While some of us are video veterans, 2020 has brought a whole new group of the newly-remote - those who’ve spent the last few months figuring out how to do this whole Zoom thing properly.

There’s a bit of an art to the video call, and we’re all still figuring out what works best.

By now you’re probably past the stage where calls begin with an up-the-nostrils camera angle and terrible sound (although I’m still prone to the odd accidental screen-share).

Some video catch-ups can be a bit transactional, where you just exchange pleasantries, swap information, and leave. That’s fine, and works for most situations. But after a few Zooms, things can get a bit boring. People stop making as much effort, and attention spans get shorter. That third virtual all-hands of the week isn’t too appealing.

So here’s a few ways you can spice up the standard video call, both for business and pleasure.

Look good, feel good

One easy way to enjoy your video calls more is to change up your visual style.

You can change your Zoom backgrounds with Canva - this free social media tool lets you download moving video backgrounds, so you can meet your colleagues from a virtual aquarium with fishes floating about. You could also add a Lego background to your calls - a bit jazzier than the usual home office setup.

Or you could hide things in the background and see if anyone spots the difference between meetings (like Joe Wicks does in his PE with Joe series).

And making sure you look your best will help you feel good - try getting as much natural light as possible and maybe upgrading your webcam too. Seeing yourself in HD is much nicer than fuzzy pixels.

Hang out somewhere new

Or you can just abandon showing your face altogether, and choose a virtual world to meet in.

Team meetings in Minecraft? Stand-ups in Stardew Valley? Why not?

Taking yourself and your team to an entirely different virtual is a great way to make things interesting.

Viviane Schwarz, an artist specialising in interactive projects, set the bar high by moving her editorial team meetings to the video game Red Dead Redemption 2. The game lets players become cowboys and outlaws in the southern US in 1899, and its online component means players can form a posse and set up camp in the wilderness.

So Schwarz and her team would gather their avatars around the virtual campfire and use the in-game voice chat to discuss projects and deadlines. Sometimes, they were interrupted by antagonistic players trying to shoot or rob them, but these incursions were swiftly dealt with before getting back to work.  

Taking inspiration from this, you could meet in pretty much any online world.

Lots has been written about the emergence of shared virtual worlds recently. Second Life continues to operate as a digital domain for thousands, despite looking rather clunky in its old age.

One of its more recent successors is Fortnite, the game your kids are always playing. While the core gameplay is competitive, it’s becoming an online social space, with non-competitive chill out areas where you can sit on virtual sofas and participate in creative activities together. A fun and colourful place to have your next team meeting.

The two things you have to be aware of are that not everyone has access to the same technology (gaming consoles or game-capable PCs), and even if they do, there’ll be a bit of a learning curve if they haven’t used these services before. So maybe grant some time (and budget) to helping people get up to speed.

Meet differently

What if you’ve tried making things look different, but things still feel a bit bland?

If you’ve spent time tackling complex issues and need some mental relief, you could try some energisers.

Dedicate a five minute break to telling your favourite dad joke, fact about yourself, or riddle. You could have a ’show and tell’ where you talk about something interesting from your home.

Or try a few ‘icebreaker’ style questions to the group - whether they’re on the tamer side, such as “what’s something you were known for in school?”, or the more adventurous, like “have you ever committed a crime?”

Or the downright weird, like “have you ever had an altercation with a shepherd?” (That one’s from Richard Herring’s Emergency Questions - an absolute goldmine for getting people thinking.)

How willing your team is to take part in these depends on your existing culture. If you’re usually smart and professional, it might not be realistic to switch the mood so easily. But even so, it could be worth a try. A few rounds of dad jokes or ‘guess the song’ might be just what everyone needs to loosen up a little and starting enjoying themselves a bit more.