Please Wear a Shirt on Your Video Calls

And other lessons I’ve learned as a remote worker

TThe uniting factor behind most of the jobs I’ve had — at a restaurant group, in PR, and in media — was the wasteful meetings. They were, almost universally, terrible. No matter how good the rest of the work environment was, the meetings were slogs to be suffered through: much too long, unfocused and rambling, so boring that sometimes I’d struggle to pay attention.

The exception was at my first real media job. Most of the employees were remote, and each morning, most of us dialed in to a 10-minute video chat where we would briefly discuss any important things going on that day. We knew what we were doing there, we were in and out quickly, and everyone knew it was in very bad form not to use the mute button when they weren’t speaking. These meetings were the sterling example of what every video conference should be. But many video meetings are confused, irritating conversations in which the rules are undefined, people are distracted and multitasking, and occasionally — as I once experienced — some people in the meeting are not wearing shirts.

While increasing numbers of people are opting for video conferences over in-person meetings and even phone calls, few, apparently, are clear on what exactly the rules are for how to behave while using this newfangled technology. So consider this piece an initial stab at a video call etiquette guide, if you will: how to lead and participate in a successful video meeting, what you should do and what you should absolutely avoid, and why, above all, you shouldn’t be afraid of a video meeting in place of a phone conference or IRL meeting.

The need for a defined set of expectations around video calls is more necessary now than ever before. Worldwide, more than two-thirds of office workers now telecommute at least once a week, at least according to one 2018 industry poll. This creates workplace challenges, of course: What’s the best way for two employees working on a project together to discuss their progress if one or both of them aren’t in the office?

These increasingly remote workplaces are turning to video conferencing to take the place of what, in years past, would have required in-person meetings. In 2014, 50% of employees used video chat in at least a quarter of their conference calls, according to market research firm Wainhouse Research. And they like it, too — 74% of those who participated in video conferences appreciated being able to see other meeting attendees’ faces, and 70% of them said it increased feelings of “connectedness” between participants.

“With remote meetings, dysfunction is much higher, you know, typically, multitasking becomes rampant and people just kind of check out, they’re not highly present,” says Steven Rogelberg, a professor of organizational psychology and management at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and author of the book The Surprising Science of Meetings. “So how do we get people to be more psychologically present? A key way of doing that is to use video.”

Victoria Turk, author of the forthcoming Kill Reply All: A Modern Guide to Online Etiquette, from Social Media to Work to Love, says it’s this interactive element that makes video calls more successful. “The advantage of video in particular is that you get to see someone’s facial expressions,” she says. “When it works well, you do feel more like you’re having a face-to-face conversation than if you were just speaking on the phone.” A study from 2012 found that a majority of those polled liked video conferencing in part because they felt being able to see people’s faces made discussions more freewheeling and open.

But problems run rampant. Jodie, a communications manager based in Canada, told me that people eating is one of the worst things she regularly encounters while conducting video calls.

“I don’t want to hear you slurping your tea or your colleagues chatting in the background while someone else is speaking.”

We’ve all been there: We’re trying to listen to a manager go over upcoming team goals when suddenly, the sound of a colleague noisily gulping down a coffee or crunching on chips is the only thing anyone can hear. While people tend to be more judicious about eating during in-person meetings, something about the perceived distance created by phone or video conferencing makes people think it’s more acceptable. But for the most part, it isn’t. “Just turn off the video and we can have a chat where you mute yourself while chewing!” says Jodie.

Turk agrees. “I don’t want to hear you slurping your tea or your colleagues chatting in the background while someone else is speaking,” she says. “It’s good practice to mute whenever you’re not speaking yourself.” That said, don’t rely on mute too much, she says — it’s easy to forget whether or not you have it on, as one mildly NSFW Reddit thread makes painfully clear.

Not everyone thinks the mute button should be standard operating procedure, however. “Mute discourages spontaneous discussion,” said Keith Ferrazzi, founder and CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight Research Institute, in an interview with Harvard Business Review. It should be completely banned, he argued.

