As we move more and more of our lives online, it’s important to recognize that Zoom meetings and virtual hangouts aren’t perfect substitutes for what we used to do in-person. The differences require us to adapt and be mindful in new ways, especially when it comes to acknowledging everyone’s unique individual circumstances.

Betsy Van der Veer Martens G’78, Ph.D.’04 is an iSchool alumna and now teaches at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Library and Information Studies. She says we need to rethink the expectations we have about our interactions with each other, and we should respect everyone’s differences in order to communicate both effectively and equitably.

Whether it’s another Zoom meeting, an online workshop, or simply a new way to engage in a hobby, here are a few ideas she shared with us about how to be better virtual communicators:

1. Minimize opportunities for distraction

We all know how tempting it is to check your email or click over to another tab, but working and socializing from home means that external distractions can derail the experiences of everyone involved.

Distracting noises and delayed responses can come through your microphone, and pets or family members can be a distraction for all even when your camera is turned off. Try keeping everyone’s mics muted until they need to speak, and make sure to turn BOTH the camera and your microphone off when attending to private matters.

2. Pay attention to power dynamics

Differences in power and status exist in any kind of group event, not just online meetings. Still, communicating virtually can bring up additional difficulties that we might not otherwise think of. Zoom, for instance, privileges those with the camera turned on while those with the camera off take a backseat, and people can’t just “jump in” with a comment like they would regularly.

That said, requiring people to use their cameras can highlight the disparity between those who have a strong internet connection and those who don’t, and it can make the camera-shy among us feel a bit uncomfortable.

For those reasons, you should encourage people to use the camera if they are comfortable, but don’t require it. Remind attendees that they can use the backgrounds feature if they don’t want others to see their space. And use other channels like the chat, or even email follow-up, to intentionally make space for people who are less prone to participation in general.

3. Remember to give it a rest

Speaking of being exhausted, the term “Zoom fatigue” is becoming popular for a reason. Take time to get up and give your eyes a rest before and after a video call. You can also minimize the window or hide yourself from view — people tend to look at themselves the most, after all.

COVID-19 has shown us just how different everyone’s situation can be, but the truth is that will still be the case long after the pandemic is over. Learning how to be mindful in our online interactions can go a long way toward making sure that everyone has the support they need.

4. Consider using moderators

Moderators can be another way to reduce distractions and create a more equitable online space. While the chat box is great for sharing relevant information or responding to questions, it’s also easy to get carried away with unrelated conversations.

A moderator can make sure that chat discussions are related to what’s happening. They can also keep track of a speaking order by way of the raise hand feature (or even by calling on those attendees who physically raise their hands). That gives the meeting a sense of flow while allowing everyone to say something when they need to.

5. Recognize that not everyone prefers video

Platforms like Zoom have come to dominate our interactions with other people while we’re stuck at home. Meetings, music festivals, and dinner parties are all things that have transitioned online. However, remember that some people are less comfortable being on screen than others.

Remember phone calls? Break up the video habit by switching your 1-on-1 meetings and social interactions to calls, if possible. At the very least, don’t make Zoom the default mode of connecting virtually.