The year 2020 changed not only this country but the entire world. COVID-19, a dangerous cousin to the common flu, emerged in the East in late 2019. It took only a few months for it to spread across the world due to open borders and ease of international travel. Not since the 1918 Spanish flu have we seen a disease of this magnitude, devastating entire communities and overcrowding hospitals in mere days. On March 19, 2020, the World Health Organization of the United Nations elevated this epidemic to a true, global pandemic. While medical authorities and researchers worked on treatments and a viable vaccine, the majority of the population was told to shelter in place and self-quarantine to prevent the hospital surges that our medical industry couldn’t handle. Most businesses temporarily shut their doors due to these restrictions, but some industries were deemed “critical” and were not allowed that option.
The food and agriculture industry was one of the 16 industries that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency deemed critical and excused from these “stay at home” mandates. Our industry didn’t have the luxury of waiting it out: We had to go back to work and keep America fed. Thanks to the tireless work of our medical industry and advances in communication technology, most of the world’s infrastructure was able to persevere through the darkest days.
For all industries, shutdowns were only a temporary solution. The desire to avoid economic disaster, coupled with the need to continue children’s education, dramatically shifted the way we communicate. The pandemic became the tipping point, causing almost all in-person meetings and classrooms to transition to a virtual format. These sessions have become imperative to maintaining our country’s infrastructure and ensuring business continuity. During the pandemic, we’ve learned that a remote setting can be a poor substitute for in-person interactions. Many facets of communication are transmitted via eye contact, body language, and facial expressions. Even video calls often miss these small gestures of affirmation or disagreement, which can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. The key to improving remote communication is through best practices in logistics, scope, etiquette, engagement, facilitation, and security. Focused improvement in these areas will aid with troubleshooting issues, give insight on planning, and help implement strategies to streamline online sessions and get the most out of virtual communication.
Good planning is the cornerstone of any business meeting, educational class, and collaborative webcast. Before the pandemic, there were many options for virtual communication: Zoom, Webex, GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams, etc. These offerings have only expanded in recent months and have become important tools in our business toolbox. Being thoughtful about the virtual platform you select and being familiar with all that system’s features, tools, and your own hardware will prevent many issues and enable you to easily troubleshoot problems.
There are pros and cons to any virtual platform, and when selecting one, the parameters of the session should be carefully considered. How tech savvy are the participants? How hard will it be for them to log in to the session? Is it a simple click of the mouse or does it involve the more complicated process of downloading an online application? How reliable is the Internet for your participants? How user-friendly is the interface? Are your participants sharing a DSL link with the rest of their family? Each platform requires different levels of Internet bandwidth for optimal performance. Video functions are better in some, especially at low or unreliable signal strengths. Do you need breakout rooms to temporarily divide the participants into groups and give them their own, private room for a predetermined amount of time? This function is vital to education where trainings and classes regularly conduct exercises that involve independent, group work. There are also security features that must be considered. Some of the participants may work for companies that restrict certain platforms due to security concerns. This will be explored in more detail in a later section.
Next, consider how familiar the participants are with the functions, different tools, and applications of the platform. Most companies have a preferred platform and their employees become very familiar with the settings, leading to a streamlined meeting and rapid execution of desired functions with few awkward pauses, such as switching presenters or muting. If you are introducing a new platform or including participants who might not be familiar with your platform, consider creating a quick user guide. This can be a document with screenshots, explaining the basic and commonly used functions, or a few slides at the beginning of the session. This is especially important when inviting guest speakers. If they aren’t familiar with your platform, consider having a mini training session prior to the actual meeting or class to go through the basics so the final presentation is seamless. It might be advisable to start the meeting early and invite presenters to work out last-minute logistics before beginning.
There are some hardware choices and best practices that can be used to improve your remote sessions. Video has become a staple for any meeting or class and can go a long way toward fostering engagement. Be cognizant of background surroundings and eliminate nearby distractions. If you choose to use a virtual background as opposed to showing your actual background, ensure the picture choice is appropriate. Many companies and organizations have taken this opportunity to create a corporate background, displaying their logo and a professional backdrop. If you aren’t pleased with your image, check your video for a smudged lense and adjust the camera angle. You can also place lamps so that the light is shining on your face or move your desk in front of a window. If there is bright light behind you, the webcam might try to compensate and the image will appear dark. Also, consider your attire before a video conference begins. Many are working from home, and the jeans and T-shirt you wear around the house might not be appropriate for a business meeting.
When recording sessions, be cautious of Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act rules and always inform participants if you intend to record a session.
When troubleshooting audio issues, first verify your hardware (headset, microphone, earbuds) is working correctly and that the settings are fixed to the correct input and output. If there is feedback or echoes, double-check the mute feature to ensure it is on. You can often determine the origin of feedback or disruptive background noise by looking on the “Participant Window” to see whose microphone is actively picking up noise. Lastly, if the computer audio isn’t working well, most platforms give you an option of calling in on a phone.
