Classes and other meetings sometimes have execution issues. An instructor or leader may arrive unprepared. Students or participants can check phones or talk to each other. Discussions that are supposed to take place freely sometimes experience lulls. Even those who engage can dominate or remain silent. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and meetings migrated to Zoom, everything got worse.

“We had brought our same mildly dysfunctional behaviors into a new environment and expected them to work,” said Paul Hills, an experimental psychologist at University College London. “In fact, they made it even worse.”

Video courses and meetings provide participants with opportunities to learn, exchange ideas, be creative, make decisions and bond. But during the pandemic, many faculty and students have found that online meetings limit social interactions and incur psychological costs. Now a research team led by Hills has discovered that hand signals – gestures like two thumbs up to signal agreement or scratching your head to express a desire to ask a question – help alleviate what many call zoom fatigue.

Students who use shared hand signals during video lessons reported more positive feelings about their classmates and believed they had learned more compared to a control group who did not use gestures. A separate group that used emojis instead of hand signals did not report the same positive benefits.

“[Students using hand signals] suddenly realized there were other real people on the call and there was a reason to have the video,” Hills said. “They might actually have an emotional connection to these relative strangers.”

An individual’s brain assesses, often unconsciously, whether others are listening. Reassuring body language produces desirable dopamine hits, as do social media likes. These signals trigger a positive feedback loop, according to Hills. But when someone tries to communicate and wonders if others have noticed, the reverse happens. The brain signals that the risk-reward trade-off is not good, discouraging further communication efforts.

Although video conferencing seems to mimic in-person interaction, small viewing windows or turned off cameras often suppress information gleaned from subtle nods, soft smiles or slightly raised eyebrows. To counter this effect, Hills has developed a set of adaptable, easy-to-remember, and easy-to-interpret gestures intended for spontaneous use during video calls.

Some of the gestures improve speaker transitions. A wave that uses the whole arm indicates a desire to speak. Arms crossed as an X signal “I have a different point of view.” Scratching the top of the head with all five fingers means “I have a question”.

Other gestures show connection and emotion. Two thumbs up or thumbs down indicate agreement or disagreement respectively. (Both numbers are needed to confirm that a thumb is not busy scrolling on social media.) A hand on heart means “I feel for you.” Outstretched palms that turn at the wrists signal, “I’m not sure about that.”

Still other gestures help with meeting management. A hand on the ear means: “Speak, please. Two hands drawing circles means “Coming to a conclusion”.

“There’s value in a set of standards and probably training in how to use physical gestures,” said Dave Miller, an assistant professor in the mechanical engineering department at Tufts University, who is not not affiliated with the Hills study. “Although perhaps any standard set of gestures, including those organically developed by a group itself, could be useful.”

Miller posted to research stating that staring at oneself during videoconferences can elicit negative self-focused attention that contributes to virtual meeting fatigue. Fatigue was higher in women than in men and higher in Asian participants than in white participants.

Rescuers have long used hand signals to communicate over great distances. Hills works as a lifeguard on a beach near his home in Cornwall, England, and every time another lifeguard returns one of his gestures, he feels a stronger connection to that guard and the group. This observation inspired his investigative work on hand signals in videoconferencing.

Students in remote courses or faculty members in virtual meetings often don’t know when to speak or when to interrupt. To improve the engagement, productivity, and enjoyment of virtual meetings, the Hills research team also introduced the Notions of “team presidency” and “team passing”. The practice draws parallels with a team captain and players on a football pitch.

To improve conversation flow, participants in virtual meetings are encouraged to adopt a team mindset. This means that participants must show up, participate and pay attention during the whole “game” or meeting. Individual speakers, instead of being silent after speaking, should take responsibility for “passing” the conversation, much like football players pass the ball on a field. Instead of going to the Instructor (Team Captain), they can scan the Virtual Meeting Room (Pitch) for classmates (Teammates) who state their reasons for hoping to be called up (Receive the ball ).

A classmate might signal that they have a question. Another might point out that they have a different point of view. Yet another could indicate agreement. Some may not make gestures, and it may also be acted upon, as team players often work to include everyone. Once the current speaker has made an explicit decision about which classmate will speak next, the conversation changes in a way that minimizes delays and improves flow.

“Before using signals…I was always the default person to navigate discussions, in that students always came back to me after they finished raising their points,” Frey Lygo-Frett, seminar leader from University College London, said in a reflection after participating in the experience. “Once we had the signals in place, the students were much more willing to pass the discussion on to each other rather than coming back to me every time.”

Hand signals are designed to elicit high performance from participants for a short period of time. When an instructor or speaker plans to give a long PowerPoint presentation, for example, Hills sees no need for attendees to turn on their cameras.

“The other carrot I’m dangling is shorter meetings,” Hills said. “Maybe we could have 45-minute meetings instead of hour-long meetings…and have 15 minutes of feel-good time.”