Help Remote Participants to Up Their Engagement

We’ve seen the dreaded black square, with a name typed over it, during our virtual meetings. Then we asked all participants to turn on their cameras. This may nudge a handful of folks. But there are always those holdouts.

Our minds automatically jump to negative conclusions. “They’re not paying attention!” Research indicates this is right for about 26% of meeting-goers. They’re attempting to multitask and will only listen to hear if their names are being mentioned.

Camera as Hall Monitor

With this mindset, we start using cameras as a way to make sure people don’t wander off during our meetings. In part, we read this as a sign of disrespect—primarily to us as leaders of the meeting. We assume if their face is visible, then they are tracking what’s going on. If not, then they’re gold-bricking.

Yes: we’ve become Big Brother!

Rather than create or feed into a power struggle (which we’ll never win), we should be paying attention to three key issues of engagement.

Issue #1: Is My Meeting Worthwhile?

There are two parts to this:

  1. Are there a) ideas to be shared, b) topics to be discussed, c) decisions to be made, d) relationships to be created/maintained—and this is the best format for that?
  2. Have I designed and am I running the meeting so it’s a good use of everyone’s time?

Here’s a common failure on the first point: the “every Monday at 9:00 meeting.” It’s great to have a regular get-together on everyone’s calendar. But these sessions tend to go stale over time.

Make sure there’s a unique reason for each one—rather than “it’s that time again.” And when there isn’t, cancel it. Your people will appreciate the time back.

On the second point: leaders grumble that people aren’t engaged. Too often it’s because we aren’t being a good facilitator.

  • Did we send an agenda in advance, so people know why they need to be there and come prepared?
  • Did we keep the discussion moving—and prevent the long-winded and opinionated from hijacking the meeting?
  • Did we ensure everyone left with a clear idea of what they need to do next?

We can’t complain that people don’t show up on screen for our meetings if we don’t make these the best use of their time. (Here’s an eight-minute video on using neuroscience to make your meetings more effective:

Issue #2: What Are My People Afraid of?

Beyond multitasking, many don’t turn on their cameras because of fear:

  • They don’t have great equipment: cameras, microphones, lighting or internet connection
  • They don’t have a nice-looking or uncluttered setting in their homes
  • They have people or pets that wander on and off screen
  • They feel uncomfortable looking at themselves onscreen

The bottom line is that they can feel judged and “less than” compared with others. And they’re right: we do notice these things and form opinions.

It’s a leader’s job to pay attention and help.

This begins by setting a “visual judgment-free zone.” Let everyone know that what you’re after is ideas and insights—the background isn’t important. And we all can be momentarily distracted by the comings and goings of others, which is OK (unless you’re in the office and brought them with you).

Offline, offer to work with those who seem to be struggling with this. One resource is It gives people the chance to see how they and their setting will look before a meeting. Then they can play around with any adjustments at their leisure. (This is free, and you don’t need a Zoom account to use it.)

Issue #3: How Can I Encourage My People to Be Camera-Ready?

You can, of course, mandate that people turn on their cameras. (But what does that say about you as a leader?)

A better tactic is to show people what’s in it for them. And how it supports their colleagues in the meeting. To help, here is a checklist of the Top 10 Benefits of Turning on Your Camera at Your Next Meeting.

You also may choose to make this part of your organization’s culture. “We expect the full person to show up prepared for virtual meetings. Most of the time, this means having your camera on, so everyone gets the benefit of seeing you. We also understand there are situations when this isn’t possible, and will respect your judgment to have your camera off.”

Be Open Minded

When I started to write this, the topic was “what you can say and do to get people to turn on their cameras.” It quickly became clear that the camera isn’t the issue—engagement is.

When you had in-person meetings, you didn’t require that people stare at each other the whole session. Sometimes they brainstormed ideas in their head, triggered by what someone just said. Or took notes. Or checked background information to address a point or question.

Let people know you trust their judgment on whether or not to turn on their cameras. As long as the rest of us get the benefit of their participation, they can choose how we get to see them.