Internet is crucial to virtual communication. For important sessions, you should have a backup plan for Internet outages (e.g., use a device that has a cellular signal or switch to a hardwired option). Here are some common factors that may affect bandwidth: using webcams, displaying video virtual backgrounds, actively using chat function, streaming videos, sharing your screen, switching between windows, or having too many programs/windows active on your desktop. Adjusting these items can help you troubleshoot issues such as screen freeze, digitized audio, or delays.
As advanced as our communication technology has become, virtual sessions are not a perfect substitute for in-person interaction. They can easily lead to miscommunication without thoughtful planning. These strategies will help you create a scope to keep your session on track and optimize your time together.
Preplanning helps set the objectives to be covered during the virtual session. This will also prioritize important topics near the beginning of the agenda, giving the session more direction and keeping the session on schedule. As part of the preplanning, the host will need to decide if participants will be required to have their webcams on or off during the session. Is it important for the host to see each participant during the presentation, or will this cause unnecessary distractions? A few weeks before the virtual session, it’s imperative to consider whether the participants will need access to materials for the training. If yes, then how will the participants receive this information? Will the materials be delivered electronically (e-mail, a cloud service, etc.) or will they be shipped to the participants? If shipment is necessary, beware of potential delays. Many shipping services are experiencing higher demand, and shipments that once took 2–3 days can now take up to 5 days, which could also equate to higher cost.
Once preplanning has taken place, consider the length of the session, because a virtual format often doesn’t translate well into an all-day activity or event. Consider limiting sessions to 2–3 hours at a time with 5- to 10-minute breaks built into each session to help prevent screen fatigue. If a longer session is needed, consider multiple sessions across multiple days instead of all-day sessions.
The number of participants is also part of the preplanning and should be considered as numbers greater than 20 decrease engagement and the ease of facilitation. Having a session with 30 to 40 participants is not only difficult to manage but also difficult for participant engagement without people talking over one another.
When in a remote setting, professional etiquette is often the first thing to go. Control must be applied consistently for everyone in attendance. An effective way to establish a professional setting is for the host/facilitator to lead by example. Minimizing or eliminating common distractions (pets, housework, and notifications constantly popping up on the presenter’s computer screen) will help facilitate proper etiquette in a virtual workplace.
This starts with the host setting clear session rules and holding everyone accountable, such as starting and ending on time, especially returning from a break. This sets the tone, nonverbally stating that the content being presented is important. It also is important to stick to an agenda and avoid spending time on topics outside the agenda. Suggest to those who prefer to stay off topic to take the conversation either to a breakout room or off-line. By doing this, the session starts and ends promptly; however, if the session is running longer than planned, consider creating a follow-up meeting instead of continuing past the allotted time.
Timed agendas are a great tool to avoid extended sessions. Remember to make the times realistic and include time for the welcome, introduction of guest speakers, wrap-up, and breaks if it’s a longer session. Designate a timekeeper, other than the session facilitator, to help the host focus their attention on the content being addressed during the session instead of focusing on the time. The timekeeper can then notify the host via chat or text messaging when 5 minutes remain, so the host can transition to a new topic.
When the session starts, the host should address participant etiquette and remind participants to remove external distractions such as screen notifications and cell phone noises/conversations. The mute feature might be the best tool against distractions. Facilitators should highlight this feature to all participants at the beginning of sessions, so they may monitor their own audio output. Lastly, participants should avoid interrupting the active speaker and instead wait for conversational pauses or use the chat feature to interject thoughts without disturbing the meeting flow and causing delays.
Virtual sessions must accomplish everything that an on-site meeting would, with the disadvantage of screen fatigue due to tedious online sessions. Engagement best practices will help you craft strategies to maximize participant focus and facilitate positive interaction.
When you call a participant by their name, versus their user name or email address, it gives the participants a sense of ownership and value within the session. This emphasizes the importance of ensuring that participant names are correct (and recognizable) within the participant window of the virtual platform. Being able to clearly identify everyone fosters interaction with the host and everyone in attendance.
Virtual platforms offer various means of communicating with the host and other participants privately or exploring open dialogue with everyone on the call. Another way to promote active engagement is by asking participants to use the unmute, chat, or “raise hand” feature to answer open-ended questions by the host. Using polls, surveys, whiteboards, and other virtual tools will help with screen fatigue and increase engagement as well as knowledge retention. By increasing the engagement with the participants, the host can better gauge the participants’ understanding and correct any misunderstandings that may have occurred instead of waiting until the end of the session.
