workshop time, participants can keep their cameras off. And, more importantly, I always use visual support such as interactive, virtual whiteboards to track ideas, document the work process, draw up schemes, etc.
This is what a (mini) virtual board can look like. Participants can access and manipulate it in real time. Everything gets instantly synchronised. With a bit of creativity, the possibilities of using such a tool are nearly endless. Whiteboard brands I regularly use are Miro, Mural and Conceptboard.
For some use cases, video is essential or a real added value. My message would be to be conscious about the effects which turning on or off the camera has on participants and take an informed decision.
This being said, there are - of course - lots of other things you can do to improve your remote meeting or workshop experience.
Working with Martin & /Virtilitation: