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Davide de Paolis
Davide de Paolis

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Should employers force employees to turn on webcam during online meetings?

There is a trend growing bigger since the pandemic and the overall increase of remote-work / WFH: people showing up to online meetings with the camera turned off. In many online platforms I have also seen this actively encouraged.

During the pandemic everyone was forced to work from home.

Many of us were not prepared, with small apartments, shared with other family members also working/studying from home, or shared with strangers/friend if you live in a shared house. Therefore it was completely understandable that lots of people refused to show themselves on video, but now that we are allowed ( and sometimes even prompted) to go back to the office, why are some people, who decided to continue working remotely still averse to turning on the camera?

Is your boss even allowed to ask you to switch on the camera so that everyone can see you?

Should manager impose webcam-ON during online meeting?

The short answer is of course: NO!

Employers should never force an employee to do anything, in general, luckily slavery is long gone, and they should not be entitled in having any word about something that has do with your privacy and private space.

Of course! But Maybe... Let's try to be the devil's advocate here for a second. And let's consider if this behaviour is harmful to our mental health, to team performance, team building and to the future of remote work itself.

What are the reasons for Keeping your Webcam switched-off?

I am shy / I don't look good on video

Would you ever go to the office with a paper bag on your head?
Would you ever speak at a meeting from behind the window curtains?

Body (or face, or any ) shaming should never happen at work, nor at home ( nor anywhere actually). So if you would be showing up in the office, why do you want to hide yourself when working from home?

I don't want to show my private space

Fair enough. Not everyone has a big apartment, with a dedicated room for work. And if you really can't set up a corner of your room with an empty wall behind you, you are not to blame. But that is the reason why we have Virtual Backgrounds. Yes, sometimes they don't work properly or are awkward, but any Online Meeting Tool offers now a wide range virtual backgrounds - from the simplest blur to fancy indoor or outdoor location.

I don't want to show where I am

You told your boss you are working from home, but you are actually at the beach?
Again, probably a virtual background would do the job, but I have another concern that is twofold and has to do with trust and being professional.

Can you be professional and achieve all your daily task while working from a Chiringuito?
Beach Bar

If you can work without distractions and be productive, absolutely fine for me (I did it sometimes). Why is it a problem for your boss?

If there is a problem of lack of trust from your employer, I am sorry, but definitely switching off the camera and lying about your location, is not really going to make things better.

It consumes bandwidth

Yes this is true, having video on consumes more bandwidth. It can be a problem, especially if working on LTE.
But you can fine-tune the settings of your Zoom or GoogleMeet to reduce quality, or show only who is speaking, or eventually, hide all other participants to you, but stream your video.

I don't have a webcam

Really?!? Ok, you might not have a laptop, but if you are working in IT I bet you have a computer, a keyboard, a mouse and a monitor, ( and maybe even some fancy accessories, like standing desk, or mechanical keyboard ). We might start considering a webcam a must-have of our toolkit ( it doesn't have to be a super high quality and expensive one ( Amazon has some starting from 20$ [Yes, I know, in some countries 20$ could be a lot, but I am referring to developers or other remote workers, likely still getting paid same or almost as employees of the same company no matter where they are - Germany, Egypt, India or Brasil.)

I am afraid my image could be stolen

Ok, this is a fair - and scary - point.
Someone could record the video of me speaking or attending a meeting, make a screenshot of me with a funny facial expression ( and believe me, if you freeze a frame on any youtube video you will see many funny faces) and then post it on the internet, maybe as a meme.
It might sound paranoid, but I have seen, in a less malicious but still concerning, version, how kids, while remote schooling during the pandemic lockdowns, had shared screenshots of their teachers in the class WhatsApp chat.

Hide the Pain Harold

What can we do about it? Not much, really, besides raising awareness that this is wrong, and a huge violation of privacy that can have very unexpected and dramatic consequences - something could really get viral and disrupt someone's career or life forever.
Hopefully, such things can happens only among teens and not in a professional environment.

Is Keeping Video Off even a problem?

I have been reading lots of discussions about Working From Home vs Working from The Office lately, and lots of people are advocating the return to the office because they lack social interactions and miss seeing colleagues.
Of course seeing someone in person, and chatting at the water-cooler/coffee machine is not the same as seeing it in an online meeting, but.. could we just start, seeing each other online ( wherever you are staying, and whatever you are wearing ) instead of staring at a black screen with letters or avatars?

