Career Coach: How to Look Professional in Virtual Meetings

Professional vs messy virtual meeting

Pictured: Professional versus messy appearance for virtual meeting/Taylor Tieden for BioSpace

Welcome to Career Coach, a column for job seekers and employees navigating the ins and outs of finding, landing and succeeding in jobs in the biotech industry. Each month, Carina Clingman, founder of The Collaboratory Career Hub and host of the “Biotech Career Coach” podcast, answers questions from the community. You can email her questions at hello@collaboratorycareerhub.com

In this column, we’ll discuss how to impress your boss on Zoom, what actually happens in an HR phone screen and how to prepare if you think a layoff is imminent. 

Q: I’m working remotely, and my boss told me that I need to look more professional during meetings. I’m mortified, but I also want to do better. Do you have any tips? 

CC: Yikes! But also, good for your boss. Mentoring direct reports is often uncomfortable, but it’s invaluable for your career.  

I’m glad you’re receptive to the feedback and ready to step things up. Presenting yourself professionally in meetings has far-reaching benefits for your career. People will take you more seriously if you take yourself more seriously. And keep in mind, if your team is hybrid, your video feed might be up on a big screen in a conference room, which magnifies anything unprofessional you’ve got going on. 

If possible, use a desktop, laptop or tablet with a stand for meetings. It’s not ideal to attend virtual meetings on your phone because the picture does not translate well to users on a desktop. Also, the jostling of the camera is very distracting, so if you must use a phone, put it on a stable stand where your movements won’t shake it. If you need to share your screen during meetings, you should use a computer setup and close extra tabs and applications so that when you share, people only see what you intend for them to see. 

You’ll want to dress professionally. This is both for your self-esteem–don’t we all feel better when we’ve dressed up a bit?–and also to show you’re taking your job seriously. There are a lot of great resources to help you plan for which colors and patterns look good on camera. (I’m no fashion blogger, but Google can recommend one.) Luckily, virtual meetings mean only having to plan for half of an outfit, but please do wear pants! 

Lighting is important, so arrange to have a fairly strong light source in front of you to illuminate your face. Avoid strong light sources (like windows) directly behind you, as they can wash out the picture. Again, the internet is absolutely brimming with advice on how to look professional in video meetings. 

Finally, your background should be clean! If you regularly have virtual meetings, organize your space to look good at all times so you don’t stress over impromptu meeting requests. My personal setup reveals just a corner of my office, with an art print, some minimal decorations and a ring light between my monitors that I can flip on when it’s meeting time. The rest of the house could be in a complete state of disaster, but no one would ever know.  

Some of the best advice I got from a mentor early in my career was to dress for the job you plan to have in 10 years. It’s not the clothing that matters, it’s the entire attitude shift that goes along with showing up as that future version of yourself. To reframe this advice for a virtual or hybrid role, show up on camera as the person you plan to be in 10 years. You might just find you get promoted sooner than you think!  

Q: I got an interview! It’s a Zoom interview with someone in the HR department. What should I expect, and how should I prepare? 

CC: Congratulations on securing an interview! First, I’ll refer you to the question above. Presenting yourself professionally is perhaps even more important for interviews than routine meetings.  

For a Zoom interview with someone from the HR department, you can expect a mix of standard HR questions and possibly some preliminary technical questions that the hiring manager requested. Here's how to prepare. 

Once you feel comfortable with your setup and you’ve tested it with a friend, you’ll want to do your homework on the company. Last month, I discussed how to read job descriptions to identify the language to use in your resume, and that holds true for an interview as well. You’ll want to prepare yourself to speak about your background as it relates specifically to the organization’s underlying needs. 

The biggest mistake I see during interviews is that candidates, especially scientific candidates, tend to go into great detail about their technical skills without regard to the company’s pain points. Keep in mind that when organizations write a job description, they’re outlining a problem and looking for someone who can solve it. While I’m sure the intricacies of your undergraduate experience are fascinating, does it solve the problem outlined in the job posting? If not, don’t talk about it in the interview.  

For screening calls with recruiters or HR, be sure to practice keeping your answers brief (less than 90 seconds) and not overly technical. Most of the time, a scientist will not be the first person you’ll speak with, so you must clearly and concisely communicate your value proposition to someone who likely understands the basics but has not done bench research.  

Finally, preparing a list of questions to ask the interviewer is also important. Think creatively about these, and ask ones that will make your subsequent interviews easier. Some of my favorite questions are: 

  • "Can you describe the company culture and how it influences the work environment?"  

  • "What does success look like for this position, and how is it measured?"  

  • "What are the biggest challenges the team is facing right now?"  

  • "Can you tell me about the team I'll be working with?"  

  • "What opportunities for professional development and growth does the company offer?"  

And don’t forget to send a thank you email! I rarely get one, but I’m always impressed when I do. 

Q: I think my company is about to have a layoff. I’m scared, and I feel unsafe. What should I do? 

CC: If you’re facing the possibility of a layoff, it’s understandable to feel distressed and vulnerable. First, allow yourself to acknowledge your feelings of fear. Given the situation, it’s perfectly normal to feel this way. Grab a coffee with a friend, call your mom, talk to your family and allow support into your life. Then get to work. 

The key is to not let the fear paralyze you, but to use it as a catalyst for action. In fact, taking action can make you feel more in control, even when you cannot control what the company ultimately decides to do. Here’s a plan: 

  • Update your resume with your latest achievements and skills. List any recent projects or roles, and include data that showcases your specific impact.  

  • Strengthen connections with your professional network by increasing your visibility on LinkedIn, attending events and reaching out to old colleagues you may have lost touch with. By doing so, you can maintain a connection with your network, and it won't be unexpected if you reach out for help. 

  • Be proactive at work by staying engaged and involving yourself in projects or areas that are critical to the business, and avoid checking out or "quiet quitting." It's important to stay engaged at work to avoid creating a self-fulfilling prophecy since some layoff decisions are performance-based. 

If your fears do come to pass, a layoff does not define your worth or potential. In fact, it may even serve as a catalyst for positive change, though it may be difficult to see that at the time. Several of my mentors have confided that a layoff was the push they needed to change the trajectory of their careers for the better. Keep this in mind as you navigate your next steps in the coming weeks and months. 

Carina Clingman, Ph.D., is the founder of The Collaboratory Career Hub, an online community for people interested in working in biotech. She’s also the founder and CEO of Recruitomics Consulting, which specializes in talent acquisition and talent strategy for startup biotechs. Listen to her new “Biotech Career Coach” podcast, learn about joining the career hub or send questions to hello@collaboratorycareerhub.com.  

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