Remote work in 2021: More advice on virtual meetings

More remote-work relationship advice

At the end of 2020, Rhymer Rigby addressed how workers could deal with some of their colleagues’ annoying habits. In 2021, discussion of remote-work relationships continues with Rigby, a regular FM magazine contributor and the author of the book The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work. In this episode, Rigby is prompted to revisit a comment made in the summer about why Zoom or other video meeting platforms suddenly became the default for having a discussion.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • The reasons you should be more communicative with your manager in a remote-work setting.
  • How expectations should be set around productivity and availability.
  • Why our “fight or flight” instinct can kick in during a video meeting.
  • The reason some online meetings can feel like a “professional zoo”.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato, an
FM magazine senior editor, at


Neil Amato: Welcome to 2021 and welcome back to the FM podcast. I’m FM senior editor Neil Amato. Continuing the conversation with Rhymer Rigby, I asked him about people who tend to talk too much during meetings. We will also revisit his comment about when to do a video call when a simple, old-school phone call makes more sense. Here’s part two of the conversation with Rhymer.

A return guest on the FM podcast, Rhymer Rigby. This is something that maybe was always an issue, but it seems like in the virtual meeting world crops up more – dealing with the person who kind of hogs the meeting time, talks too much in a meeting. How do you deal with that?

Rhymer Rigby: I think you’re right. I think it’s changed, and in some ways, perhaps, changed a little bit for the better. Because when you’re in a room physically, you see a lot of typically men who dominate meetings because they are loud and confident. I think if you have a Zoom meeting it is perhaps easier because you can give everyone an allotted slot to talk. And I actually think this falls to the person who chairs the meeting. If you are the team leader or whoever is charged with chairing the meeting, you say to everyone, you have an allotted time to speak or you go ’round and you say, “That’s great. We’ve had five minutes of you, Peter, now let’s have five minutes of Lucy or Charlotte” or whoever it is.

It requires a different kind of chairpersonship, not chairmanship, and this is something that chairs have to do. And it is quite difficult, but I think in some ways actually perhaps Zoom meetings are slightly better for people who are less confident and likely to be shouted down by overconfident colleagues.

Amato: I guess on the other side of that topic, how do you stay visible to your manager, your colleagues, without hogging meeting time?

Rigby: I think you communicate as much as possible. I mean obviously you don’t want to do this too much and you don’t want to look needy. But out of sight is out of mind. And you cannot assume that people magically know that you’re working hard. So, you might update your boss, perhaps every other day or something like that with progress in what you’re doing. You know, just say to them, “I’m working on this presentation” or whatever it is you’re doing. Or, “I’m setting up this deal”; “here is what I’ve done.” Make sure they know you’ve done it. And I think that is probably the best way of doing it.

I think you also have to — you know, some people are very happy working on their own. I’ve worked from home for 20 years, and one thing I’ve learned is that you do need to schedule in face time — in this this case, Zoom time — when you need to say, “Look, can we talk about this?” And I think one very good goal, one very good rule of thumb is if you’ve sent more than three emails, pick up the phone and speak to the person. Because you create a connection there, and you achieve far more in a five-minute phone call than you do in sending a dozen emails back and forth to a person.

I think you need to be quite proactive about these things. And, also calling colleagues to discuss things, not just your boss. I think that way, you keep work relationships alive.

Amato: Remote relationships as we start 2021. In a boss-worker relationship these days, how should expectations be set around productivity and availability?

Rigby: I think in some ways this has been pretty good. Because one of the problems we’ve always had is that people are judged on how present they are, presenteeism. Rather than the work they actually do. And when everyone is working from home, it’s far easier to judge them on their output rather than their input. The trick is you sort of sit down with your boss or virtually sit down with your boss and you agree what is good — what needs to be done and what is going to be done and what is a realistic schedule for it. And perhaps remote working has made people a lot better at doing this.

Amato: So how does one impress a boss in a remote work setting?

Rigby: I think in some ways it’s not that different to before. It’s perhaps just more focused around you deliver really good work. You know, you deliver good work on time. If you do that, you’re probably ahead of about 85% of people. I suppose you also you come up with new ideas, you show the initiative. You try and think about how things should be done better. None of which is actually new, but perhaps what is the difference is if you think, well, actually, we’re doing this the wrong way, you might actually sit down and write a couple of paragraphs on how it might be done better and then send it to your boss.

