With the pivot to remote work that the pandemic has brought, it seems that almost everyone is familiar with video conferencing by now. That means that we’ve all experienced the pros and cons of it as well. Everyone has those meetings that they don’t really get any use out of or truly need to be in. Thanks to Zoom meetings, you can choose to have your camera on or off. You can turn your camera off and catch up on things like that growing pile of emails you’ve been meaning to get to. It’s also nice to be able to simply turn your camera off when the kiddos or doggos have turned your home upside down and you don’t want anyone to see it. But then we miss out on the magic of meeting. Video conferencing allows us to still see each other face to face, take in real-time reactions, and collaborate as close to “together” as we can get these days.
That’s the paradox: To turn your camera on or to not turn your camera on? Chances are you’ve heard complaints about employees who seem to never have their cameras on. As Collaboration Superpowers’ “Turn Your Cameras On” article explains, humans are, by nature, deeply visual. “In order to build rapport, trust, and understanding, visual cues are helpful, and imagery is well understood to be a powerful tool to help us learn new information,” the report reads. Naturally, there’s a major benefit to turning cameras on — especially when we can’t meet in person like we used to. Imagine giving a virtual presentation with everyone’s cameras off. It’s super difficult to tell if people are engaged in what you’re saying or if it seems to be resonating, right? There’s a reason for that. “When we can’t see the people we are communicating with, we’re unable to gauge our audience’s response, which would further allow us to direct or redirect the meeting,” the article notes. Yet, having cameras on for every meeting isn’t the right answer.
As a Stanford University researcher found in a recent study, Zoom fatigue — the exhaustion that can come from prolonged video chats — is very real. First, Professor Jeremy Bailenseon, founding director of the school’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, says that excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is intense. This is thanks to the unnaturally close-up nature of the faces on video conferencing screens. Seeing ourselves reflected on screen all day long is also fatiguing, Bailenseon found, as is the reduced mobility we experience when we’re seated in front of the computer all day. Finally, the cognitive load of video conferencing is higher than in in-person meetings. This means that it’s truly exhausting to be on video calls all day. So, the first step in dealing with an employee who doesn’t turn their camera on is to examine the number of video meetings asked of them. There’s a chance that they’re simply trying to reduce the fatigue they experience.
It’s widely considered that a camera on is better than a camera off, but another recent study found that turning cameras off can actually increase productivity by reducing fatigue. When employees are less fatigued by video, they can contribute more to the meetings themselves. Perhaps most importantly, the study found stronger effects for women and new employees. Women often feel like they have to present themselves perfectly or that they’ll be judged for child-related interruptions. Newer employees feel like they have to be on camera in order to demonstrate productivity. There are other valid reasons for employees wanting to have their cameras off. Not everyone enjoys the necessary bandwidth for video calls at home. Not everyone has a dedicated and tidy office space that they want to present to their co-workers. It might be the case that your employee is embarrassed by their home environment and is trying to save face by keeping their camera off.
If you want to encourage employees to have their cameras on, one thing you can do is set clear and reasonable expectations for video calls. First, make sure that there’s no judgment about what does or doesn’t come across someone’s screen. If people are worried that they’ll be seen as unprofessional if they have kids bouncing around in the background, chances are they’ll opt to keep their camera off as much as possible. Further, make it clear that you don’t have to be perfectly polished in order to turn your camera on. Naturally, nothing should be unprofessional (probably don’t wear a t-shirt with holes in it). But people are going to opt for no cameras if they think others will judge them because they didn’t get a chance to run a comb through their hair yet. Finally, give your workers a home office stipend. This can allow them to invest in better internet, a dedicated office space, or maybe just a background that they can use when they need to. A little investment can go a long way in helping employees feel comfortable on camera.
Beyond that, it’s up to you. You could set a number or a percentage, like asking that your employees have their cameras on roughly 50% of the time. That way they can pick and choose when it works for them. You could ask that people have their cameras on when they’re presenting or otherwise leading a meeting. When determining these guidelines, consider your audience. It’s a good idea to have cameras on when you’re meeting with people whose first language isn’t English as they’ll likely rely more on visual cues than native speakers.