Rogelberg says that ideally, the mute button won’t even come into play. “Find a quiet place to have your meeting where you are focused on the meeting, you’re not eating, you’re not walking your dog, you’re not going to the bathroom,” he says. “The only reason that people should use mute is if something unexpected happens.”

This seems like reasonable advice to me, but the unexpected, in my experience, can occur with regularity — for example, if I’m on a call and my husband comes in through the front door, getting my dog all worked up, for example. Even more common are those noises we don’t notice ourselves making, but which can be incredibly distracting, like a microphone scratching up against your sweater or the loud sound of typing echoing over the entire call. With some video conference programs like Google Hangouts, the screen will most prominently display the face of whoever is speaking, which means that if there’s any background noise coming from your end, you’ll dominate the screen because you farted.

A good compromise, then, might be ensuring that your meetings are in as quiet of a place as possible, and that participants are given explicit encouragement to let each other know during a meeting if ambient noise is affecting the quality of a call, so that suffering is kept to a minimum. But if it’s a call in which you don’t think you’ll need to verbally contribute, or if you’re using Google Hangouts, stay on mute — just in case.

Eating during a video conference isn’t only annoying because of the noise, however; it communicates to other people in the call that it isn’t important enough for your undivided attention. A 2017 study found that some people disliked video calls because they felt like other participants weren’t looking at them. This was in part because people were obviously staring at their own image during the entire video chat, but the concept applies if someone is eating or doing some other activity that’s clearly diverting their attention away from whoever is speaking on the call. Just as you, hopefully, wouldn’t start scrolling Instagram during a meeting with your co-worker, so too should you avoid multitasking during a video meeting.

Part of the problem is that people feel the need to be constantly checking and responding to emails, Slack messages, and texts, even during other work meetings or events. But, contrary to how we’ve been told to value multitasking as a skill our whole lives, it’s actually pretty terrible for your productivity, not to mention stressful. It’s therefore on managers to cultivate a work culture in which an employee not responding to an email or chat message within an hour isn’t cause for alarm. (Read my recent OneZero column for more about how email contributes to hustle culture.) Employees who will be stepping into particularly long video conferences should mark it on their calendars and set an away message on Slack to help assuage questions and stave off distracting notifications.

Ideally, though, video calls should be kept as short as possible. “When meetings are bloated and the topics aren’t compelling, and you stick it in a remote setting, that’s when all those things interact to create just a meaningless meeting,” says Rogelberg. Video calls larger than seven or eight people can become unwieldy and difficult to manage, so keeping calls small can ensure that meetings run smoothly, he says.

You’d think it doesn’t need to be said, but in my experience, it does: Wear normal clothes and sit in an appropriate room (not the bathroom or your bed) during video meetings. I’ve literally taken video calls where the other person was only wearing underwear, which added a slightly awkward tinge to the chat. Rogelberg points out that though he hasn’t seen any research on the importance of a participant’s attire or visual setting during video conferences, it’s important to keep the call professional. “I’ve actually done a podcast — and I won’t mention the name, but it’s one of the very biggest ones,” he says. “And he was lying in bed as he was doing the videocast. Yeah, I didn’t like it.”

This doesn’t mean you need to put on a collared shirt and tie and take the call from a cubicle, but at the very least, sitting in a neutral room in something you’d feel comfortable wearing on a coffee run should suffice in most situations. Even better, allow your face to take up as much of the camera’s view as possible. Research from 2017 shows that video callers can find visually busy backgrounds distracting, as anyone who’s ever seen this video can surely agree.

Done right, video conference calls don’t have to be noisy wastes of time. By setting expectations and agendas early, sitting in a quiet room with quick access to the mute button, and keeping focused without multitasking, video calls can be as short and productive as a face-to-face meeting — or even better, because you don’t have to wait hours before changing into your comfy clothes and cuddling your dog.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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