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How Forcing A “Cameras-On” Video Culture Can Backfire

Jessica Poorée
Updated Jan 23, 2023

Love them or hate them, video calls are here to stay. With the right considerations, they can be a useful business tool.

  • Companies everywhere have embraced videoconference calls, but the tools have added a new element to company culture and team workflow.
  • When used appropriately, videoconferencing can enhance a meeting, but forcing a “cameras-on” culture across the board can have unintended consequences.
  • While video calling has benefits, establishing the right approach for your team is important to making the most of this software.
  • This article is for business owners and professionals using videoconference calls as a tool for meetings.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, video calls exploded in volume. While many businesses had previously resorted to regular voice-only conference calls, the pandemic ushered in a new age of cameras-on video calls — and that era appears here to stay. But the trend also raises questions around the intersection of company culture and videoconferencing. These include legal ones, such as whether managers can force employees to go “on camera” during every call. According to at least one lawsuit, companies might want to tread lightly when mandating whether employees should keep their cameras on or not.

Can forcing a cameras-on video call culture backfire?

Although videoconferences have enabled remote teams to get together and collaborate effectively, some managers have found it difficult to set and uphold expectations around certain elements of the video call. Chief among them is if team members should have their cameras on. While many find a cameras-on culture creates a more engaging and productive meeting, many employees are resistant to giving the rest of a team a window into their world — and trying to force them to do so can have big consequences for morale and engagement. So, what’s a manager to do when they want to make the most out of their video meetings?

Did you know?Did you know?: The number of daily Zoom users exploded from approximately 10 million in December 2020 to 300 million in April 2020 (Chawla, 2020).

The use of videoconferencing differs across companies and, sometimes, even within the same company. Some managers set strict rules for camera usage; for example, some may insist cameras must be on unless you’re sick. Others leave it up to individuals to decide if they want to use their cameras, often resulting in a hodgepodge of who is visible and who isn’t. Some leaders might expect cameras to be on only in smaller groups (say, fewer than 10 people) or for one-on-one meetings. 

Now that videoconferencing has been around for some time, legal precedent for just how far managers can go when mandating videoconference etiquette is beginning to emerge.

A recent case highlights one of the risks of a rigid videoconference policy and gives insight into how legal precedents are shaping up. An employee of Chetu, Inc., a software development company headquartered in Miramar, Florida, was instructed to take part in a virtual training session in which he was to remain logged in with screen sharing and with his webcam both on, all day. 

The employee refused to leave his camera on all day, saying he found it to be an invasion of his privacy. He did, however, comply with the screen-sharing requirement. A few days later, he was fired. A few months after that, he was awarded €75,000 (about $73,000) by a Dutch court for wrongful termination.

Benefits and drawbacks of on camera video calls

Some employers believe that the visual connection helps increase collaboration and connection. There is anecdotal evidence that shows that seeing another person does somewhat fulfill the need for face-to-face contact. This was especially true in the early days of the pandemic when contact with people outside our homes was scarce.

Some participants also feel like video calls give us a glimpse into another’s life, helping us see them as a whole person. There is nothing like seeing a cat traipsing across the camera or hearing a baby cry in the background to remind us that the person on our work call has a life outside of work. This window into their life as a “real” person can help increase empathy among coworkers and lead to more patience and tolerance for our colleagues.

Don’t forget some workers are truly remote. Maybe you have team members or direct reports in another office, another state or another country. The good news is that the popularity of videoconferencing now makes it normal for remote employees to join meetings online. If other employees are using videoconferencing to join as well, it levels the field in terms of being able to engage in the conversation.

TipTip: If you’re looking for a videoconferencing tool, check out our picks for best video conference tools for small business, including our GoToMeeting review.

Despite these benefits, forcing employees to be on camera all the time is not a good policy and may even dampen creativity and productivity. Being on camera has its drawbacks, as anyone who has uncomfortably caught sight of their harried selfie on a conference call can tell you. But aside from that self-view paralysis, which we will discuss later, there are some lesser-known side effects to a video call.

