camera on or camera off

Camera On Or Camera Off? Meeting Etiquette, Explained

Table of Contents

Alongside the unprecedented political, economic, and social impacts of the pandemic, we’ve lately started to worry about a number of things that would have been regarded as very niche a few years ago. One of these is what has been called “Zoom etiquette;” a new set of social rules and norms for interacting on video calls.

Before the pandemic, few managers thought much about this subject. When people were focused on ways to improve remote team communication, they tended to worry more about getting the right remote work tools in place rather than advising staff about how to act on video calls. Now, though, leaders can’t afford to overlook the importance of video meetings, and the importance of how team members act on them.

One of the most important, contentious, and sensitive issues in Zoom etiquette concerns when to use your camera. Some managers require that their staff use their camera at all times when on video calls; others take a more relaxed approach, and allow their staff to decide when and where to use video functionality. 

Neither of these approaches are wrong, but organizations must think carefully about where and when to request that staff turn their video on. In this article, we’ll help you decide just that.

Making A Connection

In order to design an effective strategy for how your remote teams will use video functionality, it can help to envisage what a “perfect” communications system would look like. 

For most teams, this would mean working closely together – ideally in the same building – and having immediate and easy access to face-to-face communication. For most people, that will sound very familiar – it was the way we worked a hundred years ago, in the time before COVID.

Sadly, we’re all having to get used to a new environment, but it’s important to recognize that the old ways still have huge benefits. Zoom meetings are, at the most fundamental level, a way of simulating the kind of face-to-face interaction that business is based on. In fact, most remote work software takes its cue from traditional office environments, with many forms of remote team collaboration tools replicating critical features of the modern office such as “rooms” for socializing and the ability for employees to share a screen.

All of this is a way of saying that, ideally, all staff would have their video enabled on Zoom calls all the time. Achieving this, according to workplace psychologist Lou Banks, makes for stronger teams, because “as humans we are hard-wired to connect, and any form of disconnect puts us in social pain,” she said. “Turning a camera off is a clear indicator of disconnect and often comes with a fear of not being able to see if people are interested and engaged with what they are seeing and hearing.”

Video Fatigue

That said, it’s important for remote managers to recognize that there are many reasons why employees are hesitant to turn on their webcams. The most obvious of these is simple shyness – plenty of people feel uncomfortable in face-to-face meetings more generally, and this can be exacerbated by the feeling that their image is being beamed around the world for all of their colleagues to see.

In addition to this reason, however, there are a number of other factors that discourage staff from using the video functionality that is available to them. One is the fear of embarrassment. 

Junior staff members, in particular, may be reticent to show senior managers what their apartment looks like, particularly if they are house-sharing. Those with families may feel equally embarrassed if their children wander into view, or if they have to attend to a childcare emergency mid-meeting.

The question is how to do that while still respecting your team members’ fears and concerns.

Building Trust

As a manager, the factors above mean it’s likely that you will be trying to encourage remote employees to turn on their video cameras. We’ve heard of some companies – who we will not name here – taking a legalistic approach to this, and requiring that employees turn on their cameras. Needless to say, this is a very problematic approach. Forcing team members to do something against their will is likely to breed resentment, rather than foster respectful communication.

Instead, managers should focus on the value of remote work tools to help your team, showing employees the value of video-enabled meetings, and work to counteract the fears of embarrassment they may have about them. There are several ways to do that.

1. Make expectations clear.

The first and most obvious is to make your expectations clear – employees should use their video whenever possible – but at the same time acknowledge how uncomfortable that can be. You can ask team members to kindly turn on their video if they feel comfortable doing so, for instance, and allow the braver members of your team to encourage less outgoing colleagues to share their video feed as well.

2. Respond correctly to embarrassing moments. 

If an embarrassing event does occur – such as a child wandering into the video – it’s important to respond correctly. You can build trust by stopping people from apologizing if their dog or child appears in the picture.

3. Explain your reasons for using video. 

Take the time to explain to employees why you think using video is important. Some staff members may feel that you want them to use video in order to “check up” on them, but this is unlikely to be the case – in remote environments, managers value video calls because they make communication easier and create a more genuine connection between team members. Explaining this can go a long way toward clearing up employee misapprehensions.

Similarly, plenty of team members might be worried about the more serious consequences of turning on their video feed. There have been many stories in the last year about how much personal information can be harvested from a video feed, and those employees who are rightfully looking to protect their online privacy may avoid video calls as much as they can.

All of these fears and concerns are, of course, justified. However, it’s also important to recognize that giving them too much priority in your organization, and allowing them to dictate how you conduct virtual meetings, may be taking things a little too far. Video-off Zoom calls enable a number of behaviors that would be completely unacceptable in a face-to-face meeting – such as checking a mobile phone or even taking a secret restroom break – and so should be avoided when possible.

When To Pick Up The Phone

Last but not least, you should look at how you use video meetings in themselves. While it’s important for staff to connect face-to-face (or as close to this as possible) from time to time, you don’t need to use Zoom for most of the everyday communications for your team. In fact, the ubiquity of video software has had a strange effect on business communications, in which it’s obscured the role of what used to be the most useful device around – the simple mobile phone. 

As several top business leaders recently pointed out to us, many organizations are now overlooking the value of a simple phone call. Using a traditional phone system can have several key advantages over video meetings – they are quicker to set up, less formal in nature, and can be conducted while you are in the garden or on the subway. And by making use of the right communications channel for the right conversation, you can help to address the “Zoom fatigue” that is afflicting many team members right now.

So Camera On Or Camera Off?

Ultimately, a team that is able to use video meetings effectively is a strong one. Not only does video chat help to foster relationships between team members, but it can also make your communications more effective. That’s why, in our remote work 2020 survey, so many managers highlighted the importance of video calls for the future of business. And is also why you can’t afford to let team members turn their video off for those all-important meetings.

This post was written by Nahla Davies. Nahla is a writer from Brooklyn, New York, who has worked with enterprise clients around the world developing RegTech protocols and best practices since 2015. She shares her insights at Follow Nahla on LinkedIn.

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