Finally, being creative with the type of presentation software used can help catch attendee interest and reduce screen fatigue. Are the words large enough, do the colors clash, is there too much animation happening on the slide, is there a video that could be used, and is there another tool that could be used to present this information? Since virtual learning has become part of our world, the online community has come together to create wonderful and useful online tools to captivate and engage participants. Explore some of those tools to see how they can be incorporated into current training.
Planning is imperative to an effective, online session, but implementation is where the rubber meets the road. Careful thought should be applied to meeting facilitation to ensure effective communication and participant engagement.
When facilitating your first virtual session, it’s a good practice to conduct a dry run of the presentation and explore the features of the virtual software with another individual who will provide honest, constructive feedback. Don’t rush through the process, because practice will enable a smoother virtual session for both the host and the participants. On the day of the remote session, have a backup facilitator to help participants with technical issues, monitor the chat, and alert the host/instructor/speaker of time limits.
Being prepared to facilitate virtual learning also means planning for the unknown. If the Wi-Fi goes down for the host, is there a backup plan? Perhaps the host can download a virtual software app, prior to beginning the session, and use their cell phone if they have Internet interruptions. What if a participant joined at the last minute and needs the materials for the session? Have a digital link pasted into a separate document that can easily be copied and shared privately with the participant. What if the host wants to share a page from a book virtually? A phone or tablet’s camera, along with the virtual software app, can be used to accomplish this. When facilitating a virtual session, planning will save a lot of wasted time.
Many virtual software platforms provide the option to save the chat discussions so the host can use them for meeting notes. The host could e-mail the notes to those who had misunderstandings or questions that were not addressed during the session.
Finally, prior to concluding the virtual session, the host should revisit the objectives/agenda and address any topics that may have been missed. If there was a guest speaker, the host should thank the guest speaker and participants for taking time to be part of the virtual session. Lastly, solicit feedback by asking the participants to complete an online survey with three to five questions, before leaving the session, to drive continuous improvement.
During the pandemic, vulnerabilities in virtual security have become a priority for most businesses. Instances of unauthorized participants in confidential meetings and cases of “Zoom bombing” have appeared in the news and across social media. There have also been fears of virtual spying by rival companies or foreign nations. Care needs to be given to protecting the integrity of your online session.
If the session involves participants from different companies and organizations, be cognizant if they have any restrictions. Some companies have specific security stipulations and do not allow certain platforms to be used, and some platforms could be impaired due to firewalls.
Depending on the nature and level of confidentiality of the session, security precautions can be taken with any platform to restrict unauthorized access. Most platforms also give you the option of using a session password, or it might be possible to issue the invitations via the platform to ensure that only individuals specifically invited are sent the session login information. Another means of preventing unauthorized participants is to avoid publishing the meeting links on social media, magazines, newspapers, websites, white papers, etc. Lastly, if a session is extremely confidential or if a training involves a certification or exam, verify the participants’ identification by asking them to hold their picture ID to the video camera.
For small sessions, reach out to any of the participants and inquire ahead of time if they have any security restrictions. Scheduling a short practice session or inviting everyone to log in a few minutes early to practice is a great way to work out security or logistical issues before the session starts.
Even before the pandemic, loneliness was cited as one of the major disadvantages to working from home. In this day, when a large portion of the population continues to work and learn remotely, virtual communication is a means of establishing a meaningful connection and much needed social interaction. Online meetings and classes are imperative but often lack a vital cornerstone of communication: body language. Don’t take for granted how many nonverbal nuances and cues you can pick up on by being in the same room with your fellow coworkers, colleagues, and students. It’s vital to verbally emphasize alignment points to ensure that everyone is on the same page. During an on-site meeting, much of this communication is handled via eye contact and facial expressions. Even video calls often miss these small gestures of affirmation, disagreement, or confusion.
It's very possible to make continuous improvements to these sessions through careful planning and implementation surrounding logistics, scope, etiquette, engagement, facilitation, and security. Clear communication is imperative for business meetings, trainings, and everyday correspondence. Although circumstances have forced widespread adoption of virtual interactions, this remote communication will probably continue even after normalcy resumes. Thoughtful planning and adoption of best practices can prevent misunderstandings, greatly contribute to increased engagement and streamlined sessions, and achieve effective communication, even in a virtual setting.
Wendy White, M.Sc., is project manager, food safety and quality, at the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP), Georgia Institute of Technology. By enhancing food safety and quality systems, Wendy helps food companies achieve compliance with governmental regulations and exceed customer expectations. She holds leadership positions in the Georgia Association of Food Protection and the International Association of Food Protection. She also serves on the editorial advisory board of Food Safety Magazine.
Jennifer Stone, M.Ed., Ed.S., is a senior instructional systems designer at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Jennifer works with GaMEP project managers and region managers to develop effective traditional and online training course materials.
This article was originally published in the April/May 2021 issue of Food Safety Magazine.