How many of you have fulfilled the dream of working at home? You’re not alone. More than half of all small businesses in the United States are home-based, with numbers climbing even higher since last reported by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Small Business Administration in 2011. With so many professionals working from home (entrepreneurs and telecommuting employees), it is no wonder that video conferencing has also spiked in substitution for in-person meetings even regular telephone conference calls. But with such frequency, are we really giving thought to the non-technical aspects of our internet-based meetings?
Inviting someone to join you in a video conference call is the same as hosting that person in your office. For example, would you feel comfortable greeting him or her and escorting them to your sloppy office? Would you bring your dog or your toddler to the meeting? Would you attend a meeting in your favorite Sponge Bob pajamas in “the real world”? Of course not! But these and other video chat faux pas do reportedly occur.
We must remember to always be mindful of maintaining a positive (and consistent) professional image, which is why the subject of video conferencing etiquette must also be considered, especially for those who are home-based business owners or employees. Here are a few etiquette guidelines that will help keep business video chats professional:
Be considerate and use meeting protocols. Never initiate a video call unannounced. Send a meeting request or invite and agenda ahead of time as appropriate. Always send a message via the chat feature just before calling to be sure the other party is ready. Allow time for introductions when multiple parties are involved. Follow up the call with any meeting notes and supporting documents within 24 hours or within the agreed upon timeframe.
Be organized and ready. You should be ready for a video call just as you would an in-person meeting. Have all needed materials in front of you either in hard copies or already open on your computer screen. It would be bad for you to have to get up and leave a conference room to retrieve relevant documents. The same applies here; have everything in front of you or close at hand. And just in case you have to share your screen, be sure to close out (not minimize) anything personal open on your computer. It may be quite embarrassing for a client or colleague to see a tab for “breast enhancement” or “bankruptcy filing” at the bottom of your screen. Yikes!
Paint a pretty picture. Take a look at your surroundings and clean up the area within camera view before the video call. It is perfectly acceptable to have simple decorative touches in view but avoid overcrowding with knickknacks. If a bookshelf can be seen behind you, remove any provocative titles from view.
Use proper lighting. Make sure to set everything up and test your lighting a few minutes before the call. Raise your camera if necessary so that unflattering shadows do not fall on your face as this can make you look shady (pun intended). A pleasant, well-lit room keeps the attention of your audience and helps with your own energy level. It’s also a good idea to do a sound check at the beginning of your call. Ask participants if the sound level is comfortable. A volume that is too low or too loud can be annoying and distracting to the other party.
Keep the noise down. Microphones tend to pick up everything so even if your door is closed there is still a chance that your video audience may be able to hear the neighbor’s grass cutting, your dog barking, the kids playing or other loud distractions. When possible, move yourself – or them- to another part of the house prior to the call or schedule your call when it is more likely to be quiet in your surroundings.
Get dressed for work. It is tempting to just through on a ‘decent’ shirt. But at the very least, you should dress like an anchorman. Though you don’t need to don a full suit for a video chat, you should be dressed in appropriate business attire from the waist up (like anchormen and women) where the camera can see you. But a word of caution; you may need to get up from your chair during the call so change out of those flannel pajama bottoms just in case! And put on a little extra makeup (particularly eyes and lips) as certain webcams and lighting have a tendency to make you look washed out.
Give your audience full disclosure. Be sure to let your video chat partner(s) know if you have someone else in the room off camera or if you plan to record the session. Be aware that there a federal and state laws that may prohibit or limit your ability to record without your party’s knowledge.
Look into the camera. It is natural to look at the person on your computer screen; however, when you are the one speaking you should look into the eye of the camera as much as possible so that it appears to the other party that you are giving good eye contact. This is another reason why the camera should be properly elevated. Also consider your proper distance from the camera.
Give your undivided attention. Keep multi-tasking to a minimum. Avoid the temptation of doing other things, especially on your computer. It can be quite obvious to hear (and see) when you are typing or clicking on other things on your screen. Unless related to the call (e.g. searching the web for information or pulling up a file to share), avoid unrelated computer or other activities.
Mind your body language. Again, posture is important. Facial expressions are also very evident during video chats. Don’t show skepticism, annoyance or disagreement by covering part of your face, peering over glasses, smirking, or sighing. Keep hand movements to a minimum within camera view.
Remember basic manners. Offer a proper greeting and a bit of small talk before launching into business. Pause after someone makes a point so as not to talk over him or her. Say goodbye before hanging up. And remember to say please and thank you as appropriate.
At no point should we take our business processes and activities for granted. Give careful thought to everything you do, considering whether it will help you put your best foot forward or potentially compromise your professional image. As you have seen here, this includes the (now) common occurrence of video conferencing.
Michelle Powell is a business etiquette consultant, speaker and coach with special interest in developing young professionals. She is CEO of Professional Manner, a professional development consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Connect with her through Twitter (@ProManner) https://twitter.com/promanner or find more information on her etiquette seminars and training at www.professionalmanner.com