By Kylie Ora Lobell
Since the start of the pandemic, workplaces have come to rely on Zoom and other video platforms for meetings. Employees now spend five times more time in virtual meetings than they did before the pandemic, according to recent research from survey platform Polly and AI-powered transcription service Colibri. Knowledge workers who used to attend virtual meetings two hours per week now spend an average of 10 hours per week in meetings online, and 37 percent of respondents said their biggest workplace challenge is meeting fatigue.
As employees spend more time in virtual meetings, managers and company leaders are debating whether employees should keep their cameras on. One survey makes some executives’ feelings very clear: Of the 500 executives polled by Vyopta, 92 percent don’t see a long-term future for employees who turn their cameras off, and 93 percent said those employees are less engaged in their work.
When deciding whether to create a policy on camera usage, experts agreed that it pays to consider best practices and review etiquette to keep employees engaged, productive and contributing to the success of the company.
When Cameras Aren’t Needed
Thanks in part to Zoom fatigue, many HR professionals say there are situations in which it’s appropriate to turn cameras off.
At Merchant Maverick, a fully remote company with 25 employees, HR director Charlotte Kackley said employees can turn off the camera if they aren’t feeling well “or if there are distractions in the background,” especially during impromptu meetings. “Someone could be available for a call, but not totally prepared to be on camera,” she said. “Instead of declining or delaying the call, that person can just leave the camera turned off.”
San Francisco-based HR consultant Kate Walker, SHRM-SCP, offered another time when turning off the camera makes sense. “If you are eating or chewing, nobody wants to see—or hear—you eat,” she said.
Brainstorming may be another time when it’s better for employees to be heard, but perhaps not seen, said Dallas-based career coach and author Melinda Marcus. She explained that employees who don’t have to think about how they look will generate more, better ideas.
“[This is] because the brain is too focused on faces instead of internal ideas,” she said.
Why Keep the Camera On?
When people aren’t seeing each other in person, virtual meetings give them a way to still have face-to-face interactions.
“Human interaction is important in business, and we can have human interaction on video,” Walker said. “When cameras are on, participants can better observe body language and other expressions that may be occurring with meeting participants. Even though we are in a virtual room, we can all still read the room when we see each other.”
Marcus agreed, saying that in most meetings, it’s helpful for employees to have their cameras on so they can connect with each other as well as make a memorable impression.
“If others have their cameras on and you don’t, you become ‘invisible’ and often won’t be remembered as having been in the meeting,” she said. “Even if you spoke up, later your ideas will likely be attributed to other participants who were seen on screen.”
Another issue is that employees may be perceived as rude or arrogant for not having their camera on when others do. Marcus said the exception would be large meetings, during which many people have their cameras off.
“In those cases, the audience is so large and the main focus is on the speaker or presentation slides. Nobody is really looking at the participants,” she said. “However, in meetings where there are eight or fewer participants, I believe it’s important to have cameras on.”
Marcus has heard from clients who are in competitive pitches for new business and often face prospects who have their cameras off.
“The impression is that the prospects are placing themselves in a superior position by being able to see the pitch team, but the pitch team can’t see them, sort of like Dorothy’s first meeting with the Wizard of Oz,” she said. “In the worst cases, the other participants who have their videos on may feel you are staying in the dark because you have something to hide. We tend to not trust those who don’t give us eye contact.”
At e-commerce platform Goflow in Jersey City, N.J., founder and CEO Max Hauer recommends asking employees to keep their cameras on because it makes everyone more focused.
“When you attend a meeting without a camera, your mind can easily be distracted and you can work on unrelated tasks, such as texting a friend or endlessly watching your social feeds,” he said. “Such a level of multitasking doesn’t let you be productive and is disrespectful to the presenter.”
Sara Whitman, chief people officer at Hot Paper Lantern, a New York City-based marketing communications agency with 40 employees, recommends that employees take a cue from their clients: If clients have their cameras on, employees should, too.
“Giving a presentation is another moment when being seen is important,” Whitman said. “We also ask people to turn on video at our weekly all-agency meeting. It’s the one time a week when we are all together and can see each other. That’s important for community and connection.”
Finding Acceptable Solutions
Determining virtual meeting policies should be a collaborative effort so that everyone knows and understands proper practices guided by company values, said Emily Esterly, vice president of work ecosystem and employee experience at Purell manufacturer GOJO Industries in Akron, Ohio, which has 2,400 employees. Company policy is to ask employees to keep their cameras on if they’re working on newer teams or discussing complex or sensitive topics, she said.
“We even recommend finding opportunities to stop sharing screens so you can all see each other’s faces more clearly,” Esterly said. “On the flip side, a camera break may be appropriate when a team is familiar with working together or if you’re in more of an ‘inform/presentation’ portion of the agenda.”
Walker advised that the meeting facilitator should set the ground rules at the top of the meeting and let participants know if cameras should be on or off. “Don’t leave everybody guessing about expectations,” she said.
While many HR professionals understand that sometimes employees need a break from their cameras, it’s often considered a problem when an employee’s camera is consistently off during meetings.
“We’ll check in, make sure all is OK, and let the employee know they matter to us and we’d like to see them sometimes, assuming all is well,” Walker said. “I strongly recommend that managers ask teams and direct reports if they want an on- or off-video meeting and not demand one or the other all the time. Switch it up and maybe consider a phone call or a walking meeting once in a while.”
Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.