How to Stop Staring at Yourself and Have More Engaging Virtual Meetings

In Greek mythology, Narcissus the hunter fell in love with his own reflection. Realizing his love could never materialize, he met the tragic end of taking his own life. The myth and the namesake psychological disorder, narcissism, tell the risk of becoming too fixated on oneself. These days, it seems like we’re all grappling with the modern-day version of narcissism: staring at ourselves for hours a day on videoconference calls. It’s hard to avoid and according to experts, it’s more stressful than we think.

“In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly — so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback — you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy. No one would ever consider that,” says Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

With my company, Jotform, employees in various time zones meet in the grid of a Zoom call on a daily basis. Here are some expert-backed techniques we use to make sure these virtual meetings continue to be effective — and we’re not just gazing at our own squares the whole time.

1. Allow some “off-time”

Zoom fatigue is real. But virtual meetings don’t just leave us more depleted afterward, they can also hurt the quality of our thinking. Says Bailenson, “There’s a growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively.” It’s no wonder that many innovators opt for walking meetings. But in videoconferences, on the other hand, we often feel tied to one very limited physical space.

When virtual meetings are your only option, you can keep the blood flowing by allowing meeting participants to turn their cameras off as needed. It would be distracting if a colleague launched into a stretching routine during your presentation. By giving her a few moments to turn the camera off, she can recharge without throwing off the flow of the meeting.

Brief periods of off-time can also provide relief to employees who are working remotely and taking on additional household duties. Writes Taneasha White for heathline, “If you need to multitask — folding the laundry, nursing, making lunch — turning off your video can not only enable you to maximize your time, but feel less pressure to appear in a certain way through the screen.”

You can still get all of the benefits of videoconferencing, like facetime and synchronous collaboration, without being always-on.

2. Minimize yourself, maximize space

Having a tiny digital mirror in the corner of your screen isn’t just distracting, it can also potentially awaken a harsh inner voice that wouldn’t normally show up during meetings. As writer Jenni Gritters explains, “If you like yourself, you’ll probably feel even more positive if you see your face on the screen every day. But if you’re self-critical, that tendency will come out, too, especially during this particularly odd and difficult time.”

To quiet your internal critic, play around with the viewing options. In Zoom, exit the “full-screen” mode and reduce the window size so that it’s not taking up your entire monitor. Or, depending on the objective of your meeting, you can use an app that has a view-only option, such as Google Meet, which makes sense if not every attendee is expected to participate.

As Bailenson recommends, try using an external keyboard so you can give yourself more physical space between you and the grid. Virtual meetings can’t perfectly replicate in-person meetings but a few tweaks can relieve some of the unnecessary added pressures.

3. Start with an agenda and end with action items

Writing for the World Economic Forum, Matt Tucker, CEO and founder of Koan, explains, “When hallway conversations and ‘quick huddles’ are no longer possible, meetings need to be more than a one-off fire drill to react to the problem du jour.” Virtual meetings must carry the weight of both day-to-day issues and long-term strategic planning. To avoid letting either slip through the cracks, prepare an agenda beforehand. Then, circulate the agenda so that all attendees know what to expect and come prepared with input and questions.

At the end of any meeting, Tucker recommends reviewing and agreeing upon the action items and follow-ups, writing them down, and sharing them with the meeting attendees.

Many of us are more pressed for time than ever — in order to utilize your colleagues’ time efficiently and keep them engaged, map out your route ahead of time.

4. Consider appointing a moderator for each meeting

According to research by Microsoft, our concentration begins to falter just 30–40 minutes into a virtual meeting. After about two hours of videoconferencing, our stress begins to surge.

With this in mind, Harvard Business Review authors conducted a LinkedIn survey to crowdsource some ideas for making virtual meetings more engaging. One, which I have started using with my team at Jotform, is to appoint what the authors call a Zoom “jester.” This role, which can be newly appointed for each meeting, keeps everyone on track and calls out behavior that leads away from objectives — for example, if participants arrive late or begin to monopolize the conversation, or if some people seem checked out.

True to the name, the jester can play the role of entertainer, too — for example, getting the ball rolling with an engaging story or presenting the group with a conversation prompt.

It may require a little creativity, but by applying a few simple ideas, virtual meetings can be just as engaging and collaborative.

5. Break them up

As a CEO with over 300 employees on three different continents, I can attest that virtual meetings are doing more legwork than usual. But even if videoconferencing for hours is unavoidable, we can keep our teams engaged by breaking it up throughout the day.

Microsoft’s researchers recommend taking breaks every two hours to let your brain recharge, limiting meetings to 30 minutes, and punctuating long meetings with small breaks when possible. I’d recommend squeezing in a quick walk when you can, too — one study found that just 12 minutes of walking increases happiness, vigor, and attentiveness significantly more than the same time spent sitting.

Walking meetings may be a thing of the past, at least for now, but we can still get up and get moving to reset our brains before the next meeting.

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website

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