Have you been on a Zoom meeting with Bob in Accounting, and it looks like he’s sitting in a luxurious office with a view of Manhattan? He’s not, of course. He’s using a virtual background to hide the fact he’s actually working from the north end of his dining room table.

Someone recently asked a question on our Long Distance Worklife podcast: When is it appropriate to use background filters, and what are the rules?

What problem are virtual backgrounds solving?

Most technology was invented to solve a problem. Also, there has been nothing invented that human beings won’t find a way to misuse or create more problems. Let’s look at the problem they were trying to solve first of all.

Working from home does not mean we automatically have broadcast-capable facilities. Using a webcam to join a Teams meeting may mean showing the world your “home office” is the spare bedroom. Perhaps the only place to store those boxes is directly behind your work space. But now the CEO can see them every time you turn your camera on.

Before COVID, the people who did work from home got creative. They made sure their desk backed against a plain-colored wall, or they draped a sheet behind them. Some of us even invested in tools like “WebAround.” The collapsible screens fit over the back of your chair, masking whatever was really lurking back there.

Zoom, Teams, and WebEx all addressed the problem with software that changed what the audience saw in the background.

We have options

One option is to “blur” the background. This changes the focal length of the camera so that everything close to the camera is clear, but the further back you go, the more out of focus the picture is until you can’t see what’s behind the speaker. But they didn’t stop there.

Next were several photo options, most of which were safe, boring, stock photos of a traditional office. But wait, there’s more. Then came moving backgrounds. You could be joining the meeting from a windswept beach or even the moon. Eventually, because people demanded customization, users could upload any photograph to use as their background. Hence, people began conducting business in front of a giant picture of their cat, or a vacation photo. Not exactly the proudest moment in the evolution of remote work.

What's the problem?

There are two big problems with this. Initially, the way these tools work (the technology is irrelevant, just work with us here) can create visual distortion. There’s a halo of light all around your body. When you lift your hands, they disappear, and what you’re holding up to the camera is invisible to the viewer. It looks weird and can be a huge distraction to the viewer.

Secondly, it may appear unprofessional to your audience. Your customer doesn’t need to see that you’d rather be on a Hawaiian beach than working with them. Here, then, are some guidelines:

  • Think about who your audience is. There may be legitimate reasons to hide your physical surroundings. In such cases, blurring the background or adding an appropriate visual makes sense. Choose wisely. I have three backgrounds I usually use. The more formal the presentation, the more I’m likely to go with the blank, beige wall. The cartoon robots (it’s in Microsoft Teams, look it up) are for informal conversations.
  • Using your own photos is fun, but use high resolution. I have a picture of the Las Vegas sign I often use. It’s a bright color, and is often a conversation starter. It’s also a high-resolution photo, so it doesn’t suffer the same problems of blurring and flaring that some others do.
  • Check your background before getting on the meeting. How much of a distraction your background may be depends on a lot of factors. How crisp and clear is the picture? What about your clothes? Certain patterns and colors can create psychedelic effects. How far are you from the camera? Will your audience be able to see whatever movements you need to make during your call? Something like that can turn a harmless joke or an unintentional move into a major headache. Test your background with the clothes you plan to wear. Or just start a meeting a couple of minutes before joining the call and see what it looks like.

Working from home has allowed us to show off more of our selves and our personalities in the workplace than ever before. That requires making smart choices when using some of the customizable tools.

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Wayne Turmel has been writing about how to develop communication and leadership skills for almost 26 years. He has taught and consulted at Fortune 500 companies and startups around the world. For the last 18 years, he’s focused on the growing need to communicate effectively in remote and virtual environments.

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  1. Great information, I also don’t use background pics they look very flat. Another tip if near a window look to see how bright the light may be coming in, especially on a sunny day. The bright white light can be a big distraction or wash you out and make it difficult for you to be seen.

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