Three ways to read the room when you’re not in the room

Among those of us able to continue working through the pandemic restrictions by setting up an office at home, experiences have been wildly different. Some loathe the isolation. Others report huge productivity boosts*.

According to a KPMG survey last year, 64% of workers preferred the flexibility of remote working[i]. However, the survey also found that a third of workers felt their ability to collaborate had fallen. And the various iterations of lockdown have resulted in an unexpected new malady: Zoom Fatigue[ii].

Our computer screens are now virtual venues: team meetings, feedback sessions, conferences, webinars, even team-building pop quizzes. According to Ofcom’s Media Nations 2020 study, viewing figures for video streaming is up more than 70% on 2019; it is a boomtime for subscription streaming services as we use them as substitutes for social lives. Life lived digitally may be losing some lustre. But here are three ways to bring back some of that old normal:


  1. Greeting to connect

Meetings in our pre-covid real world involved similar and familiar pre-event social ballets: hellos waved, coats and jackets hung up, coffees and teas made, seats chosen (or moved), pens and notebooks laid out. And all accompanied by chats about weather (obligatory), Brexit (inevitable), and children (optional). Rarely was anything said that shook anyone’s world, but that was not the point. Connection was the goal. We were taking the social temperature. And we were limbering up our communication skills.

If organising a remote meeting, recreate this greeting space; it may seem efficient to move straight to business, but how many successful sportspeople eschew warm-ups? Schedule some social time at the start and open your virtual door early—fifteen minutes will do—and allow those attending to flex their small-talk skills: the weather (still mandatory); lockdowns (unavoidable); children (if you must); box-set binge recommendations (a civic duty). By the time you hit your formal start time everyone will be relaxed, comfortable, and ready to get down to business.


  1. Seeing and being seen

In a real room, communication involves a variety of verbal and nonverbal cues. They help create a full picture, giving a better idea of when there’s an appropriate moment for us to make a contribution, how long that contribution should be, whether our tone should be sober or light-hearted, or how data or jargon heavy we should be. We look out for physical cues, such as someone leaning forward, or eye contact signalling an imminent interjection, or folded arms marking resistance or disagreement. But reading the room is much harder when there’s more than one room and you can see just a small rectangle of each.

If you are chairing, ensure everyone has a voice. Some people can fall into the trap of treating video conferencing like watching television: they become passive viewers. Make sure your online meeting is an interactive experience for everyone.

Internet connections permitting, encourage everyone to keep their video on throughout the session. That way you can keep tabs on facial expressions. You will be able to identify those burning to speak, those holding back and those needing more information, and you can rein in, encourage or clarify as appropriate.


  1. Really being present

One of the greatest potential pitfalls of virtual meetings while working at home is the unexpected interruption. It can take many forms, from a food delivery arriving early to a cat on a keyboard.

However, viral-clip moments are not the most common distractions. In a real-life meeting, you wouldn’t check Facebook for updates, so don’t do it in a virtual meeting. It may be tempting to minimise your meeting app and check your inbox, but unless you need some relevant information, resist Outlook’s allure.

Before a meeting, everything on your computer should be closed, except your meeting app and any documents you will need to reference or share. Turn down the sound on your phone and put it out of sight, screen-side down.

If you find yourself zoning out or becoming fidgety, take a deep breath, stretch, take a sip of tea or water, and refocus. To get the best from a virtual meeting you need to put in extra effort into being present.


Connection is the key

Since birth, we are taught to interact in person. Face to face works differently on screen, but there are ways to adapt our social training and ways to mitigate the downsides of virtual collaboration. Connecting will always be a core business skill, even if that connection is facilitated by ones and zeros.




Jean Gamester is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit


[i] KPMG Summer 2020 American worker survey –

[ii] Zoom Fatigue study from London South Bank University – Personnel Today



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