Non-verbal communcation

We all know that communication is not just verbal, facial expression matters a lot. Why are we giving this up?

I don't need to quote studies proving how much the visual feedback is important during a conversation.
The meaning of what I am saying with words can be completely turned upside down if I am rolling my eyes or if I am smiling.
good idea - sarcasm
My silence after a question, could mean that I am deeply thinking about a problem, or simply running back to the computer from the kitchen while trying to recollect what the subject was.

Seeing the other person, makes the conversation warmer, more real, more personal, it allows for deeper connection and better understanding. Isn't this exactly why Emojis are used?

To give words an emotional context.

In One-on-Ones, I'd really like to see the person I am talking to, in big meetings or during workshops I'd like to see the engagement of the audience - are they nodding or shaking their heads, are they thrilled, bored or puzzled by the topic?

Personally I don't have problems in seeing cats walking on tables, kids playing in the back of the room, I actually like to see pictures on the wall, gadgets on shelves and piles of books or CDs around.

Those are all things that tell us about ourselves and can spark some interest and trigger conversations which are not just work related and help build a relationship which is not only work related - exactly like when i saw somebody at the office with a skate/snowboard hoody, or met someone in the elevator and recognised some heavy metal coming out of their headphones.
All these little things help us get to know each other and feel more part of a team, a group of people working towards a common goal, not just individuals atomically contributing to something.

Off course you might not be extrovert or you might be shy or even ashamed (of your look, of your surroundings, of your hobbies - or lack of), but my question then would be:

How would you behave in the office? Would you hide yourself in headphones and hoody when at the coffee machine and reply grumpily to anyone approaching you asking about your weekend with a "None of your business"?


Mental health and online fatigue

Meetings are boring, draining, and mostly too long and useless. They were so in the office, and they are so online.

What I have noticed with the increase of online meetings ( due to a bigger involvement in team management ) is that whenever I can't see the person I am speaking to, I feel less connected, I tend to become more robotic, (I am not explaining something to a human, I am giving instructions to a screen), I tend to have less patience ( I don't see a person struggling with a specific subject, just a screen not responding how I expect) and I end up focusing too much on the "work" and not on the person I am working with. Sometimes it can be more productive, but most of the time it's just draining.

This is definitely my problem, but I wonder if other people might be affected in similar or other ways.

I am a social introvert, and I am not a champion of smalltalk, but I have noticed that when I have only meetings with people who I can't see, my working day becomes dry.
And I am more tired too, because since I can't rely on facial expressions, body language and gestures, I have to use more my voice, my intonation to compensate.
But maybe that has just to do with the fact I am Italian, and you now how much Italians need body language to communicate, don't you?

The future of remote work

I am not ranting about someone keeping video off sometime. But really of an established habit some have.

There are some colleagues, which i meet almost biweekly, which I haven't seen since the start of the pandemic.

There are new hires from other departments, with whom I regularly exchange slack messages and sometimes I see in big sync meetings, that I have no clue how they look like ( no picture in slack, no camera on).

Those people simply never turn on their camera, and their decision is respected.

But I am concerned, because the habit of joining a team with the camera switched off spreads out quickly. If you join a meeting and 90% of the audience has camera off, well, why would you be the only one showing yourself? It really feels awkward, like going to a meeting naked. The next time you will join that meeting, be assured you will keep your camera off as well.

What is bothering me, probably because I really believe in 100% Remote Working and I an worried that companies are going to step back to forced office work, or to settle with 3 day office- 2 day remote formulas, is that managers who can't ( and should not!) enforce a Webcam-ON policy might lean towards reducing home-office and remote working due to trust issues, mental health issues, team building issues and so on.

What can we do?

Have less meetings

This is true for in-person, work-from-office.

Most of meetings are not necessary or could be shorter.

Have smaller meetings

I rarely find meetings with more than 5 people useful and productive. People zone out easily, start multitasking, don't or can't contribute because they are only slightly involved by the subject, ( or eventually, they do contribute, but simply to re-estate what is already being said or bring up info that are not relevant)

Much better than having a small meeting with, for example some "representatives" of a team or department and then forward meeting notes and documentation, and let them have other meetings with more people in their circle. There is a risk of Broken Phone effect but with big meetings you might also have the false assumption that since, everyone was there, everyone is then on the same page. Alternatively you can have more of the same meeting, a bit more time consuming and boring for you, but probably more efficient.