Evidence suggests that watching a grid of people on a conference call is psychologically akin to having a room full of folks staring at you. The full-face view of people in front of their laptops simulates eye contact, and maintaining eye contact for an entire conversation or presentation is something that wouldn’t normally happen. When we engage with others in person, we naturally avert our gazes throughout the interaction, whether we’re listening or speaking. On video calls, it feels as though everyone is staring at us all the time. This sensation can be unsettling.

The actual view of the camera is rather narrow, which inhibits our willingness to move, gesture, and even stand up. If we’re meant to be on camera, our actual space may feel limited to that camera scope. Interestingly, being able to move is linked to paying closer attention and even to retaining information better. Consequently, this inability to move around may lower actual meeting productivity.

Another downside to on-camera calls is the self-view. Many videoconference platforms include a self-view as a default. You may have felt uncomfortable looking at yourself while on a call. If so, you’re not alone. In fact, some studies show a negative, depressive impact associated with increased self-evaluation that often accompanies this self-view. This is especially true for female users.

TipTip: If you feel distracted or anxious when you see yourself in real-time on a conference call, check your application settings and minimize or turn off the self-view.

How to encourage camera use

Instead of mandating a camera-on policy, consider the softer approach of encouraging cameras on — and only for calls that make sense. Here are a few tips for inspiring your employees to put their best faces forward:

  • Be what you want to see. Make sure you have your own camera on. In smaller meetings this may be all the encouragement employees need to flip their own switches.
  • For collaborative or important calls, ask participants to turn on their cameras at the beginning of the call. Explain why you think it will benefit the meeting but don’t make demands to employees.
  • If an employee refuses to turn on their camera, take it up afterwards in a one-on-one call. The goal should be to understand and encourage, not to reprimand. They may have had a legitimate reason for not using their camera that may resolve itself or can be fixed. Even if the reason doesn’t seem valid to you, asking your employee about their non-participation on camera lets them know that it was noted and opens a dialogue to discuss the issue.
  • Weigh the costs and benefits. If there are more people in the meeting than can be shown on a monitor, is it worth demanding cameras-on for everyone? For large meetings, consider asking only the main presenters to use them.

Amplify the good and minimize the bad

If video calls aren’t going away, do we have to just take the good with the bad? Not necessarily. 

Many researchers are currently looking at the videoconferencing malaise known as “Zoom Fatigue,” and there are some simple actions user can take to lessen the negative effects:

  • Use videoconferencing strategically. Don’t automatically schedule every communication as a video meeting, but rather, for only those that make the most sense and offer the most benefit. Calls where the objective is to connect and collaborate are good candidates.
  • Check your tech. Ensure that your employees have adequate systems in place to use videoconferencing without technical challenges. This includes checking the app or software of choice but also internet speeds, access and even computer performance (calls with many people on video can be very taxing).
  • Modify settings to suit your needs. Change your view settings to hide or minimize your own image if you’re uncomfortable seeing yourself on screen. Consider getting a separate camera so that you’re not limited by the position of your laptop. Adjust your background by blurring it or adding a virtual background to retain some privacy in your surroundings.

TipTip: Participants in Zoom Fatigue studies believe you can reduce it through better meeting management, resolving technical issues beforehand, and setting expectations around camera use and sticking to them.

Creating a video conference culture that works

While videoconferencing has its fans and its foes, it’s undeniable that it has helped keep teams and colleagues connected. If anything, its widespread use has given us a lot of data points to improve the experience and refine how we use it. As your team develops its own culture around videoconferencing, pay attention to how well it works (or doesn’t) in order to optimize your meetings and keep employees engaged. For even more information on how to make the most of a video call, read our tips to hosting productive videoconferences.

Image Credit: AndreyPopov / Getty Images