Office of the VP for Communications – Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

5 lessons to help you Zoom back in

Ready, class?

Throughout this pandemic, we’ve heard countless stories of educators struggling to engage remote students through their computer screens. But we hear less about what CEOs and managers are doing to keep their far-flung employees motivated and connected.

In the title of his 2018 landmark article in Harvard Business Review, Sydney Finkelstein of Dartmouth College notes “the best leaders are great teachers.” He takes this idea one step further, concluding that “if you’re not teaching, you’re not really leading.”

U-M’s Noel Tichy makes a similar argument in his book The Cycle of Leadership: How Great Leaders Teach Their Companies to Win, where he notes “the essence of leading is not commanding, but teaching.” Average leaders set goals for their teams, but great leaders, Tichy explains, also provide teams with the motivation and knowledge necessary to achieve those goals.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has placed business leaders at the same disadvantage as other educators. They have had to use still-developing video communication technology to engage employees scattered around the world — at a time when employee engagement is of utmost importance. A survey of 9,000 managers and employees commissioned by Microsoft and the Boston Consulting Group — and supervised by U-M graduate Michael Parke of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania — indicated they lose a sense of purpose when working remotely.

During the pandemic, I started using Zoom to teach negotiation courses to MBA and undergraduate students, some of whom were stranded by lockdowns around the world. (Please enjoy my suite of free negotiation tools for the courses mentioned in this post.)

I’ve recently used other video conferencing platforms to present webinars to professional groups in the United States, Asia, and South America. I want to share the following five lessons, based on my experiences so far.

Come on and Zoom

1. Select video features intentionally.

The good news is that a video conferencing platform like Zoom includes features that meet a variety of teaching needs — you can chat, conduct a poll, share screens, record, use breakout rooms, annotate materials, or add captions. The bad news is that using too many of these features at one time can complicate and dilute the learning experience. When designing learning experiences, take to heart Thoreau’s plea in Walden to “simplify, simplify.”

For example, I do not direct participants to use Zoom’s chat function because I don’t want my students to multitask during class. I also do not use the polling feature extensively, so that I do not distract them from the main discussion.

But I do use the features in ways that serve my intentions. Instead of setting up my iPad or other device as a whiteboard, I find it simpler to use the platform’s annotation feature. And because I appreciate the ability of polls to keep students engaged, I use the voting feature that allows students to respond to questions with a simple “yes” or “no.” In a post-course evaluation, one student noted, “I liked the ‘yes or no’ voting feature that was utilized a lot by the professor because it helped make me feel more engaged in class.”

2. Solve the “eye contact” dilemma.

In their June 2020 Harvard Business Review article, “You Might Not Be Hearing Your Team’s Best Ideas,” Parke of Wharton and Elad Sherf of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, highlight skills leaders can use to bring out the best in others. These include asking questions, inviting ideas, following up, and creating a sense of psychological safety.

These skills are easier to apply during in-person meetings, where you can maintain eye contact and scan participants’ facial expressions to gauge whether they understand the material or need encouragement to speak up.

In Zoom interactions, such skills are far more difficult to practice. The “Hollywood Squares”-type boxes that display participants’ faces are small, and everyone present might not fit on one screen. Noticing when someone wants to make a comment or respond to a question can be difficult.

When I first started teaching over Zoom, I tried to scan my students’ faces as I would in a physical classroom, but this distracted me from maintaining eye contact with the camera. I finally stuck a note near my camera with “look here” written on it as a reminder. I also take advantage of the “Raise Hand” icon, which allows me to call on students in the order that they volunteer.

This solution is not perfect, as some students are so enthusiastic about participating that they click the icon before I can complete my questions. As a student noted in an email, “The raise hand feature was helpful but it can lead to the fastest person who clicks the button getting chosen each time.” To prevent “quick-draw” students from dominating class discussion, I occasionally skip them, noting that “I want to give Sue a rest by calling on Pete.” In this way, I still can make sure that everyone is heard.

3. Improve the 70-percent expectation.

Video conferencing platforms present a number of technology challenges, from video freezing to students forgetting to unmute. Because of such interruptions, there is a consensus among faculty that they should expect to cover only around 70 percent of the material online that they would typically cover in a traditional in-person course.

To increase this percentage, I have worked to make my own presentation more efficient. Students now complete a larger percentage of the coursework before class. And instead of the 90 minutes I normally would set aside for team-based discussion of a case on negotiation ethics, I ask the entire class to discuss a shorter scenario. Then I have them watch “The Burger Murders,” a five-minute YouTube video of the shorter case that Christine Ladwig of Southeast Missouri State University and I developed for TED in July 2020.

4. Address Zoom fatigue.

As one of my students recently put it, “I don’t think I would’ve felt the same level of fatigue from an all-day class if we had been in person.” So-called “Zoom fatigue” is exacerbated by the fact that a course that begins at 8 a.m. in Michigan starts at 5 a.m. for students in California and at 9 p.m. for students in China. A course that ends at 5:30 p.m. Eastern time finishes at 4 a.m. the next morning in India.

To address this fatigue, I continually engage students with different activities, including lectures, team-based breakout sessions, videos, and interactive case discussions. As noted, I also stand as I teach, which students say increases their energy levels.

When I mentioned this approach to a colleague, he gave me a puzzled look before asking, “If you stand, wouldn’t the camera be aimed at your belt buckle?” My desk is adjustable, so the camera rises with it when I adjust its height to stand.

