Unwritten Rules of Virtual Team Meetings (That no one ever really follows)

We’ve come a long way from tribal living.

We no longer talk to faces around nightly campfires.

Today we listen to voices piped into our ears while sitting in air conditioned rooms with fluorescent lights.

As much as technology has changed, we’re still pretty limited.

We love to see faces

We hate to admit it, but human beings still love to see other people’s faces when we talk to them.  The stakes back then were high: they were probably sitting around a campfire planning tomorrow’s hunt. They didn’t need laser pointers and animated slides to keep people’s attention. The hunt was tomorrow’s meal, so they could probably assume everyone was focused.

Global teams need a few unwritten rules

Nowadays, teams are spread out across the globe, connected only by phone lines and networks.  We don’t see everyone’s face, we can only hear their voices. The connection our ancestors could rely on: seeing faces looking back at them over the fire is long gone. It’s arguable whether we can ever regain that kind of connection by meeting in virtual spaces, but we can avoid making things worse by following some unwritten rules about virtual meetings.

  1. Don’t multi-task
    Now, look I know this is a wasted point.  No one will ever stop multi-tasking.  We’re all required to work on too many projects with overlapping deadlines all at the same time. That’s another post and another windmill to tilt at. This is not that post. What I want to point out is that when we multi-task, we are missing information.When you multi-task, it’s as if you walked into another room and started work on another project.  You can hear people talking, but your focus is on the other project. This is great when your involvement is required for a small part of the plan, but when the entire team needs to identify risks or point out problems with the plan, you’re in the other room, and your expertise is lost to the team.
  2. Don’t type loudly
    How many times have you been in a meeting where you’re trying to listen to the speaker while multi-tasking %) and some thoughtless person has been banging away at their keyboard? It’s bad enough that you’re already distracted, now the slender thread of attention that you do have tethered to the speaker is being tugged on by the “keyboard person”. In the name of all that’s good and peaceful, please mute yourself.
  3. DO go on mute when you are not talking
    I know it’s a drag to remember to hit the button again when you want to add something, but go on mute if you are not speaking! Half of the distractions on teleconferences are are result of this: Echoes, bad connections, background noise, and side conversations. If you have any concern about the team’s goals or the success of the company, GO ON MUTE! Sitting around the campfire, it was easy enough to glare at someone or hit them if they were having a side conversation, but when everyone is virtual it’s impossible to stop someone unless you interrupt everyone and ask the operator to mute them.
  4. Pretend that you’re in the same room with the people you’re on the phone with
    For those of you who didn’t play “pretend” when you were kids, it’s simple.  Close your eyes and imagine they are sitting across from you at a round table. If what you are about to do you could not reasonably do in that kind of meeting, do not do it during the call.  Exceptions might be: driving or personal emergencies.

    I have been on calls where people do the dishes or unbelievably, go to the restroom. There’s nothing like listening to a presentation when you hear the sound of toilet flushing. I agree that you can multi-task while doing these things, but if you care about the goals of the team or the success of the company, please put the phone on mute, put the cell phone down, go take care of your business and come back to the rest of us, sitting around the table, trying to make sure the company succeeds.

  5. Pretend as if everyone on the call (people in the room and on the call) are virtual
    I have as been guilty of this as others, but if you are giving a presentation or expect people to participate in a discussion, make sure that everyone has the same information. Pretend as if everyone, even those looking back at you in the room, are virtual. It will save you baffled silence, multiple questions and lack of attention from people who are virtual.

    If you’ve never been on the receiving end, imagine as if you were listening to someone give a presentation that is obviously based on what the presenter is showing, but you can’t see it. If you can’t imagine it, let me help: common emotions are frustration, irritation, resentment and finally, inattention, as people go back to whatever else is in front of them.

    When you rely on everyone on the call to participate so that the company wins, this can be devastating to your plan. It’s biblical: The same concern you give to making sure they understand they will give back to you in attention to your presentation.  If a Netmeeting is not possible, send the document to the team and tell them what page you’re on. Distractions are nothing in comparison to the sense that you don’t care whether they understand and you don’t value their contribution.

I know you have other “unwritten rules”.  Care to share them with me? Leave a comment, send me a tweet, my id is jgodfrey.



  1. Haha, so very true! Just recently I was on a call with another person who was also watching some type of screencast (I could hear the audio) AND messaging other team members. At the end of a call (that lasted much longer than it should’ve) this person told me to send him an e-mail with all the stuff we just discussed. Ughh!

  2. I’ve been there. It can be very irritating to go back over ground that was already covered by the rest of the team who was paying attention. Referring them to the minutes saves you from having to repeat yourself.

  3. I agree, it’s hard not to be multi-tasking when we are all supposed to be available all the time. So if you cannot control incoming messages while on meeting, you can at least control muting or not reacting to distractions for that period of time.
    Regards and thanks for the tips 🙂

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