One woman who works at a New York-based nonprofit told CNN Business she received an HR complaint in August for the first time in her career because she kept her camera off during virtual work meetings. Shortly after, she said she received another HR complaint for the same reason.
“I was on a call with about 15 employees and [the speaker] said everyone should have their camera on because it’s company policy and part of our culture now,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of company retaliation. She said she has long disliked being in front of a camera, whether it’s for pictures or videos, and the meetings only added to that discomfort. “I told them being on camera causes me anxiety and didn’t turn it on. I eventually got a doctor’s note.”
Although she is still required to keep her camera on, she now sits mostly out of frame with only her shoulder showing — something her company said is acceptable. But she feels this makes things even more awkward. She is currently looking for a new job.
The rise of on-camera meetings — and misconceptions about it
After the pandemic hit, video conferencing services including Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams and Skype emerged not only for virtual meetings and classroom lessons but happy hours, costume parties, church services, brunches, book clubs and dates. But as lockdowns continued, more people experienced exhaustion from virtual meetings, a phenomenon often called Zoom fatigue.
“Women tend to have higher self-presentation costs than men and are likely to feel heightened pressure to demonstrate competence by appearing extra vigilant on camera,” Gabriel said. “Additionally, as women took on disproportionate childcare demands compared to men during the pandemic, they are more likely to have kids in the background, which could unfortunately call into question their ability to be committed to their work and their ability to focus. We also tend to hold women to higher standards for physical appearance. Being on camera can exacerbate all of these things.”
Newer employees also feel greater pressure to demonstrate competence and engagement because they feel the need to prove they deserve to be there, Gabriel said.
Searching for solutions
Some organizations are now realizing a change is needed, but there are tradeoffs.
Companies such as Citigroup, Dell and New York University responded to the rise of Zoom fatigue by implementing policies such as “no Zoom Fridays,” encouraging people to take meetings by email or phone instead. And some universities made it optional for instructors or students to keep webcams on during lessons.
“Students have to ‘Zoom in’ from a variety of settings, and requiring cameras to be on unfairly magnifies socio-economic differences and is also ableist,” said Julia Raz, a communications professor at two California-based colleges. “I wouldn’t say it’s distracting to have webcams off. It is just rather disheartening and lonely to talk to a screen full of black rectangles.”
At the same time, some people may feel more engaged and connected to their colleagues when on camera. That’s why solutions need to be put in place to cater to all comfort levels.
Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanford University and founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, advises managers to categorize their meetings into two types: ones in which seeing one another’s faces is critical, and others where screen sharing and talking with voices is sufficient. “When executives sit down and go through this process, they realize that there are a handful of meetings where you absolutely need to see faces.”
While making meetings with webcams optional may also sound like an effective solution, Bailenson argues the opposite. “This is similar to asking someone if they want to help out on a big project over the weekend,” he said. “Many people will prefer not to do it, but all will feel pressure to say yes. The better solution is to make cameras mandatory every once in a while, and prohibit them from the rest.”
He added that managers, especially male managers, should turn off cameras during these times or employees will otherwise feel pressure to show their faces.
Stop making employees turn on webcams during meetings