5. Embrace flexibility — and humility.

Teaching from my home study has presented problems that I had never faced with in-person learning. Would I have to manage a hardware failure or a power outage during class? Would the video platform crash? What lighting adjustments should I make — for example, to minimize an unwanted halo effect on my balding head caused by an overhead light? How do I minimize outside noise such as the loud hum of my neighbor’s lawnmower? How would I respond if Zoombombers hacked into the course?

The students also encountered unique challenges. One student was forced to drop my course after contracting COVID-19; another missed class because of contact tracing. One student had Wi-Fi problems when he had to move into isolation after his girlfriend contracted COVID-19; another lost his broadband connection when he and his 10 roommates streamed at the same time. A new mother had to turn off her camera periodically when pumping breast milk for her son; others coped with distractions from family members or family pets.

That’s why we all must embrace flexibility. When one student lost Wi-Fi twice during a key negotiation exercise, she called in on her phone. I also established a chain of communication to reach students if the internet connection failed, and I kept my laptop turned on and ready to go in case my desktop computer failed.

As it turned out, I lost connection with students only once, and the lapse lasted only for a few seconds. A class recording captured the reactions of two students who forgot they were being recorded. “Did we lose him?” asked Student A. To which Student B responded, “Yeah, awesome.”

This exchange offers a final lesson for leaders: Maintain a touch of humility as you navigate this technology. Every moment is an opportunity to learn and refine your teaching skills.

Teaching is an essential skill

As a larger number of people continue to work remotely, it’s likely that leaders will continue to use video conferencing to keep their teams engaged, even after the threat of COVID-19 has passed. After all, providing teams with motivation and a sense of purpose will always be an essential part of leadership.

By perfecting the five skills above, leaders can become even better teachers — which will serve them well when working with their teams virtually.

(This post is adapted from a post that originally appeared on ‘AACSB Insights’ at The lead image features the animated members of the Michigan News team in a weekly staff meeting.)


  1. Sushil Birla - 1997

    Very educational article. Thank you, Prof. Siedel.


  2. Warren Williamson - 1953

    Congratulations George on continuing to teach with all the changes this occupation has presented.
    We are proud that you still carry our name.
    Bud Williamson


  3. Jonathan Boyd - 1982

    Great to hear your insights and I’ll include some in our weekly staff meeting. I also have an adjustable sit/stand desk, but didn’t think of how that can give some additional variety to a video call.

    Useful to hear from someone in the trenches!


  4. Stephanie Tingley - 1991

    Thank you Dr Siedel. You’re still as informative and dryly humorous as I recall.
    I used to love your reference to ‘he’s off the Costa Rica’ and still use it as code for a bad guy running off with money.


  5. Atwood Lynn - 1972

    On our daily 4-mile walks, my wife and I have met some really nice people who throughout 2020 have stopped and talked and shared bits and pieces of their personal stories – all of us, no doubt, starved for some level of social interaction given COVID protocols. One of our walk-and-roll regulars (my wife is in a power wheelchair) is a young man who is a high school math teacher who walks just about every day for the hour-and-a-half he has between classes, always with his two-year-old daughter in a stroller, along with his large curly-haired dog (think small pony) at their side. He’s usually hurried because of his schedule, so until this past week, it’s been mostly small talk and move along, though he had disclosed previously that his family is from Michigan, just sayin’. But this week, he stopped to reply to my question about which level math he teaches (mostly Geometry, but also Applied Math that apparently has to do with real-world practical math needs, like checkbook balancing and spreadsheets and how to complete job applications, etc.) and the ways in which he deals with virtual teaching due to COVID. Turned into a real eye-opener for us. I don’t know how any teacher can teach both virtual and in-person at the same time, yet that’s what is expected of him and other high school teachers in his school district. But, to add to his challenges, his virtual teaching is to a virtually black screen, because students are allowed to opt out of a visual presence if they feel their home environment should not be displayed (maybe they’re poor or they have several distracting siblings or their parental units work outside the home and the student is home alone). So, bottom line, he teaches up to 3-5 reach-out-and-touch in-person students as well as virtually to a black screen, with little-to-no visual reinforcement from any students online and limited in-person as well, because the environment, he says, is simply not conducive to meeting any real fundamental educational objectives. Almost 60% of his students are performing at a “D” level, he noted, few can pass standardized tests, and most do terrible on just about every one of his quizzes (where to make it easy on the students, he typically just makes a copy of what’s in the math textbook, that he has covered “in class,” yet they still cannot understand what is called for). He says facial interaction always reinforces what a teacher teaches, especially in reaching struggling students, but facial interaction is simply no longer part of the educational equation in his case. An incredibly sad state of affairs that he went on to describe in more detail to us strangers on a walk in the neighborhood – he just acted like a guy who needed to talk with someone, to have someone hear about the impossible challenges he faces every day. And yes, we were sympathetic and voiced our concerns which I’d like to think helped him get through that day, as he seemed so appreciative that someone would take time to listen and ask questions of substance, because parents of his students have also shown little interest, he said, in helping to improve the situation despite his frequent requests for them to assist in various ways. Pleas to his school administration have gone unanswered as well, probably because there really is no viable answer. I felt so sorry for him, with no creative solution immediately available, as he clearly suggested this past year-and-a-half has been completely lost.


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