What’s OK and what’s not when meeting with people online?

Blog Category
By Barbara Roberts, WorkLife Office Executive Director

When we take our daily work into an online venue, whether Zoom, WebEx, Skype or discussion spaces, we need to remember it’s nonetheless a work setting. While we might still wear our fuzzy slippers no one can see, it’s important to remember that we need to maintain business decorum in our dress, manners, and comments. Here are some pointers to keep in mind to make your new work setting as professional, productive and personally respectable as possible. Let’s reflect on our ethics, and then look at some tips for effective participation.


Recognize that the internet is an extension of society, and the workplace. The internet and meeting spaces aren’t a new world in which anything goes, but rather, a new dimension of the world around us.1   Expectations and rights to civility and respect still pertain. 
Apply the same standards online as we do in public.  In simple terms, this means that the values society has in place against hate speech and bigotry... remain intact. Values around courtesy, kindness, openness, and treating others with the same respect we wish to receive should also be adhered to.1 The ability to participate anonymously or less visibly in some venues is not a license to be abusive, disrespectful or personally critical. Never say online what you wouldn’t say to another person’s face, or wouldn’t want to see printed in a newspaper. 
Treat one another with dignity, respect and civility. Refuse to allow abuse and harassment online. Where you are conducting a meeting, class or other virtual interaction, curb disruptive, disrespectful behavior. Harassment and bullying online are still harassment and bullying. These behaviors are prohibited by MSU, documented in various expectations2, and pertain to online participation as well.  
Acknowledging cultural differences.  Even when national boundaries no longer apply, cultural respect and tolerance should remain. This requires finding a way to accept that the social values and norms of some participants will not be the social values and norms of all participants. Share and explore ways to bridge differences effectively, with respect and honor of various views and experiences of online participation.1

And how we participate to make meetings work: 

Always dress like you would at work. Our colleagues see us, and we see them. Together, our appearances contribute to a tone of mutual respect and professionalism. Just by dressing like work still matters helps elevate the expectations of respectful conduct and productive meetings.  We don’t want to see you with a towel still around your hair, your favorite statement tee-shirt, or a hat hiding your eyes. We want to see you, looking like you’re ready and focused on work. 
Be mindful of the lighting of your setting. We are all suddenly making our personal home spaces into workstations that are visible to the world, or at least our colleagues, and who knows who on a webinar. Give some thought to what people see when you log into a meeting with your video on. Backlighting (your back to a window) makes it hard to see a person’s face, and a silhouette is like being masked in a news interview to hide your identity. For sighted people, it distracts from the conversation. We are at the table together; be fully present, clearly visible, or turn off your video.  
Consider distractions in the background. If you haven’t done the dishes, don’t bring them to the meeting in the background; turn your camera. Check your background using your camera or photo function before the meeting. If needed, drop a blanket, sheet or tapestry over your background if it’s too personal to share.  
Have the things you need for the meeting handy before logging in. Notepaper, pen, tablet, phone, power cord, earbuds, microphone, camera angle, water bottle, etc should all be ready to go when you hit “Join meeting”. Enter that room like you would any other, with a respectful greeting, and noting the tone of what’s already happening.  
Mute your mic until you need to speak. Background sounds of typing on your keyboard, clicking your pen, sounds in your house, the call you are just ending, can be a real distraction when amplified through your microphone.  
Use a talking stick mindset. With fewer body language cues available, it can be hard to know who wants to speak next.  Agree to speak one at a time, and agree on a signal or cue that you want to join the conversation rather than speaking over each other. It’s much harder, and more tiring, to conduct meetings online when multiple voices are heard at once. Locate and use the chat box to help facilitate speaking one at a time. Designate a chair or moderator to keep an eye on who has/hasn’t spoken, since not everyone participating can be seen. 
Consider captioning options if available. If you have difficulty hearing or members of your group do, consider incorporating closed captioning to enhance the experience and make it easier to keep up with the conversation. In some applications, captioning can also provide a record of the meeting, so it’s easier to pay attention without taking as many notes.