PANC 2020: Best Practices for Virtual Meetings—and Avoiding Zoom Fatigue

Content, surroundings and technology preparation are important for creating client and committee meetings that keep everyone engaged.

Sheri Fitts, founder of ShoeFitts Marketing told attendees of the 2020 PLANADVISER National Conference that before she sat down to speak with them virtually, she exhausted her 10-month-old puppy and appeased her husband with food and the key to the car.

The humorous, yet telling, comment caught attendees’ attention as she started to educate them about how to avoid “Zoom fatigue” and keep clients engaged now that meetings are mostly virtual.

There are several reasons for Zoom fatigue, Fitts explained, speaking on the digital panel. “You don’t usually sit across from the table from your colleagues and look at them in the face all day long. We don’t usually look at ourselves in a mirror all day,” she said.

Real life social cues that help people read each other’s energy do not exist in a virtual environment, Fitts added. Also, virtual meetings make people feel like they are always on stage. “That is exhausting,” she said. “Not to mention the eye fatigue you get from staring at a camera and screen all day long.”

Fitts said many are also suffering from “COVID-19 Brain.” “It’s a thing,” she said. She explains that it’s a combination of not being able to look to prior experience to navigate what is going on and a frazzled state of mind, with the fear of COVID, keeping up with work, teaching kids, etc.

The combination of Zoom fatigue and COVID brain is why it’s hard to keep people’s attention—whether it’s staff or clients, Fitts said. “All the things you are dealing with are your clients’ reality too,” she told conference attendees.

Fitts said one way to shut down the self-critique from virtual meetings is to hide your self-view if the platform allows for it. She also recommended not multitasking. “I used to be on my computer doing things during conference calls. We all have this pull toward multitasking,” she said. “But, with your best effort, keep it to a minimum and that will help keep you from being so exhausted.”

Everyone must give themselves time away from their computer screen—”completely away,” Fitts added.

Keeping Virtual Meeting Attendees Engaged

There are things to do prior to staff or client meetings to help people engage, according to Fitts. She first suggested that in all cases, advisers should send a meeting agenda in advance. “It should not only include the topics that will be discussed, but how the discussion may help attendees, what are expected outcomes of the meeting and what to expect from the flow of meeting,” she said. “A little bit more story will help people come to the meeting ready to engage.”

Advisers don’t want to have technology issues during meetings. Fitts said that always before starting any important meeting, she reboots her computer. She does this 45 minutes to an hour before the start of the meeting due to possible computer updates.

It’s also important to handle outside distractions before any meeting. Fitts referred to what she said at the start of the conference session about her puppy and her husband. “If you spend the first 10 minutes messing with technology or preparing, you will lose everyone’s engagement right away,” she said.

Fitts noted that most people tend to have a greater attention span in the morning. “They are likely to have had to juggle so many things by the end of the day. It’s important to have meetings with clients as early as possible,” she said.

Fitts suggested that advisers join meetings—such as retirement plan committee meetings—early for the opportunity to connect with those who join early as well. “This is when you engage in small talk and connect with each other on a human basis,” she said. “Then mark the start of the meeting.”

During meetings it is very important to call people by name. “When you’re across the table from people you don’t tend to do that, but in a virtual space, the more you can say someone’s name, the more they are jolted into paying attention,” Fitts said. She also offered a tip for larger meetings when it is hard to get a word in: “Say someone’s name. For example, ‘OK, Susan, that was an interesting point. When you’re done, can I offer some ideas?’”

To keep people on track without being rude, Fitts suggested keeping meetings short, noting on the agenda who is responsible each topic and asking someone to be the timekeeper to keep the group on time. If the discussion gets off-topic, Fitts said advisers can suggest the discussion be picked up in a separate meeting. “Also, give props. Say, ‘Wow Mike, I hadn’t thought of that. Do you mind if we put that on top of the agenda for the next meeting?’” she added.

Fitts told conference attendees there’s nothing wrong with adding in something funny to a presentation or taking a break during a virtual meeting. The break can even be part of the agenda.

Appearance Is Important

Fitts recalled for attendees something that was said in the opening session of the PLANADVISER National Conference, Building a Team—and a Culture—in a Virtual Environment: Attending to how things look is going to be more and more important.

She shared things she has done to outfit her home office with technology. “The three most important things are lighting, audio and camera,” she said. She uses a ring light set behind her laptop and said it is carefully draped with a white pillowcase over it to keep the glare off her glasses. Using a separate microphone from the computer gives a clearer, warmer sound to a person’s voice, she said, adding that using her Apple earpods works well. Fitts also recommended using a separate webcam and not the camera on one’s laptop. She said it should be set at eye level because looking someone in the eye is an important part of engagement.

To keep eye contact and avoid looking down, Fitts suggested that advisers know their content so they are not just reading off slides. For presentations, if it is possible on the platform advisers and clients are using, she suggested embedding videos into slide presentations so something will be moving on the screen.

Fitts added that bringing something that is real world into the virtual world is nice addition. For example, an adviser can stand with an easel next to him that has charts on it or draw on a white board. “Broaden the tools available to improve engagement,” she said.

“I recommend never attending a committee meeting by yourself. Bring a colleague,” Fitts told attendees. “It helps the presenters’ engagement, and could help with attendees’ engagement,” she said. “Also, if you’ll be using chat or Q&A, it’s good to have someone helping you field that.”

Fitts suggested that advisers think beforehand about how to build engagement—when to ask a question, when to turn to colleague, for example. She said a seven- to 10-minute window for each speaker is an important rule of thumb. “One voice won’t engage for 30 minutes,” she said. Fitts added that advisers should modulate their voices, use facial expressions and their hands when talking and amp up the energy as much as they can.

Virtual Platform Etiquette

A poll of session attendees found most are using Zoom and Microsoft Teams for virtual meetings and presentations.

Fitts suggested that advisers get to know which platform clients use so they can be available on a client’s native platform. When hosting a meeting or presentation on their own platform, she said advisers should acclimate clients to the platform. “Just like when someone is at your house and you show them where the bathroom is and where they can get a drink, show them where features of the platform, such as chat, are located and how to use them,” she said. “Also establish etiquette by asking people to mute themselves if they are not speaking.”

Fitts shared why she likes Zoom 5.2.2. It has the following features:

  • Attendees and hosts can rearrange video images;
  • Attendees and hosts can pin multiple videos;
  • Hosts can share arrangement of images; and
  • Hosts can spotlight multiple guests.

“On some platforms, attendees aren’t seeing people in the same order as others, and people jump around on the screen,” she explained. “With these features, you can tell your co-presenter, ‘You watch the CEO and finance manager, and I’ll watch the HR manager and committee leader,’ and you can pin those people to the top of your gallery.” She added that the platform allows advisers to spotlight the images of those speaking on a panel or presentation. It allows attendees to follow the gallery as the adviser is seeing it.

While during most of the conference session, Fitts referred to meetings with clients or committees, she shared excitement about virtual meetings with retirement plan participants. “What is cool is how advisers can serve participants in an expanded way. In a way, you have been invited into their homes. There’s no reason you can’t invite their partner or other person who is helping them create a secure retirement for the household to join the discussion,” she said. “I do think there will be advisers who will start to own this as a way to help participants.”