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After I had finished presenting on how to build psychologically safe virtual teams at a conference earlier this week, one of the delegates asked me what suggestions I’d have to help her with a team where some of the members refused to turn their cameras on during video meetings.

I’m not going to challenge the reasons as to why some team members might be reluctant about being on camera. Even if a team has developed ground rules encouraging everyone to use their web cameras, such working agreements need to evolve as the team’s culture evolves.

Faced with this, team members who are willing to turn their cameras on would have an advantage when compared against their “anti-camera” peers as their body language will be visible to the facilitator and to the other meeting participants. If they seem to be uncomfortable about a topic, someone else is likely to notice and might either openly or using a one-on-one chat ask them to share their concerns.

But in the case of those team members who choose not to have their videos on choose to remain silent, it will be difficult for others to determine their status without regularly pinging them during a meeting.

Let’s assume that you’ve already had one-on-one conversations with each team member to understand why they are unwilling to be on camera and the underlying causes are not ones which need to be resolved.

If the team is already at a high level of psychological safety, this is not a major issue. If a team member who isn’t on camera has concerns with what is being discussed, they will raise it without fear of ridicule or social stigma.

But if your team has just formed or you are only seeing a few signs of nascent psychological safety, here are a few suggestions on reducing safety risks.

  • At the start of the meeting, remind the participants as to how important it is for everyone to speak up if they feel concerned about something being discussed. Let them know that if they are not comfortable doing so that they can contact you directly either during or immediately after the meeting.
  • Actively listen to the “anti-camera” participants. They might not speak what’s on their mind, but they might sigh or you might hear them mutter under their breaths. Being conscious of this would give you an opening to call on them to share their concerns.
  • Poll participants regularly about how they feel, especially after a potentially controversial topic has been discussed. Most video conference platforms support anonymous polling and you can use questions such as “On a scale from 1-5 where 1 is least comfortable, how do you feel about what we have just discussed?“. If even one person indicates that they are uncomfortable, you could follow up after the meeting using one-on-one meetings if you have a small team or with an anonymous survey to try to get more details.
  • If you are using a virtual collaboration platform such as Miro or Mural where a collaborator cursor is visible, construct a “live” barometer by using shapes or images representing different levels of comfort and ask participants to move their cursors over those shapes which best represent their current state of mind regarding the topic being discussed.

It is almost a year since the pandemic started, and “Zoom fatigue” has become a real issue for many workers. Generous internet bandwidth speeds are still a luxury in many parts of the world, and with many family members working or studying remotely within the same household, it might not always be possible to stream quality, latency-free video.

Building teams in such contexts might be harder, but with focus and creativity you can reduce the risks of out of sight, out of safety!

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