Think back just a few years to what a conference call might have looked like. It used to be that somebody might be operating out of Tulsa, while everybody else was in Chicago. You would have 12 people talking in a room, and one would call in. For that lone wolf, it was almost impossible to be heard. If they happened to have an audio-only connection, forget about it. It was like they weren’t even there. They wouldn’t even get credit for being at the meeting.
In that old school boardroom or conference table setting, the largest person, sitting in the power chair, speaking the loudest, drove the meeting. Even inside the room, somebody who was a little less aggressive, maybe even shy, stood little chance of making an impact — no matter the quality of their ideas.
While dialing into a meeting from outside the office is nothing new, the dynamics have most definitely changed. Today — for the time being at least — we are all calling in remotely. In a group call, everybody shows up as equal postage-stamp-sized pictures on the screen. For anybody speaking, clarity trumps volume, and the new equivalent of the biggest, loudest person in the room is the one who is best at projecting their presence online. What does it take to win the day in an environment like that?
For anybody who has ever thought to themselves, “I’ve got great ideas but I just can’t get through,” a whole new communication medium like this offers massive opportunity. Adapt and change with this shift to thrive in the years ahead or stick to the old ways and struggle. It’s time to turn on that camera, give some thought to your background space and embrace the social aspect of online work.
In an office, nobody knows whether your kitchen sink is full of dirty dishes or what your house looks like. Your brand is what you are carrying with you. But online, your brand is something else. Every time you connect with somebody, you make a quick judgement about who they are. In the meantime, you are projecting an image of who you are. Knowledge workers, and whole companies, who adjust to this are best oriented for success in the years ahead.
When you click into a video call, you surely measure people by their voice, how they look, and what they are saying. But your eyes also tend to wander, taking in all those interesting things in the background. Maybe it’s the law degree proudly hanging on the wall, or that autographed football on the corner of the desk. Regretfully, it may even be that unmade sofa bed lurking over someone’s shoulder. Whatever you take in, all those things communicate something.
Think back to your first job, when you went out and spent a bunch of money you didn’t have on nice clothes — just so you could make a good impression from day one. You wanted to put your best foot forward, so you put in the extra effort to tee yourself up for success. Why wouldn’t you do the same kind of thing with your home working space?
Some have taken to using virtual backgrounds — a brand logo, or a scenic beach scene, for example — but for me, it’s better to tailor your message by curating your own space. Just as the decor in your office or cubicle displays little flourishes of who you are, an online background presents an identity.
Full disclosure, I am still adjusting to this new reality myself, and my own workspace still needs a little improvement. In recent weeks, I have basically been operating out of my master bedroom closet. For the first few days there were some clothes and things dangling behind me (Let’s just say it’s a work in progress). But generally speaking, you want a nice, clean, brightly-lit space.
Next, perhaps a few personal items in the background. If you are into tennis, how about your racket hanging on a hook nearby? Are you a big reader? Maybe a few of your favorite books are on a shelf over your shoulder. It might be as simple as putting an interesting painting up on the wall. In any event, you need to be intentional about things like this.
Along with sending a message about who you are professionally, this is a way to engage with people on a personal level. Unlike that horrible tie you bought for your first job, going the extra mile on details like this can positively impact one-to-one relationships, team atmosphere and your company culture.
Once you have the right setup, it’s important to get the most out of video conferencing tools. Arrange yourself so that you are centered on the camera. As people’s eyes (and ego) have a tendency to wander toward themselves on the screen, it is best to align your own streaming image somewhere near the camera lens. When you nod your head and smile, you may well be watching yourself, but this makes it seem you are making eye contact with everybody else. Better yet, take a cue from television and movie actors and look directly at the lifeless camera when you are making your point. This may feel odd at first, but, to your audience, you’re super connected. People pay attention to a person who is engaging them. Now we’ve got a connection.
If you have made it this far, you are already way ahead of most people. Nearly half of women and a majority of men (according to our research, at least) remain reluctant to even turn their cameras on. Put your best self forward in your video meetings and you’ll be leading the pack.
Now, in contrast to the more formal online meetings we talk about above, there are the ones you have with the people you know best. For, example, our RingCentral UX team knows each other quite well. We insist on using cameras during meetings. I know what you look like when you haven’t washed your hair or shaved yet. That’s cool, but I am more interested in what’s going on in your head right now. Let’s do away with formalities and talk face-to-face. The connection is way more important than the context.
For us at least, this kind of casual engagement goes a long way toward standing in for the nonverbal interaction that used to happen in an office — where you know the person two cubes over from yours and can tell if they’re having a rough day even before you talk to them.
In fact, we keep our cameras running all day. You notice when someone is not there. Alright, so I haven’t seen Mark in his chair for a while, I’ll think. I wonder what he’s up to? When he comes back with a sandwich on a plate, I can ask “Whatcha ya got?” And I can hear a little bit about it. And, I can remember that it’s lunchtime for me also. The point is not to keep a watch on people, but rather to maintain a channel to keep in touch.
Sure, arrangements like this might not fit for everybody, but in our experience giving up a little privacy for broader connection is a balance worth striking. With the right close knit team, it’s a trade that pays dividends. I already notice people who were once hesitant to speak asserting themselves more.
With everyone working remote anyway these days, there is no better time to get comfortable with turning on that camera. Long after the coronavirus clears, remote work and online conferencing are likely to remain core elements of knowledge work for years to come. These shifting dynamics offer opportunities for different personality types to thrive and push ideas to the fore. The winners and losers of tomorrow will be different than the winners and losers of the past.
Just turning on that camera and engaging puts you ahead of that person who still insists on joining meetings as a little circle with some initials inside. Combine that confidence with a little extra effort in curating the appearance of your workspace and video conferences become a bridge, not a barrier, to connecting with coworkers and customers. And yes, you might even manage to get away with wearing those flip flops on your feet.
Originally published Apr 16, 2020, updated Dec 30, 2022