Nonverbal cues in remote meetings

Remote meetings and remote work in general are great for productivity and work-life balance in many ways, and I’m not advocating for more “return to office”. However, there are a couple of things I’ve noticed that are tough to replicate in remote meetings. Aside from a casual company retreat a year ago, all of my work meetings for the past 3.5 years have been remote. I met in-person with a subcontractor on the program I work on – he happened to be in town visiting family, and I remained the only person on the team that he ever met in his two years on the program.

Specificity of eye contact is a huge nonverbal cue in meetings – looking at an individual among a group can mean “I’m checking in with you to see how you respond to the statement just made” or “I think you might have something to say on this topic” or “I have something to say on this topic”. But in remote meetings, eye contact is diffused – if you’re looking at the screen, it’s impossible to know which (if any) individual person you’re looking at. A “raise hand” feature in remote meeting platforms is helpful for indicating “I have something to say”, but I haven’t found a good replacement for the other sorts of cues that eye contact with an individual can mean aside from saying explicitly what you mean either verbally or in chat, which can get distracting.

Remote meetings do offer some unique cues though. Unmuting oneself in a remote meeting can be a helpful cue for “I have something to say” if this is displayed to other participants and they pay attention to it. However, I use an application like CYHMN or Shush to set up a universal key command to mute / unmute my microphone regardless of which app I have in focus. It’s useful when I’m taking notes and I need to cough or there’s a lot of background noise. But this means my mute / unmute status isn’t visible to other participants in most of the meeting apps I use. It would be nice if remote meeting apps displayed this system-wide mute/unmute status. Turning on your video after it has been off can also be a helpful cue for “I have something to say” or simply “I’m back” after having stepped away.