Take your cue: how signs can bring the joy back to Zoom meetings



Ever zoned out during a Zoom? Found yourself inadvertently butting in and interrupting others or being spoken over constantly?

These scenarios are commonplace in the new working at home environment, along with children demanding attention, cats jumping on desks and noisy washing machines. Video meetings can be stressful and leave people feeling frustrated, but help is at hand – from a beach lifeguard who promises to keep our video heads above water.

A business coach has delved into his experience as a volunteer lifeguard in Cornwall to develop a basic sign language designed to improve employees’ experience of video meetings. Coupled with a code of conduct, Paul Hills believes he has devised a way of ensuring video meetings are run with a relaxed and professional modus operandi.

Hills has developed 25 signals that he hopes can help meetings become more productive, less stressful for participants and beneficial to employee mental health.

The language will soon have a registered trademark.

Simple signals

“I feel like I have just had a big hug from the group”, teacher Carolyn Butt said after taking part in the new trial method, “I was amazed at how the signs allowed us to create a much closer connection among the people on the call”.

The signals themselves are simple, and range from doing a thumbs up, to showing connection to the concept, and signalling you would like to speak.

To develop them Hills conducted in-depth research into what people found frustrating with video calls. Many video meeting users told him they often said they did not know if other participants were really listening or interested. One interviewee described being faced with “a sea of silence and blank faces”.

I feel like I have just had a big hug from the group. I was amazed at how the signs allowed us to create a much closer connection among the people on the call” – teacher Carolyn Butt

Participants showed frustration too, with interviewees saying they had no way to show they were interested or participating. Others say they became uninterested more quickly in video meetings because of the lack of participation.

Hills says that a few hundred people – from teachers to employees at financial institutions – have now tried the system out and have reported much higher levels of connection due to the hand signals and the simple rules.

Paul Hills demonstrates the sign language.

“My team are very keen on the signs and they are actively using them, which has helped create a more natural engagement and flow to our meetings”, said Hetal Patel, a head of service in education at Greenwich Council. “In face-to-face meetings I felt I could read a room, but it’s very difficult on Zoom. However, now with everyone contributing more and being more active, I can easily tune in”.

A code of conduct is also a major part of the system. Hills said meeting participants should agree not to mute themselves, or cut their own videos, unless absolutely necessary. People should take screen breaks, and set cameras to a wider angle, so everyone can see everyone else’s upper body.

The training works for all forms of video meetings, including Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams, he emphasised.

“Anyone who’s had a video meeting, be it for business, or family, or friends, will know that there are sticking points. Who talks when? How can you be sure people are listening? How do you get simple feedback?”, said Hills, “but with the new method, meetings are much more productive and interactive. And most importantly, human”.

Hills got the idea from his volunteer lifeguard work.

Paul also wants to help vulnerable groups, like older people, connect and use the new language and said he believed it would really help with making video calls much more friendly, reducing loneliness.

Anecdotal evidence from the HR world suggests Hills could be on to something, with more than one regular video meeting participant admitting to Personnel Today they have  turned the volume off as well as muting themselves after chaotic openings to Zoom meetings.

Some may even have daydreamed about lying on a Cornish beach or hopping on a paddleboard.

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