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We are a growing company with 12 employees. We all work virtually and meet in the office once a month or two. Office meetings are efficient compared to virtual meetings, but as everyone is working in different parts of the country, we can't have an office every day.

The primary problem I observed is that every employee keeps their microphone muted during the meeting, and only my cofounder speaks during the meeting, waiting for employee feedback when asked questions. They still keep the microphone muted, unless asked a specific person to speak up. There is also a wait when the microphone is muted, the employee takes a few seconds to unmute, then answer, go back to mute again. This keeps on repeating wasting a lot of time.

The simple solution is just making it compulsory to keep the microphone unmuted unless they are in a public place, but I also want to respect their privacy so I really don't know how to tackle it.

How can I let them understand that it is not nice of them and makes communication inefficient without making it feel like an order or scolding?

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    I'm sorry. This is inane. Everyone else in the world leaves their microphone muted until they're going to speak. Is the 2 second delay really that inefficient? Is it really that big a waste of time? You'd rather hear all of the background noise and echo from everyone's microphone than wait 2 seconds for them to unmute themselves? My advice? Find a different hill to die on.
    – joeqwerty
    Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 18:30
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    It seems your issue is not so much with the muting (which is just good manners as explained by one of the answers) but rather with the lack of enthusiastic participation?
    – AsheraH
    Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 20:33
  • Do not require this. As a rule, you need to have your microphone muted if there are more than 4 participants. With 10-12 unmuted microphones, it's going to be absolute chaos. There is always going to be interruptions, whether it's dogs, kids, significant others, phone calls, computer alerts, traffic noise, ambulance noise, etc. Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 3:03
  • I'm a little confused by this part: "...my cofounder speaks during the meeting, waiting for employee feedback when asked questions...". If everyone is muted, who asked the cofounder a question? Do you mean the Cofounder asks questions and has to wait for answers? I think you're saying that no one will answer the Cofounder's questions unless they are directed at a specific person. Is that right?
    – BSMP
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 16:49
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    @joeqwerty: I think this has breached inane and ventured straight into asinine. Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 21:26

6 Answers 6

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It seems like what the employees are doing is good etiquette.

Keeping microphones muted when not speaking is better. It cuts down on background noise that could drown out the person speaking. Using the "raise hand" feature, if your meeting app supports it, and having a facilitator call on people can also reduce problems where people are talking over each other because they don't have good cues about who wants to speak and when.

A couple of seconds to wait for someone to have the space turned over to them and for them to unmute their microphone seems like a far better alternative than background noise or people talking over each other and apologizing or stumbling to get their ideas out.

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If you want employees to participate you need to have participatory meetings

It sounds to me like you have meetings where you are talking at the employees, not having a discussion with them. Meetings where the leader talks and then asks for input are the worst. These are the meetings that should be replaced by email updates. My guess is that, in fact, employees are not engaged, because sitting listening to someone talk isn't engaging. Muting lets people get work done during the meeting instead of you listening to everyone's keyoards.

If the purpose of the meeting is for the bosses, that's fine, but don't expect everyone else to be fired up about them. If the meetings are for the employees, maybe you should re-evaluate the topics and invite lists of the calls.

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    Agreed. This also puts employees on the spot, where they probably need some time to formulate their feedback. Send the announcement first, and if necessary, make a meeting about it later, when everyone has had the time to prepare.
    – jaskij
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 16:24
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It does not make communication inefficient, on the contrary. You are not in that scale yet, but when a meeting has 40-ish people in the room, all with the microphone unmuted, there is always somebody with disturbing noises, so much so that they have to ask them to mute themselves.

Plus, if everyone is unmuted and some hot topic comes by, you will encounter lots of collisions from people trying to speak at the same time, or interrupting the speaker.

It is way more polite that everyone keep their microphones muted (or unmuted, or "unmuted" -some headsets include a mute button / switch in the boom mic which is more efficient than clicking on the chat app-), and when they need to speak, they can use the "raise hand" feature prominent in most chat applications, or, if not available, the chat, or simply wait for the turn for questions.

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As pointed out in the other answers, in most cases the small delay in mute/unmute is worth it over having to listen to dozens of keyboards, barking dogs and other background noise. However in certain scenarios it can be worth having everyone unmuted, but the reason for doing so should be clearly motivated.

I work for a much larger company and in 90% of meetings the best etiquette is to only unmute when you speak. For meetings of the type I call "information meetings" (where one or a few people speak and the rest spends the majority of time listening and only ask/answer the occasional question) this should be the preferred method.

In other meetings that are more discussion based (especially brainstorming meetings) there can be benefits to have everyone unmuted, since the small additional effort of unmuting might make make people less inclined to interject something. This is only applicable if there are around 2-8 participants that are expected to be actively discussing things.

In my team we had noticed that for our monthly retrospective we had much better discussions when we were all present than when we held them remotely. We as a team then decided that we for these meetings all have our cameras on and microphones unmuted to get better discussions.

If your meeting is of the type that requires everyone's constant participation you can do something similar to one of my colleagues that includes the following in the meeting invitation:

In this meeting we enable video, and avoid muting ourselves (if possible), for richer communication

Just make sure that you don't overuse it.

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How can I let them understand that it is not nice of them and makes communication inefficient without making it feel like an order or scolding?

What's the part that's not nice? Is is that they're practicing virtual meeting etiquette? It seems you're really out of touch about how things work outside your company of twelve. Here are some links that all have the same approach to muting:

Virtual Meeting Etiquette - 9 Rules Every Professional Should Follow

The 7 Rules of Virtual Meeting Etiquette Every Professional Should Know - Goto Meeting

Virtual Meeting Etiquette: The Dos and Don’ts

I'm also sensing that you and your co-founder seem to want the benefit of having a skilled remote work force with talent drawn from more than your own local area(s), but maybe you didn't consider the drawbacks of remote work as well as you might have. If there's an occasion where you want all hands in the conversation, then you need to encourage your team members to find a quiet working space for a specific date and time where they can accommodate such a request, or find (and pay for) such a space for them -- such as co-working spaces that have private meeting or "huddle" rooms. You can't place that kind of expectation on your staff in an impromptu fashion or on a repeated basis, because they will bail out quickly to go work for some other business that's not adding such a strain to their lives.

Best of luck.

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Don't look to one meeting to fill all the communications needs. There are multiple types of "meetings" and when recreating an office situation in virtual space, it is important to build multiple channels in that virtual space.

You mention a meeting where the co-founder speaks. These are company information meetings and the format that you mention is a good format for them.

Another type of meeting is when a few people get together to hash out an issue. In those meetings, having everyone able to speak is important. What you want with having everyone unmuted fits here. It is important to realize that these are a different kind of meeting, needing fewer people, and a different format. It is rare that a cofounder would be in on or lead such a meeting (unless it is a meeting of his/her team and hashing out corporate direction).

A third type of communication is where two people meet informally and simply share a bit of information. This information can be work related or not. Companies often set up "side channels" strictly for this kind of communication. Tools like Slack can be used for this.

If your team is not communicating informally, you are likely to be having problems where one person might not know something that someone else knows well. As your team grows, this side channel communication is very important for bringing on new people and you may need to have a process to bring such new people into the side channel.

Another type of communication is a companywide celebration.

In short, don't try to make one meeting fit all the communications needs of a company.

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