Mastering Online Meetings: Industry Embraces A New Reality

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The pandemic brought changes to the way most companies do business, and the self-storage industry is no exception. One challenge to be addressed was how to continue to meet with co-workers and clients to exchange important information. With more people working remotely, holding meetings via video conferencing apps such as Zoom has become a new norm for self-storage businesses.

Whether meeting with staff or clients, there are plusses and minuses to consider. The technology can have glitches, and if you’re used to meeting face to face, video can seem impersonal. When it comes to productivity, however, online meetings lead to fewer people talking with less casual chatter before and after the meeting. Although video conferencing may not be everyone’s preferred way of communicating, it could be here to stay.

A Practical Tool
Anne Marie DeCoster, COO of Newport Beach, Calif.-based StoreLocal, a co-op of independent self-storage operators, participates in as many as 12 online meetings per day. Some meetings are one-on-one, while others include as many as 50 attendees. “It’s the new way of doing business,” DeCoster says. “When people can’t have face-to-face meetings, at least we can see each other.”

DeCoster is thrilled to see how quickly self-storage businesses adapted to online meetings. “Clearly, this has accelerated the rate of technology adoption in the industry,” she says. “You couldn’t get anyone on a video conference before March.” Another upside, she says, is that companies are saving money on travel.

Carol Krendl, president of Tucson, Ariz.-based SkilCheck, a company that provides sales training and consulting to self-storage businesses, conducts online meetings several hours each day. Because online training has been a part of their business model for several years, SkilCheck has invested in the GoToWebinar program. “We pay for it because you can have a better platform and have a plan with 300 people on it,” she says, “but small owners will love Zoom because it’s free. For some self-storage companies, this is an amazing technology, and it’s going to help with their training process.”

For Claudia Johnson, advertising sales executive for Phoenix-based MiniCo, online meetings are a new way to do business. She uses Zoom for sales calls with advertisers and potential advertisers, usually one on one. “At first there was a learning curve on how to use the microphone and camera,” Johnson recalls. “The first meeting I had was just atrocious. She couldn’t hear me or see me.” But Johnson soon became proficient at using the technology.

Johnson feels Zoom is a big improvement over telephone meetings. “A phone call was productive, but Zoom is more personal,” she says. “You can read a person’s body language. I feel like the relationship is better now with clients I had never met. It’s like you know them now.” She expects to use Zoom for meeting with clients going forward.

Disadvantages
Of course, video conferencing has its downside. “There are distractions,” Krendl says. “Some of the stores don’t have their cameras on, so we don’t know if they’re listening. They may be also trying to run the store while we’re doing training.”

Krendl notes that studies have shown that people’s attention span while watching a video is only 15 or 20 minutes. “About the amount of time until there’s a commercial when you’re watching a television show,” she says. “We’ve been trained that way. This is our attention span.” She also misses the interaction with people you can only have in person. “It’s creating a feeling that you’re by yourself a lot,” says Krendl.

“Zoom Burnout” is another unwanted effect of online meetings. The brain has to work harder to pick up on the non-verbal signals people send through body language—something our brains do effortlessly when face to face. We also can’t make eye contact online, and in meetings where you can see the other participants in thumbnail screens, it’s difficult to stay focused on the speaker’s image.

Sitting in one place and staring at a screen can drain us physically as well. Shifting positions or taking notes can be misinterpreted as lack of interest, so people tend to stay in one position more than they would in person. In addition, video conferencing can make people more self-conscious because they can see their own image as well as the speaker’s. If a participant is concerned about how they appear, this can be a huge distraction.

Any of these factors can cause stress, fatigue, and anxiety. Experts recommend that, if possible, you should go offline completely following a video meeting to allow yourself time to recover and recharge.
Strategies For Success

Whether by choice or necessity, it appears that online meetings will be with us for a while if not forever. Thus, it’s important to make sure your meetings are successful. Since Zoom Burnout is a real thing, a good place to start is deciding whether the types of meetings you would typically hold in house are really necessary online. If a phone conversation or a detailed email will suffice, it may be best to go this route. An important question to ask is: Who really needs to attend? If a person’s attendance isn’t critical, it may be best not to disrupt their workday.

DeCoster bought a standing desk so she can vary her position during long meetings. She also reoriented her office to make it better for video conferencing and to create a more interesting background. She says the biggest challenge is holding the attention of attendees. “I try to be welcoming. I try to humanize it,” DeCoster says. “I have a smile on my face, and I use humor as much as I can. To keep them engaged, I talk to them and call them by name.”

