Is it okay to turn your webcam off in the middle of a team call? That seems like a reasonable question, but it always seems to get people worked up. It should be a binary answer: yes or no. But the real answers are “sometimes,” and “it depends.”
We all know the pros and cons of using webcams:
- The human brain is wired for visual communication. We crave seeing the other person BUT
- Being on camera for long periods of time takes a physical toll (see Zoom fatigue) AND
- When we work alone, it’s nice to make human contact with our co-workers and teammates, BUT
- Sometimes you just want a short conversation without worrying if the window’s behind you, the lighting is wrong, or you have a soup stain on your shirt AND
- People assume (right or wrong) that if you don’t have your camera on you are disengaged or uninterested—or worse—up to something. You want to be a good teammate BUT
- We don’t all have lovely, clean, isolated workspaces. Your teammates don’t need to see your mess, or your cat, or your spouse wandering around. AND
- Let’s face it. We aren’t all made for high-definition closeups, especially without a break. Part of the joy of working from home is flexibility in scheduling and lifestyle.
You get the idea. Each of these is a valid argument—most of the time and under the right circumstances. The trick is to make intentional decisions about when you need to be on camera. Here are some simple guidelines.
If you’re speaking, people should see you. If you’re not, it probably doesn’t matter as much.
This cuts both ways, incidentally. If you are an active participant in a meeting or presentation, it’s obvious that the webcam adds a richness to the conversation that isn’t otherwise there. You don’t need to see everyone else, either. Change to “Speaker view” so that you are seeing the person talking to you, but don’t have to see everyone else pushing their cat off the keyboard or scratching their noses.
How important is the conversation?
While we’re always on about making communication less transactional, sometimes you just want to answer a question and get on with your life. If it’s a quick conversation and you’re just passing on information, (and let’s face it, this is your third conversation with this person today) you might not need to use your webcam. On the other hand, if the stakes are high, or there will be a lot of intense conversation, suck it up and put on a shirt with buttons.
Is the conversation time-sensitive?
If someone needs to talk to you right away and you aren’t camera ready, it might be okay to beg off. If you live on the West Coast and get dragged into a lot of pre-dawn meetings, you know that bed-head is a legitimate excuse to avoid being in the spotlight. Sometimes it’s more important that you are on the call than visible. Driving in the car is a prime example.
Will your not being visible matter?
You know your teammates and they know you. It’s likely that occasionally not being visible is no big deal, as long as it doesn’t become a habit. If you are not going to be on camera, let them know why. “My back is sore and I’m going to stand up and stretch a bit, but I’m here,” is a common and perfectly acceptable thing to tell your team. Maybe you’ll be taking notes, or the dog is out of control. You can still pay attention and participate, you just don’t want to be a distraction. That’s more considerate than driving everyone crazy.
As with so much in life, there are few absolutes. Yes, using your webcam has significant advantages, but it shouldn’t be a hard-and-fast rule. Use your judgment, just make sure you have a good reason for using (or not using) it when working with your team.
As always, the bottom line is that you’re striving to be a good remote teammate. The Long-Distance Teammate is your guidebook, with answers to almost any question (like this one) that you might have to answer working remotely.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.
Yes but, there is clear evidence that too many black boxes on a screen can ruin the esprit of the meeting. So I think it is better for the meeting leader to remind people of meeting rules. One of those rules can be when and why to be a black box.