Although technological advances in the 1970s have brought it about, companies rarely employed video conferencing until recently. Only the Corona crisis helped Google Hangout, Microsoft Teams, and, above all, Zoom to achieve a breakthrough. Due to the massive restrictions, work has shifted mainly to home offices – and meetings from the office to the virtual room. With all the advantages that video conferencing offers, the sudden change is a problem for many, especially for those with hearing loss. Yet there is no need to worry: You can master the hurdle with the appropriate equipment, careful preparation, and, above all, openness to the needs of your colleagues!
Tech-advice for successful video conferences
Whether you have a virtual meeting with one person or the whole team: Prepare yourself and make the conference as pleasant as possible for you and your colleagues.
Check the camera and background
Before attending an online conference, you should check that your webcam is working. Open the standard camera app on your computer to get an impression of the video quality, framing, and lighting. Ensure you have a neutral background – you certainly don't want your colleagues to have a clear view of your drying rack or an unmade bed. The right lighting is particularly important for evening conferences or in winter; you want your colleagues to see you, after all. A so-called ring light, for example, makes you look your best.
Test the microphone
Laptop microphones are often of low quality, which is why it is advisable to invest in a headset with an integrated microphone. The best thing to do is meet friends for a video call and get feedback: Can they hear you? Do you hear them? That way, you can find out in a relaxed atmosphere and in good time whether you should adjust the settings.
Determine the data transfer rate
The speed of your internet connection also plays a significant role in video conferencing. An online speed test will provide you with the necessary information. Suppose the data transfer rate is below 20 megabits/second: There is a high probability that you will be continuously interrupted during the call. In the best-case scenario, only the video freezes. It is likely, though, that the audio transmission will also be disrupted.
You can increase the internet speed by regularly deleting all cookies, updating the drivers for your network or WLAN card, and checking your firewall and antivirus programs' settings. It is also helpful to restart the router or, if necessary, move it. An unfavorable position might negatively affect the transmission rate. If nothing helps, you should contact your provider and look for a solution together.
Preparation and rules of conduct
Once you have the technology under control, the next step is to prepare for the conference in terms of content. Hopefully, you will have received the topic and an agenda early enough. Review the items on the list and take notes: What do you want to contribute? Do you have urgent questions?
The preparation also includes providing the right setting. If you have an extra room for your home office, this is relatively easy: you close the door. However, if you work in the shared living room, make sure to inform your family about your upcoming online appointments. You need quiet, and your partner shouldn't walk past the camera in underwear.
Dos and don'ts
What applies to group discussions in the office also applies to online conferences: Follow the rules. These include letting others finish speaking before you add something or ask a question. It's also a good idea to mute the microphone when it's not your turn. When it is your turn to speak, summarize what your predecessor said or refer to previous contributions. Thus, not only will your colleagues feel heard, but it will also allow you to argue more conclusively.
To stay focused, put your smartphone away before the conference or switch it off better yet. Also, close all open tabs on the computer. It will help you resist the temptation to briefly scroll through your Facebook feed or google for a new winter coat. Attention: Some conference apps let the host know if a participant stays away for more than 30 seconds!
How to get involved in online meetings
A conference only makes sense if the participants contribute to the discussion. But it's not that easy to talk online! This applies not only to people who are shy or generally more reserved. The virtual conference room can be quite unsettling for anyone: There is no body language. The facial expressions are not transmitted well. It is far more challenging to assess the mood than in a physical environment. You get the impression that the others aren't even listening - especially when everyone is talking at once.
And once again: Preparation is the be-all and end-all! Study the agenda and list of participants, and take notes. Practice with someone you trust if you find it challenging to speak in front of many people. It is also worth entering the virtual conference room early to feel more confident and relaxed. Double-check the camera and microphone and read through your notes. And last but not least: Speak as soon as possible! Once you have overcome your fear, it will be easier for you to speak up again as the meeting progresses.
How to stay focused and listen
Many people find conferences and meetings tedious and they drift off again and again. Instead of concentrating on the topic, they mentally go through their shopping list or envision their next vacation. However, if you work exclusively in your home office, you will quickly lose touch if you don't listen closely during meetings.
We have already mentioned that you shouldn't multitask and engage in other activities while at a conference. It also helps if you take handwritten notes instead of typing. It has been proven that other areas of the brain become active when writing by hand, and, among other things, the ability to remember is promoted. It would be best if you also wrote down thoughts that have nothing to do with the conference topic – this is the only way you can let go of them and concentrate on the actual subject.
Take an active part in the meeting, ask questions, and share your ideas. If necessary, take on a task: You could keep track of the time or make sure that the agenda is kept. If necessary, volunteer as a recorder. The more responsible you feel for the meeting, the easier you will find it to listen.
Challenges for people with hearing loss
Few people are aware that online meetings are a challenge for people with hearing loss. They are even more unaware that, according to the WHO, there are over 430 million people with hearing loss worldwide, and the number will double in the next 30 years. Yet the figures speak for themselves, and it is highly likely that you are affected or working with an affected person.
But why are online meetings so problematic? The audio quality often is miserable, and very few webcams deliver a sharp picture. Besides, there is often a bumpy internet connection and therefore delayed data transmission. Good acoustics and the possibility to lip-read are by no means guaranteed. Again, interruptions cause the video to freeze and audio to fail. And then there is the human factor to consider. Everyone is talking at once, turning away from the camera, or even leaving the room while talking. It all adds up that people with hearing loss hardly have a chance to follow the conversation.
Be open about hearing loss
If you have hearing loss, communicate openly with your supervisor and colleagues. Explain what type of hearing impairment you have and what may help you: Ask for your colleagues to speak slowly and clearly, one at a time, facing the camera. What else might be helpful? Don't be afraid to ask for additional assistance and point the issue out over and over again. Your team is just as unfamiliar with the situation as you are, and they must first practice the new behavior.
What management can and should do
Successful video conferences are ultimately the responsibility of management. Rule number one: keep the number of meetings to a minimum. Not everything must be discussed in person – most of the times, an e-mail is enough to assign tasks. Allow your employees to take laptops, cameras, and headsets with them from work. You might also want to invest in the appropriate technology for their home offices. Besides that, take advantage of new technologies: Online meeting apps such as Zoom offer live captions, i.e., an automatic subtitle function.
Before each conference, send out a list of participants and an agenda, and appoint a host. This person's job is to ensure that all issues at hand are discussed and that everyone has their say – one after the other. Also, instruct your employees that they should always speak directly into the camera. After the meeting, you should send a follow-up note comprising the essential points of discussion, decisions, and resulting tasks. Taking these steps, you will ensure inclusion in your virtual workplace.
Inclusion in the virtual world
Research has been dealing with the consequences of online communication for offline communication for several years now. While the virtual space offers the potential for inclusion and allows people to connect, it is a fallacy to believe that everyone is welcome. This space – and especially the behavior of online users – can be painfully exclusive. It is a proven fact that people with disabilities, such as hearing loss, are often left out. A study by the University of Groningen, for example, shows that offline contact between members of a social group decreases with increasing online contact. So if people are excluded online, they are likely to lose connection offline over time. That is why inclusion is indispensable in the virtual world, and its success is the responsibility of each individual.