Props are another way DeCoster has been able to draw people’s interest. Among her favorites are a gavel, a large “easy button,” and some glasses that light up. “Little things you get at trade shows are great props,” she says, adding that she moves items on her bookcase to see if anyone notices. “I try to make it memorable.”

Krendl agrees that it’s important to constantly engage your attendees and suggests taking frequent polls to keep them involved. “I might ask, ‘How many of you are doing auctions right now?’ for example,” she says.

To make meetings go smoothly and professionally, it’s important to master the technology. Johnson recommends practicing before you hold your first meeting. “Before you do anything, get familiar with where everything is in Zoom,” she says, “and read the articles on their site to get tips.”

Johnson experimented with her background and suggests facing the window, adjusting the camera to eye level, and creating a professional setting. “Find a private room,” she recommends. “No barking dogs or people walking around in the background.”

It’s important to consider how your background will appear on video. “I saw my pile of magazines and moved them because people would be distracted by my mess,” Johnson says. She prefers a real setting to any of the virtual backgrounds that video conferencing apps offer. “They can be very distracting for me because I’ll be looking at the background,” Johnson says. “Even a plain Zoom background can look odd because it’s not natural. Just clear your space or set up against a plain wall.”

DeCoster says it’s important to look and dress professionally. “I try to lead by example,” she says. “I get up every day and I get ready for work—the clothes, the hair, the whole get-it-together experience.” At the beginning of the pandemic, people were appearing in video conferences looking like they just rolled out of bed. “Nobody’s doing that anymore,” she says.

Good audio quality will also make your meeting better for attendees. “I use my air pods and I use the audio on my phone,” DeCoster says. “It’s crisper and cleaner and I’m not hurting their ears with my background noises. Don’t use the computer audio.”

Moving Forward
Since the pandemic, DeCoster says that in addition to how meetings are conducted, she has seen other changes in the industry. She believes it has spurred a greater demand for modern technology since more customers are comfortable renting without visiting the facility first. “Consumers have already been trained by Amazon for a certain level of customer service, and now the self-storage industry is stepping in to meet that expectation,” she says.

Krendl has also seen some impressive changes. “There has been a huge uptick in the number of calls at the StoreQuest call center,” she says. “Calls have increased by four or five thousand per month. Usually, they say they don’t want to do anything on the phone. Now, it’s totally different. This isn’t the storage business I’ve known.”

Advertising has remained steady as well. “We were just getting ready to launch our new website when the pandemic hit,” says Johnson. “Some people are taking advantage of new opportunities because online traffic has picked up a lot with people staying home more.”

Moreover, this is not a time for advertisers to disappear. “Strategically, you can cut back, but if you cancel completely, you’re no longer visible,” Johnson says. “If you aren’t visible, people ask, ‘Where are they?’ or they forget about you completely.”

At the end of the day, Krendl believes it’s good for the self-storage industry to accept video conferencing as part of doing business. “Let’s just embrace this technology,” she says. “We can do some things online that we weren’t doing before. There is a value in this.” Some changes brought about by the pandemic are sure to remain, and video conferencing may be a practice that is here to stay.
Tammy LeRoy is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis, Ind., and is a longtime contributor to Mini-Storage Messenger.

Tips For Hosting Video Meetings
Many of the rules for virtual meetings are the same for in-person meetings, and they simply come down to good manners. Being respectful, paying attention, not interrupting, not eating or drinking, being appropriately dressed, and minding your body language are a few examples. Zoom Video Communications, Inc., suggests also following these guidelines:

  1. Make sure to introduce everyone at the beginning. Use this time to create a welcoming environment.
  2. Ensure that you have a clean, work-appropriate background. Whether you find a tidy, non-personalized background in your home or use a virtual background, make sure the environment is not a distraction for attendees.
  3. Look into the camera when talking instead of looking at yourself. Position your web camera at eye level so you can look into the camera and simulate eye-to-eye contact.
  4. Eliminate distractions and focus on the agenda. Notifications from messaging applications, ringtones, and applications running on your desktop can be distracting, which can make your attendees feel disrespected and undervalued.
  5. Be aware of your audio and video settings. Check whether your microphone is unmuted and that your camera is on to ensure that all attendees can hear you and see you when you speak.
  6. Only invite meeting participants who need to be there. Inviting co-workers who don’t need to participate or make decisions can be detrimental to the quality of the meeting, because you can send other stakeholders a summary of the meeting. You don’t want to be the person in your organization known for scheduling lots of unproductive meetings.
  7. If you’re the host, stick around. The general rule for meeting hosts: Wait until everyone else has left the meeting before hanging up, so attendees can leave at their own pace and get any final words in before disconnecting.

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