Seven ways to make your Zoom calls more human

[Originally published on Names & Faces.]

Like much of the world we’re working from our homes. Names & Faces was a distributed team with feet on the ground in Cape Town, San Francisco, and London. Now, we’re fully remote.

Zoom was already an important tool for our team but has really come to the fore over the past few weeks. Is it the same as roaming around an office?


Zoom is great – everyone wishes they had shares – but it can be a surprisingly treacherous way to communicate when topics are hot, the pressure is on, or people have not learnt how to listen patiently before chiming in. 

What do we miss when we communicate online?

It’s not just your imagination: there is something lost, or at least harder to recreate, when we communicate online. 

Susan Pinker explains that some of the key signals that impact the level of trust between partners, group cohesion, confidence, and productivity are not as readily conveyed online:

  1. Mimicry and synchrony 
  2. Activity level
  3. Influence
  4. Consistency

There’s more about this in the video below which is well worth a watch.

So, what should we do?

The good news: communicating well online just takes a little more thoughtfulness. Simply being mindful is the first step. 

At Names & Faces, we’ve found that little things, like staying unmuted on group calls, make a big difference.

Here are seven things that we’ve found make Zoom calls more human:

1. Go visual 

As a rule, we keep video on for Zoom calls. It’s the closest you’ll get to re-creating a boardroom or meeting environment. Anyone who has been part of even a couple of video calls can attest to the difference it makes – especially if you don’t know people well. 

Sure, it can be a little nerve-wracking joining a call when you have no idea who you are about to talk to – but a quick smile and some eye contact goes a long way to quickly establishing rapport. 

If you are meeting someone for the first time, a quick Linkedin search to get a visual helps. For times where you will not switch on your video, upload a photo to your Zoom profile.

2. Get the very best signal you can

Bad connections are annoying. They also interrupt the types of signals we rely on to interpret tone and other more subtle visual cues.

Sometimes signal is unavoidably bad. In that case, turn off video to give your conversation a fighting chance to flow.

With many people working from home and forced to do business on home lines it might be worth chatting to your employer about a stipend for data. 

3. Lighten up

“Going from good to great lighting while on a Zoom or other video call is made easier with some conscious furniture moves,” says John Maeda, Chief Experience Officer at Publicis Sapient.

Lighting on video calls is important because if it’s dark it’s harder to make out facial expressions which help people interpret what you’re saying or your response to what they’re sharing. If you have a window behind you, for example, you can end up looking very shady.

“If possible, make sure your face is nicely visible in the video,” suggests Names & Faces CTO, Ross Kuyper. “A silhouetted profile takes away greatly from the effect of having video enabled.”

Good lighting sources according to John Maeda

4. Only mute if you must

Prior to Names & Faces, I worked at Automattic for nearly five years which is a fully remote company of close to a thousand. We’d have hundreds of people in our monthly townhalls.

In those cases, everyone was auto-muted and rightly so. But as a rule, we think it’s better not to mute and CEO of Automattic Matt Mullenweg agrees:

“One heterodox recommendation I have for audio and video calls when you’re working in a distributed fashion is not to mute, if you can help it. When you’re speaking to a muted room, it’s eerie and unnatural — you feel alone even if you can see other people’s faces. You lose all of those spontaneous reactions that keep a conversation flowing.”

Matt’s tip: get a better headset.

5. Run your meetings well

Zoom meetings remain like real-life meetings in a few keys ways, including that running them badly wastes time.

A few things that work for us:

  1. Set a clear agenda and share this in advance.
  2. Include the Zoom link in the meeting invite – with a password, if needed.
  3. Pick someone to take notes and share them afterwards, including follow-up actions.

It’s important to be mindful of timezones and take into consideration, capture, and convey decisions made on calls to those who aren’t there.

A plus with Zoom is that you can easily record a meeting if it’s something non-attendees will benefit from. It’s weirdly easy to forget to do this.

6. Don’t tab out 

When someone is talking it is tempting to open Slack, open news sites, check your phone, and do the full range of things one can whilst feigning participation.

Ideally, don’t do this. Again the cues: it’s easy for someone to pick up, even if it’s subconsciously, that you are tabbing out and not listening. Eye contact, body language, and resisting the urge to secretly multi-task are a wonderful way of paying homage and respect to your coworkers.

7. Invest time in an ‘icebreaker’

The word icebreaker makes this blog post feel like it belongs in the 90s. But I’ve found over the past couple of weeks that the force of an icebreaker remains strong. 

During our strategy and planning meetings, our Product Manager Simeon has taken to running an ice breaker. So far we’ve done our ‘Best buy of 2020’ and taken five minutes to work as a team to decipher some emoji sayings.

In our midweek townhalls, we each share a ‘highlight of the week’ – sometimes splitting up into breakout rooms for a change but often staying together for this bit. There is something powerful about giving everyone share-of-voice at the start of a call.

Is this good use of our time? Is it important to share that I learnt how to make sourdough, Michelle got a leash for her cat, Rou finally got his coffee delivery, someone’s pineapple beer is nearly ready for tasting, and Claudia is enjoying her walks on the mountain?

We think so. 

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