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Camera On or Off?

Last week, I joined an online community for a Zoom meeting/webinar, and I was sharing a laptop log-in with my wife. We used the "change name" feature to indicate we were both there on one account, and then quickly learned that we had joined an hour after the session had started. I wanted to eat a sandwich, so I thought we should be off screen.

Unfortunately, we clicked "hide self" rather than "stop video." The result, for those of you who don't know, is that we no longer saw ourselves in the little Zoom squares, but everyone else still could. I only learned this when, by chance, I opened "chat" and saw a private message to me from one of the other participants: "Bon apetit, Andrew!"

This was embarrassing. But not as bad as what this Spanish news anchor faced: (

While at-home video conferences proliferate, almost everyone has a "horror story" or two to share, begging the question: Is it better to have your camera on or off? And along with that question comes the one about proper attire for video conferences. So let's look at both issues today.

Lights, Camera (?), Action!

Even if we're all actors now, it's not clear we either want to be or that we are ready to be on stage, especially for hours at a time. So some opt out, turning their cameras off during meetings. If that's your wish, remember: "Stop Video," not "Hide Self." Depending on the purpose of the video conference and your company policy, this may be a good option. However, if you are trying to get as close to a "real" meeting as possible, then, especially from the leader/facilitator point of view, you'll want your camera on. It's very odd to see a bunch of black boxes with white names across them, or just photos, interspersed with some people on video, with some responding and others not.

I suggest you clarify the purpose of the video conference and break it into time slots, with cameras off during some parts and on during others. Remember, these high-intensity video interactions are stressful for even the most extroverted among us. And just as closing your eyes may help you focus on content, "camera off" can have a similar effect. But again, if your aim is to recreate a lively, interactive meeting or to simulate a classroom (if you're a teacher or trainer) the best policy I've found is the one recommended by Hitotsubashi's School of International Corporate Strategy: "Camera on." Just remember to include breaks with "cameras off." Have you noticed the drop in tension that comes from knowing the camera is off?

Dress Code?

Buzzing around the 'net are complaints and observations from all sides on this issue: How should you dress for a virtual meeting conducted from home? Some professionals are sticking to their work dress code, and bristle when colleagues aren't taking the time or making the effort to do the same. "They're being paid, they should at least look professional," wrote a corporate board member. Another company leader echoes this one and requires his employees to "wear their battle fatigues." Yet the other side responds, "Look! We're in the middle of a pandemic, I'm watching two kids at home all day and trying to work, and now you're going to tell me I need to care about how I dress for a meeting? Forget it!"

All these arguments have their merit. I'd say that if your boss is that board member above, better to shower, shave, and suit up. Some add, "At least from the waist up," but I disagree. First of all, you may, for any number of reasons, need to suddenly stand up, and may, like me above, fail to to turn off your video; second, if you are dressing the part in order to convey a professional presence, don't split yourself in two. Your counterparts may not know that you're wearing shorts, but you do.

But if your boss shows up to video conferences wearing a hoodie or t-shirt, you may want to show up casual. (I was going to say, "You may want to follow suit," but I guess it would be more correct to say, "follow not suit.") And you may get a mix: The other day, the Daily Show's Trevor Noah was dressed in a hoodie while interviewing the dark-suited, white-shirted, blue-tied governor of New York.

Longing for a New (and Better) Normal

Strange times indeed. Who would have thought we'd be throwing about words like "asymptomatic" and "Zoom bombing," and "shelter-in-place?" Or that we'd be reading about people possibly drinking Lysol® or Chlorox® to protect them from a virus called "COVID-19"? And as much as I want to "get back to normal," or, hopefully, to a "better normal," we will all be attending and leading more video conferences as time goes on. So we might as well learn as much as we can about how to perform better on them.

And who's to say these video conferences are any worse than one of the alternatives being floated, namely students and workshop participants all wearing masks? In the past, during allergy season, I'd often see one or two of a given group wearing a mask, and believe me, it's hard to tell if they are getting the message or just wanting to get out of the room.

"It's not the strongest or most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best adapt to change." This cleaned up, paraphrasing of Leon Meggison's summary of Charles Darwin's theory (yes, that's the pathway back to the meme's origin) provides me with inspiration and hope. Yes, there are challenges and embarrassments with new technology as we're exploring new ways of working and communicating. But if we keep adapting, we're much more likely to survive, and even thrive. "Lights, camera...ACTION!"

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