Use alternatives when possible

To discuss code or describe the flow of a feature, and for longer pari programming sessions, it is definitely not necessary to have a meeting with Zoom or Google Meet and it is not necessary to keep the camera on. For that I find much easier and quicker a Slack Huddles for example. I can type links to documentation or snippets, (without the conversation being lost after the meeting), screen share works smoother and I can raw and point on the screen, people can be invited and leave almost seamlessly. And I also like that it is a different app from the browser (that allows me to switch to different apps and tabs without having to create different windows.

Improve your set up and skills for online meetings

You might not be interested in holding workshops, giving speeches, nor running meeting, you are just a developer after all, what matters, is coding! Right? Not quite.

More experience developers need way more than coding skills to be efficient, effective and successful. If to implement a new feature you have to discuss with stakeholders or other devs in other departments how to integrate and build the functionality, communicating effectively, and presenting yourself well and professionally during an online meeting counts too.

You can find online plenty of posts and videos giving tips, and none of them require an expensive set up:

  • Correct camera angle ( not from below or from the side),
  • look at the green dot and not in the center-bottom of the screen
  • adjust lighting so that you don't look like a ghost (flashed- out with dark background) nor like speaking from heaven (too bright background)

And of course, some training, like Toastmasters could really help. ( I joined Toastmasters International and when the lockdown started I thought we were over with our meetings, but we continued online - and now hybrid - and it gave my confidence during online meetings a big boost).

Again, you might think you don't care about soft skills, about your appearance and about climbing the career ladder, but the truth is that more and more companies are now interviewing online. When I joined my current company 8 years ago, I had to fly in from Italy to Germany, now everything happens with an online meeting.

Missing opportunities because you don't look good on video or you are uncomfortable with talking to a screen it's a pity and can really harm your professional future.

Go back to the office

Yeah, now let me be blunt.

I never worked as Developer in FinTech consulting firms because most of the times you have to wear a suit when visiting clients. I don't like that, and I choose not to do that ( even though that could have benefit my career - and my wallet ). If you don't like to have online meetings and be on camera, you can always go back and work from the office.

Working from home is now a choice.
We are not forced to be locked in our homes and work from there.
I don't think we are doing ourselves a favour if we literally shy away and make our working days socially dry, team management and in general team "bonding" harder by keeping our webcam off all the time.

Find a balance

It might sound obvious, but avoiding extremes is most of the times the most reasonable thing to do.

You don't have to be always visible, in every meeting.

Maybe you can be visible when you join the meeting, smile and greet everyone, and then switch off the camera, until you happen to be speaking again (like, for example, we should all be already doing, for the microphone).

Of course this does not solve all the problems I mentioned, not on the participant's side - you have to show yourself and the place where you are and so on, nor the trust/attention issue on the side of who's holding the meeting, but at least from a social perspective it does make meetings more engaging and people working remotely feel less lonely.

Final words

Inclusivity, Diversity, Mental Health, Social life, Private life, Discrimination, are all complex subjects and even a simple questions like "Should you keep your webcam on" have thousands of implications.
As in everything, there is no Black or White, Right or Wrong.
It depends.
I explained my reasons in favour of "keeping it on", what are yours?

Do you keep the camera on, do you prefer to keep it off all the time? Are there other reasons i might not be considering?

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Top comments (2)

moopet profile image
Ben Sinclair

Do you remember having meetings via conference call? It's basically like Jurassic Zoom where people connect by desk phones. Phones without cameras.

If it wasn't a problem that people couldn't see your face then, why is it now?

If a new feature arrives whereby people can send smells over the Internet, will it become bad practice not to share your scent with colleagues? If not, why not?

dvddpl profile image
Davide de Paolis

yes. i do remember meetings in conference calls and they were terrible.

I also do remember talking on the phone with girlfriends in long distance relationships or talking from phonebooths to my parents when I was backbacking in Australia before the Internet Cafe days. And all that was not a nice experience, while now I see my kids growing up with a relatively deep relationship with their grandparents even if they live more than 1000 km apart, thanks to video calls.

of course, we can't compare a daily scrum meeting with a call to your parents, but we can't deny that since we are spending most of our days working alone in our homes, having online meetings, not seeing each other would make our communication (and life) poorer.

Speaking of smells: one of the best benefits of not working from the office is that I don't have to smell the fish soup my colleague is having, nor the garlic bread they had yesterday, and i am free of any smell coming from other people body parts.. So, on this I agree. if anything like that is invented, I will be the first refusing the idea! :-)