Do you switch your camera on at online meetings?
Camera equality: how does switching off your camera affect online meetings?
I coached a team manager the other day and they started our session sharing their frustration about virtual meetings. They found it annoying and upsetting that some people didn’t turn their camera on, “It’s unfair, I do. And I find it hard to tell if they’re really engaged”. Sound familiar?
The group dynamic that develops when we gather in person also naturally develops when we meet online. In fact, I think we become even more sensitive and react to every click of someone else’s mouse, sometimes interpreting it in quite extreme ways. There’s a dangerous combination of underestimating the impact of our own keyboard actions, which take mere milliseconds to complete, while being highly sensitive to the impact of keyboard strokes by others.
So, what impact does switching off our camera, and not showing our face, have? The answer is, of course, it depends. If no-one has their camera on, and it’s been agreed upfront that we’re going to be voice-only', then no problem at all. Voice and camera parity.
The tension develops when some of us do, and some of us don’t, show our faces. Check-in with yourself, when you’ve had your camera on at a meeting, and someone else chooses voice only, did any of the following thoughts cross your mind?
- “They’re not listening and don’t really want to be at this meeting.”
- “Hey, I showed myself, despite feeling grotty this morning.”
- “Wonder what they’re really doing.”
- “Wonder if they’re still wearing pyjamas.”
- “Their broadband can’t be that weak”
These thoughts are not harmless and irrelevant. They reflect confusion, vulnerability, resentment, misunderstanding and a loss of connection. These emotions swirl around just below the waterline, unconsciously influencing and distorting the group dynamic and how we communicate.
A mixture of cameras on and off also makes it harder for the meeting leader to allocate their attention equally. Their brain must now reconcile 'faces with voices' with 'faceless voices'. Sure, we can do it, and are growing accustomed to it, but it creates strain, and our attention is fragmented. Research already shows we’re distracted by our own face on the screen. Add to that the need to consciously remember to equally prioritise those we can hear, but not see. More demands on our attention.
There are, of course, valid reasons why we switch off our camera. The internet connection may be weak, and experience may have shown that if everyone has their camera on, the platform crashes. Alternatively, you may be running a session where you want specific people to be more able to focus on each other. If I run a session where two people are working together in a role-play or a coaching interaction, I sometimes ask other group members to turn off their cameras which allows them to blend more into the background, giving the other two centre stage.
You may be thinking, “Hey, if I want to keep my camera off, I will. I have the right to decide.” Of course, you do. I’m not suggesting we must switch on our camera. I am suggesting we consider the impact switching it off may have on others, and then make a more informed choice.
If you’d like to reduce disruptive undercurrents caused by 'camera inequality', here are five top tips.
1. Clarify and be explicit about your remote working and online meeting practices and preferences as a team manager. State your preference is for a consistent medium for all meeting attendees with cameras on unless there are exceptional circumstances.
2. To facilitate camera equality, set the scene at the start of the meeting. For example:
“I’d love us all to turn our camera on, so we can all see each other. Would you all do that now, please? I find it difficult when I can see some people and not others, and it’s easier for the whole group if we’re all communicating through the same medium.”
Use humour and encourage everyone to turn their camera’s on. “Hey, let’s all turn our cameras on to see each other. We’ve no Medusa here.”
3. If someone consistently keeps their camera off, explore why in an individual meeting. There may be more to it than you think. Be on the alert for possible mental health issues. Be supportive and explain how 'voice only' adds complexity to the group dynamic. Try and find solutions. If the person’s camera really cannot be on all the time, try one of the following:
- Experiment with them turning the camera on briefly at the start of the meeting for the welcome and check-in.
- Have a check-in with the group at the start of the meeting, where the person has the opportunity to explain why their camera can’t go on, and express regret that they can’t show their face, acknowledging how much they appreciate seeing everyone else.
4. If you don’t want to switch on your camera, be genuine and explain why to the rest of the group. It helps them understand and not jump to conclusions. It’s important that you’ve got a genuine reason and are being sincere.
5. Be refreshingly 20th century?! Try voice-only telephone conference calls for a change. You’d be surprised how many people find it a relief not to look at a screen, and to enjoy the freedom to walk about with earphones in. Immediate voice equality.
I’m sure there are lots of other ideas and views out there, feel free to chip in. And do let me know how it goes if you try out one of the above suggestions.