Unmute Your Mic on Zoom for Better Conversations
An ‘open mic’ approach can encourage greater engagement
On a recent Zoom call, Bridget Fahrland and two colleagues kept their microphones on, allowing the sounds of home life to filter in. One colleague’s son popped into the frame. Another repeatedly shushed her boomer parents who were chatting nearby. Fahrland’s seven-year-old melted down when the movie Coco ended in the next room.
At the end, they all declared the meeting a success.
A muted microphone is typically one of the first things hosts enforce to minimize distractions on video meetings. But some teams are finding that an “open mic” approach can help virtual meetings feel more natural, with more meaningful discussions and greater engagement.
“The thing I like about unmuting is it keeps you focused on the conversation,” says Fahrland, head of digital strategy at Astound Commerce, based in San Francisco. Instead of being tempted to check the latest headlines, Covid-19 maps, or Slack, she notes, “I was actually paying attention the whole time.”
The larger the group, the more patience, trust, and planning are needed to pull off a successful unmuted meeting. But for participants who are less likely to speak up — a group that often includes shy people, those with marginalized identities, and women — an open mic can make all the difference.
Creating a more welcoming space
Encouraging people to unmute online can bring in some of the humanity we get from in-person meetings, says Heidi Wisbach, a senior vice president at FROM, a digital innovation agency.
Over video, it’s much harder for leaders to read the room: to sense how the team is taking in news, who has an idea, or how long to pause and wait for people to weigh in during a brainstorm. A muted videoconference can make those leading a call feel like they’re speaking into a void, much like a late-night TV host broadcasting from their kitchen without a laugh track.
But when the background noise is allowed in, Wisbach says, that profound awkwardness is lessened. “Attendees hear not just the substantive responses, but also the ‘B-roll’ of subtle feedback that helps us feel the…