Your different virtual personas
Being in front of someone ‘in real life’ obviously assists in clear communication, as it allows us to pick up on small social cues, to establish eye contact, and to have a clearer sense of prosody, tone, and body language. The truth is that we can still pick up on most or all of these in online dialogue, but this requires those involved to make an effort and use the digital tools at hand deliberately.
People who spend a significant portion of their day web conferencing in professional contexts can often develop a way of being in the online meeting while not being fully present in the online meeting. We create something like an online persona that is drifting in and out of the virtual meeting (or group) space, video turned off, checking some emails, or making to-do lists for other tasks ahead. We turn off the webcam and the screen becomes somewhat of a protective barrier.
This is completely understandable, as people often find that being able to turn off their cameras and be ‘out of the spotlight’ – and therefore being able to stretch, eat, or take a break from keeping their professional attentive listening face on at all times – is vital to their ability to sustain their productivity and sanity during long hours of uninterrupted screen time.
Participating in, or facilitating online dialogue or seminars, however, requires a different online persona and use of the screen. In these contexts, the screen must not be used as a shield but rather as a bridge between you and the people you are engaging with.
One of the reasons online interaction is often viewed as not being capable of creating the kind of relationship or trust-building that in-person contact does is that humans (like other social animals) use in-person interactions to take in a lot of data that we use to build and navigate relationships. Being in front of someone ‘in real life’ obviously assists in clear communication, as it allows us to pick up on small social cues, to establish eye contact, and to have a clearer sense of prosody, tone, and body language. The truth is that we can still pick up on most or all of these in online dialogue, but the participants must make an effort (when possible*) to have their cameras on and their faces visible.
In a virtual setting that can sometimes feel like a void, being present and showing active engagement goes much farther than merely speaking up; it can have the same effect as walking into the room and taking a seat at the table. Showing active listening and non-verbal participation through your camera when others are speaking helps them build confidence, communicates to them that their contribution matters, and helps them understand that they are not at the table alone.
In a meeting that mainly requires your presence and ability to take in what is said, the first kind of persona can be perfectly suitable, and a valuable means to avoid virtual fatigue. In dialogue and experience-sharing, we must bring out a different part of ourselves, and use the digital tools at our disposal to the fullest.
*Note: The reality is that not everyone has the bandwidth to support video, and that’s ok! Speaking up regularly, showing active listening by reacting to your colleague’s statements using the chat and making visible contributions to online activities can allow you to make just as much impact as those with their cameras on.