Which is great because your boss definitely knows the idea came from you. You don’t have that sort of thing where you’ve mentioned it to them in a corridor, and they then repeat it as their own idea because they’ve forgotten that you told them. People are more judged now on what they actually do, although we still have days and days of Zoom meetings, which I’m not convinced are good for anyone.

Amato: Yeah, we will get to those very quickly in this part of the conversation. It’s been put to me that, on the topic of networking or building relationships, that if you had a relationship with someone before, you’re OK in this remote-work world because you know each other and you can be comfortable with each other. But in terms of building new relationships when so many of us are remote, how do you start that? I mean if you’ve got to be in a sales relationship or just get to know some new partner or collaborator, how do you do that in the remote realm?

Rigby: I think you’re right. I think it’s enormously tough. And it’s going to be fascinating as we start to go back to work to see how people who have joined companies but never actually physically met their boss and their team fit in and don’t know the company culture. Because you used to show up at work and you’d start sort of absorbing the company culture almost by osmosis. And your direct reports — not your direct reports — your colleagues would probably have lunch with you, and [absorbing culture] just happens. So, I think it’s tough. I think it particularly affects younger people because they have spent less time in the world of work and, therefore, also don’t have large networks.

But then young people are more used to doing things digitally anyway. You want to build a relationship with your boss, so you might say, “I only just started. Can we have a kind of half-hour debrief at the end of my first week?” or something like that. I think also to some extent, can you do things socially on Zoom? I know some companies try to. You have to do some less formal interaction if you are to build relationships with people. And perhaps that might be just joining a team WhatsApp group or something where stuff is informally discussed. Or just WhatsApping colleagues. I think you need to create these informal online networks, because otherwise it is all incredibly transactional.

Amato: It’s a good point about the informal networks but, yeah, it’s still is different. It’s just different.

Rigby: Yeah, and I don’t — honestly, do I think it’s as good as face to face? No, I don’t, because if I’m having a face-to-face discussion with you, I can read your expression. I can read your body language.

Amato: You touched on this in our previous discussion on remote work on an FM podcast published in August and I’m going to go back to it. Wondering why people seem to default to a video meeting? So how can a phone call still be useful, and when is the right time for a phone call versus a video meeting?

Rigby: I mean if you think back, people used to have conference calls all the time. So, I think where a video meeting can be useful is that you don’t see each other. So, yeah, it’s great, it’s great to kind of like for me to see my boss’s face or my direct report’s face and get a sort of feel for being with them. But as I say, to do back-to-back Zoom meetings all day is incredibly tiring. Um, and I think can make you sort of quite grouchy; it can give you a really bad headache. I think you should probably limit Zoom meetings to a couple a day, maybe even just one a day. Because 90% of stuff, unless you’re sharing slides, you don’t really need to see the other person. And I think somehow it has become the norm. But I’m not quite sure why it’s become the norm without necessarily adding much value or any value.

Amato: Why is Zoom or any other type of video meeting so exhausting?

Rigby: You sort of feel like you’re looking at somebody, but there’s usually a tiny lag. And that means eye contact is not real. And that I think is quite tiring. The fact that you can see someone’s head or shoulders, I think a couple of psychologists have suggested that triggers a sort of fight-or-flight mechanism. You feel like somebody is up in your face, and, particularly if you are two men, that’s quite an aggressive stance. You also are constantly looking off at a small picture of yourself, which is incredibly distracting.

If you think about if I was on the phone to you, I could be walking around the room. I could be doing other things which are perhaps relaxing. Whereas if I’m on a video call to you, all my attention is being taken — but not necessarily in a terribly productive way. I think particularly, if you have a dozen people on your screen, you can feel like you’re in a sort of a sort of digital version of one of those Victorian prisons, which were designed for maximum visibility. You feel a bit like you’re in a kind of professional zoo. That I think is pretty discomforting as well.

Amato: That’s all for now with Rhymer Rigby. In the next part of the conversation we’ll explore this topic: How is career management different in 2021? Thanks for listening to the FM magazine podcast.