'Stay Away From Houndstooth' - Zoom Tips and the Importance of Replacing Those Water Cooler Conversations

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By Ronn Levine

So like everyone else, I've been Zooming and Google Meeting and Go-to-Webinaring, and staring at myself in those various boxes. And there has been a lot of good stuffincluding Thomas' Friday Virtual Roundtables. (Sign up for tomorrow's here.) Today there was even a New York Times story giving us lighting and fashion advice for what could now be called groom-and-Zoom sessions.


“Clothes and makeup can be important—dress the part but stay away from houndstooth, which might register onscreen as a dizzying blur—but lighting, which can be the difference between looking like yourself and a washed-out or shadowy version thereof, is a trickier art… ‘Watching all of these new productions on Zoom or YouTube, you can tell who knows how to film themselves and who doesn’t,’ says Sara Isaacson, a Los Angeles-based casting director who consults actors on the dos and don’ts of self-taped auditions. ‘I always tell my actors to make sure there are no distractions behind them, like a refrigerator door or a dying plant,’ she says."


But in all this constant Zoom chatter—and a deserved, newfound respect for those who have worked from home for many years—the attention may have shifted a little bit too far. While the loss of networking at in-person events has been talked about plenty, there has been less talk about the advantages of the office that we've lost. And at least for now, how to replace them.


Pick up the phone. All collaborative work does not get done in structured meetings. Many times, I would amble over to a colleague’s office and we would talk something out. (If we’re both early-birds, all the better; the office is quiet.) There's more ease in person. When you're writing communication, you really have to examine every word so there's no misinterpretation, Even then, tone is lost. I’ve talked by phone a few times with colleagues, and that's better, so I would encourage that. You can hear if someone is frustrated. You can laugh together without the smiley faces. 


The proverbial water cooler conversation. Do we ever really say water cooler other than for "water cooler" conversation? At our office, we had a water fountain that people avoided like the... forget it. Anyway, it's true that I would see Dan our incomparable IT guy or James our registration guru, and we would resolve a potential problem in the hallway. Can this be replaced? An article last year said that a recent MIT research project actually proved that the 'water cooler effect' increases employee productivity by 10-15%. That leads to the next two…


Schedule one-on-one time with colleagues. We have so many group meetings now that you don't get to discuss things individually with someone as much. And we all know you're not going to get the same candor in a group meeting that you would get in a one-on-one meeting. There are more people to possibly offend, less time to talk because of the numbers, and more opportunity to multi-task. It's easy to lose touch with what is really going on without one-on-one meetings, especially boss to employees.


Encourage more "coffee breaks" with a colleague. That MIT research team suggested that encouraging shorter and more frequent breaks in the workday could be the key to allowing deeper, more authentic relationships between employees to be built. Now this was pre-pandemic, but it may have more validity now. Yes, everyone has a different schedule, but still designating 11 am and 3 pm 10-15 minute one-on-one chats could be good. I would say especially the afternoon—I sense an energy drain then, where a coffee break conversation would be a good pick-me-up. Call it speed colleaguing.


Continue to reward innovation. A real risk with remote workers is that team members feel isolated and alone—especially if they live alone these days—and worse yet, that their good work goes unrecognized. Set up a formalized association-wide program that shows appreciation and rewards workers for collaboration, engagement with the company's mission, and interaction with fellow team members—again, even in one-on-one situations—who are working toward the same goals.


Encourage everyone to use their camera. In a webinar on managing remote work last fall, Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, a Financial Times company, said that "frequency of cameras being disabled has become an [engagement] issue that we've tried to address. We are encouraging people to use the video component. Audio is one element, but video another; it really enhances it... It really does make a significant difference." In two recent one-on-one interviews I did, being able to see them did make it a different experience. I've done interviews by phone all my life and those are fine. But as far as making a connection, the video, as Fink said, enhanced that. And next time, I will know not to wear houndstooth.

Ronn Levine is the editorial director for SIIA, AM&P's parent company.