For the last few years, I’ve watched and participated in conversations about whether or not to ask participants to turn their cameras on during a meeting or a workshop. 

Recently, I conducted a virtual training session where almost no one had their cameras on. During this 6-hour virtual training workshop, I found myself talking to a bunch of black squares with names. While I expected some people would not turn on their cameras, I was surprised that no one had them on!

At least, they engaged in the discussions and activities, most of the time.  

 

Three Opinions from One Nonprofit

A few months ago, I facilitated a workshop to help a remote team learn new ways of communicating with each other. One team member raised a question about when it was important for her to have her camera on during meetings.  This prompted an energetic discussion about the pros and cons of having cameras on or off. 

From their discussion, I heard three main themes:

  • Turning cameras on demonstrates respect. Some team members felt it was a sign of respect to other team members to have their cameras turned on. Their point was that if we met in person, we couldn’t turn “cameras off.”  So if we’re simply replacing an in-person meeting with a meeting on Zoom or Microsoft Teams, why wouldn’t we keep our cameras on? 
  • Allowing cameras to be off demonstrates respect for an individual’s personal situation. Some team members felt strongly that, as long as they were participating, there was often no reason they needed to look presentable for a camera or that others needed to see their personal workspace. They believed it was a way to keep their work-life separate from their home life and that no one should expect them to share a view of their home workspace with people at work.
  • Having an office “camera policy” for virtual meetings can reduce conflict. Nearly all members of this team agreed that there are times and situations that do not warrant cameras and other times when everyone benefits from seeing each other in virtual meetings. Working through the differences and collaborating on meeting agreements about when it’s ok to have cameras on or off can help set expectations and reduce some of the tension between team members.

 

A Facilitator’s Viewpoint


As a facilitator/trainer, when I lead a meeting or workshop, it is important for me to keep a pulse on participants’ energy and engagement levels.
Being able to see everyone’s body language and sense their energy levels gives me clues about the energy level in the room. 

When I’m facilitating virtually, if someone’s camera is on, I can at least see participants’ faces and get some sense of their energy level. I can see visibly whether or not they are engaged in the conversation. If energy levels begin to fall off, especially after lunch, I like to add a short activity or ask a few questions to get people re-engaged. 

However, when most, or all, participants have their cameras off, it is much harder for me to determine the energy level in the room. Without visual clues, it’s much harder to know whether it’s time to adjust the content or take a break. It’s also harder for me to keep my own energy level up when all I see are black boxes on Zoom.

 

Cameras Aren’t Always Necessary

I agree that cameras aren’t always needed and that we should not require that everyone keep their camera on all the time.  For example… 

  • If a participant has low bandwidth or an unstable internet connection, turning off cameras can help.
  • If a participant is not feeling well or has distractions in the background, especially for unplanned or impromptu meetings, they may still be able to participate even though they are not fully camera-ready.
    • Funny story: I once hosted a Zoom call where a participant was on-camera. He had no idea a female family member was walking behind him fully naked, at least from the waist up. Thankfully, I had configured Zoom only to record the speaker view, so this participant’s family member was not captured in the recording (of course, I would have edited it out if necessary).
  • Sometimes in a workshop, there is an activity where participants are asked to work individually, such as brainstorming or journaling. Individuals are given a certain number of minutes to think of as many ideas as possible or to write down their thoughts on a given topic. It may be more productive to turn off the camera so the participants can focus on the activity rather than being distracted by people’s cameras, including their own video.
  • If an event is being held on a webinar platform, such as Zoom Webinars, participants can see the panelists or speakers but no one can see all the participants. It doesn’t matter whether participants have their cameras on in webinars because no one can see them.

 

Cameras DO Make a Difference

Cameras make a much bigger difference during events that are interactive and that will involve two-way dialogue.

In general, unless speaking on the telephone, it’s natural to want to make eye contact with people during a conversation. Maintaining eye contact helps the other person see that we are engaged in the conversation.

Teams that rarely see one another benefit greatly from opportunities to have face-to-face interactions, even if they are virtual. Even though it’s more difficult in a virtual meeting to maintain eye contact, the more interactive and conversational the meeting, the more cameras can help to maintain engagement. 

As San Francisco-based HR consultant Kate Walker, SHRM-SCP, mentioned in this article, “Human interaction is important in business, and we can have human interaction on video.Kate Walker said, “When cameras are on, participants can better observe body language and other expressions that may occur with meeting participants. Even though we are in a virtual room, we can all still read the room when we see each other.

Being able to see someone when you’re talking to them helps build your connection and make a memorable impression. In meetings, participants who do not use cameras can seem “invisible”. Their verbal comments may not be remembered as often, making their contribution less impactful. The smaller the meeting, the more important it is to keep your camera on so that your contributions are remembered and valued. 

Keeping cameras on also helps us stay more engaged in the topic or conversation. We are less distracted by our email, other work activities, or our social media feeds. I know for sure that when I have my camera on, I stay more engaged in the topic or conversation.

 

Finding Common Ground

Collaborating to create virtual meeting policies can be valuable for teams with differing opinions on when and whether to turn cameras on during virtual meetings. I like to help teams create a set of team agreements that can work for a variety of meetings and situations.

Here are a few questions to explore as your team collaborates to create its own virtual meeting policy about camera usage during meetings:

  • What types of meetings benefit most/least from having cameras on?
  • How important are cameras on newer teams or teams with newer team members vs. teams that have known and worked together for a long time?
  • How does the complexity of the meeting topic or problem to be solved play into deciding whether cameras should be on/off? 
  • Consider the participants for the meeting. If guests or clients, or other key stakeholders will be in attendance, would they expect the team to have their cameras on or off? What do you want them to infer from seeing cameras on or off?
  • How will guests or other participants learn about your office or team’s camera policy? Will it be posted or communicated in some way?
  • If someone needs a “waiver” of the policy due to a personal situation, what is the best way to communicate to other participants that a specific person has their camera off because of a personal situation in a way that doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable but also so that others don’t think that someone is breaking the “rules.”
  • What policy can work to everyone’s benefit in helping everyone stay engaged while still giving people a break from being on video all the time?

The bottom line is that if teams can work through the challenges and frustrations if they talk through it together.  Sharing scenarios and situations where they feel strongly one way or the other can help them find common ground and reach agreements that they can all support.

Want a neutral person to help facilitate your team’s development of its meeting agreements? Let me know how I can help!

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